DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — As Jeff Gordon winds down his long career, the kid who grew up idolizing him is just getting started.
Kyle Larson is ready to become NASCAR's next superstar. His sophomore season in the Sprint Cup Series begins Sunday with the Daytona 500 and there are high expectations for Larson to have a breakout year.
He was decent last season during his run toward rookie of the year honors, but Larson is ready for more. On his list of goals for the year is winning his first Sprint Cup race and making the Chase for the championship.
"Last year, nobody had any expectations for me other than failing," Larson said. "So the expectations are different this year. A little bit more pressure. I think we can run up front every week, hopefully, and be competitive and try and get a couple of wins."
The expectation of failure is a bit of an exaggeration by Larson, who has skyrocketed from sprint cars to NASCAR's top series in just three years. His first full season in stock cars was in 2013 and many believed team owner Chip Ganassi was rushing Larson when he promoted him to Cup last season. Nobody inside the Ganassi organization felt that way.
Chris Heroy, who worked with Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Mark Martin at Hendrick Motorsports, knew he was being paired with a rare talent when he moved to Ganassi to become Larson's crew chief.
"I saw Jimmie in his prime, winning all those championships, and I'd put Kyle right there," Heroy said of the six-time Cup champion. "Kyle is a generational talent."
The industry sure hopes Heroy and the Ganassi organization are correct.
Gordon, the four-time champion and face of NASCAR for the last two decades, is retiring from full-time competition at the end of the year. His departure as Larson is taking off almost makes the cycle full circle: Larson grew up a Gordon fan — he periodically posts throwback pictures on social media of him dressed head-to-toe in Gordon's rainbow-themed gear as a child — and Gordon has spent the last three years praising Larson.
Gordon has given the 22-year-old advice, and he pulled him aside after hard racing in the closing laps at Chicago in September to explain some things Larson could have done differently.
Larson, once Gordon's biggest fan, now has Gordon as the biggest Larson fan.
"I want Kyle Larson to be exactly who he is now, to never change," Gordon said. "But that's going to be hard. I always tell guys like Kyle, who's been catapulted into this Sprint Cup Series at a high level who have got a lot of talent, you can't prepare for what it's like to be famous, to do autographs, to take pictures, to win at the highest level. You don't know what that's going to be like."
The swell is slowly growing around Larson, who welcomed a son in December with his longtime girlfriend and is balancing fatherhood with his growing popularity. He'll be the star of a national commercial for sponsor Target that will debut during the Daytona 500.
Target reallocated some of its spending on Ganassi's IndyCar program this season to focus on marketing Larson and three-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon. In addition to Larson's commercial, the retailer is launching a TeamTarget.com hub on Sunday that will chronicle the season and host a series of additional videos featuring both drivers.
So as NASCAR begins the transition to the younger drivers who will carry the sport for the next decade, Larson is readying himself for the ride.
"I definitely paid attention (last year) to people doubting what we were going to be able to do," he said. "That fueled that into our team as 'Let's go out and prove them wrong.' I feel like we did that. But I didn't let it get to me or anything like that. ... I hope I'm the next big thing. We'll just have to wait and see, I guess. I'm sure there are a lot of other 'next big things' coming up. I hope I can stand out as that guy."