On Friday afternoon, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing made the official announcement that Kyle Larson would be making the move to full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing in 2014 to replace Juan Pablog Montoya behind the wheel of EGR’s No. 42 Chevrolet. Montoya was recently relieved of driving duties with Earnhardt Ganassi, effective at the end of the season.
Larson, a NASCAR Drive 4 Diversity program participant, was already under a development deal with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. He currently competes full-time in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, driving a No. 32 Chevrolet for Turner Scott Motorsports in that series. Larson is a rookie in the Nationwide Series this season.
To make the official announcement on Friday, EGR co-owner Chip Ganassi and Kyle Larson held a press conference at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the site of this weekend’s Great Clips Grit Chips 300 Nationwide Series race and Advocare 500 Sprint Cup Series race. Here is a transcript:
CHIP GANASSI: I have some prepared comments here, ladies and gentlemen.
Certainly we believe that Kyle is the future of the sport. He’s a unique talent. Let me be very clear, this was a racing decision. We felt that Kyle was the best short-term and long-term fit for the team and for Target.
While our team has been partnered with Target for 24 years, when we decided to make the change, we wanted to make sure we found the right driver, someone that would represent their brand as well as have a chance to win races.
Kyle was our first choice. We did not offer any deals to any other drivers. We talked to other drivers. We’re thrilled to have Kyle. Nothing he has done makes us feel he cannot move to the Sprint Cup Series. As I said, we spoke to a number of current Cup drivers. At the end of the day we felt that Kyle was the best option for our organization.
We do feel that we need to continue Kyle Larson’s growth, and putting him in a Cup car was the very next step. We’re sure there will be some growing pains but we’re sure he’s ready. Some of those growing pains will come whatever his first year in the series is. It’s a good opportunity.
My expectations and advice to him will be to keep the car on the track and run laps. As many of you already know, this kid is a special kid. We couldn’t be more proud to have him here today announcing him as our driver for next year and beyond.
KYLE LARSON: I’m really excited, excited to be a part of the Target brand. Everybody knows the Target logo when they see it. It’s a pretty iconic car. I think I can do okay. Like you said, there’s going to be some growing pains, I’m sure. I think I’ll learn a lot and I’ll grow as a driver and mature as a person.
Q. Kyle, how much of a whirlwind do these last few years feel like to you? Will moving up to the
Sprint Cup Series cause you to focus more on that and less on all the other racing you’ve been doing?
KYLE LARSON: It’s definitely been quite a whirlwind. I was walking over here saying a year ago today I was making my second Truck start. It’s been a really quick road. But I feel like I’ve done okay with it and learned quite a bit.
As far as next year goes, I know I’ll have to focus more on the Sprint Cup stuff. I understand it’s probably going to be the toughest step in my whole career. I’m going to have to dedicate a lot of time to it and grow as a driver, do a great job for Target, for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and make everybody there happy.
Q. Chip, obviously the past several seasons you’ve tried to double and redouble your efforts to try to get back to where you want your team to be. Can there be a difference here when you have a young, fresh driver that everybody is enthusiastic about, does that help you throughout your team, even in your shop? Do you have hope to believe that you can come yet again with a fresh new effort?
CHIP GANASSI: That’s a good question. I think we’ve made some steps since the inception of our team. Some were solid steps. Looking back, some were not so solid. But it’s a building process.
I think we made a big step this past year. Our cars are a lot better. They seem to run at the front a lot more. You know, we led some races. We’ve been running at the front a lot. Having the right drivers certainly doesn’t hurt.
Are we there yet? Do I think I’m there yet? You’re never there. You’re never there. Until we can win on a consistent basis and win championships consistently, we’re not there, you know.
Q. Bottom line, are you counting on winning some races with Kyle next year?
CHIP GANASSI: Am I counting on winning races next year? That’s a good question. I think Kyle is the kind of driver, when he sees an opportunity in front of him, he takes it. If that means it’s a win, hey, great. There’s no pressure for him to win his first year out. I don’t think there’s any pressure like that.
I mean, the kid’s done very well in every step he’s made in his career so far. I see no reason why this should be any different.
Q. Chip, Kyle has been compared to Jeff Gordon, to Tony Stewart. First of all, what kind of a game-changer can that be for the organization, signing him at such a young age? Do you anticipate you’ll get him in any Sprint Cup cars this year as far as running a race or two before the 2014 season?
CHIP GANASSI: I appreciate those comments. They all said nice things about Kyle.
In terms of comparing him to drivers, that’s something for you guys to do in the media. I’m not somebody that’s going to sit here and compare him to anybody.
Obviously, when those guys came into the sport, guys like Jeff, Tony, Jimmie, they were certainly game-changers when you look back on it now.
I think to say we’re sitting here today with a game-changer, I think that’s a bit rambunctious. We have to see what the guy does. Maybe when he’s been in it as long as those guys have, we’ll be able to look back and do that. I wouldn’t go as far as doing that today.
In terms of Cup races this year, right now the plan is to try to do that. I don’t foresee that happening. It’s never been my MO to push anybody out of any cars that are on our team. As you know, Juan has been a great asset to our team for many years. I’m not going to push him out or do anything like that.
I would think there’s opportunity to get him in Cup races this year and we’re going to take advantage of those opportunities.
Q. Chip, you call him a special talent. What makes Kyle a special talent in your mind?
CHIP GANASSI: Well, you know, you hear those words a lot. That gets thrown around a lot. Believe me, I’ve seen my share of young guys come along in motorsports.
I would say that, you know, my first indication was at Daytona this year. I remember watching him in the race, hearing all the time how special he is, how special he is. He’s running around the Nationwide race 14th or 12th. I thought, What the hell is so special about this kid?
Sure enough, at the finish line, he was right there. Of course, he was here and there at the finish line at Daytona this year, I should say. Be that as it may, that to me was special. I’ve seen that five or six, eight times now. He gives you the impression he’s dilly-dallying in the middle of the pack, not paying attention. Always at the end he’s where it seems to matter to be. That says something to me.
Q. Kyle, you handle yourself in many situations very calmly. People were looking at you as a young guy, look what he can do. As you move into the Cup Series, it will be, Did he move too fast? Is all that attention going to be the toughest part for you?
KYLE LARSON: I don’t know. I think I’ll pay attention a little bit to it. As long as I’m out there, you know, living up to my expectations and Chip’s expectations, that’s all that really matters.
Like you said, I’m not one to pay attention to all the hype or the pressure that other people put on me. I just try and go out and do the best I can. I don’t see myself doing any different next year. I’m not going to push it harder than I think I can push it. I’m just going to try and do the best I can.
If that’s winning races, contending for wins every week, that’s great. If I’m running top 15, I’m happy with that, too. It’s going to be a fun year next year. I think I’ll learn a ton and I’ll enjoy it quite a bit.
Q. Chip, knowing that this is an incredible talent, how do you groom him, bringing him up to this series, what do you do to make it easier on him as he comes into the series?
CHIP GANASSI: Well, I think a big part of it was certainly his Nationwide experience this year. In fact, we’re planning on Nationwide next year, as well, being in both series. I think he’s in a great team with Turner Scott Motorsports. Those guys have done a great job. I think it’s kind of a plus that he’s with a bona fide Nationwide team. It’s not a Cup team there doing a Nationwide car. It’s a bona fide Nationwide team.
A lot of people think his learning curve is a little steeper doing it that way, but that will pay dividends down the road. So I think that’s pretty important.
I’ve never considered myself a great coach or anything. I’m sure they’re out there. We just want to win races. We want to be at the front. This is not a complex thing we’re talking about up here. It’s racing cars. We have a young talent here that deserves a shot, and we’re giving him his shot.
Q. Kyle, I don’t know if you’ve heard the debate the last couple weeks, but how ready you may be for this step. Does it bother you? Does it motivate you?
KYLE LARSON: It doesn’t bother me at all. I’d like to prove the people that don’t think I’m ready for it wrong. The guys that think I am ready, let them pump their chest out a little bit.
Like I said, you know, as long as I’m running top 15, I’m happy with that. I don’t know if the fans and media people think that’s good enough. I think that’s about where I’ll set my goals for next year.
Like I said, I’ve never let the pressure get to me of running well or doing whatever. Just always kind of sat back and raced, tried to do the best I could. I think that’s paid off for me in all the years I’ve been racing.
I was always young. Starting off racing Sprint cars, I was the youngest to start off in California at 14 years old, did well, proved people wrong. I’m hoping I can do the same next year in the Cup Series and go from there.
Q. This situation is nothing new to you?
KYLE LARSON: No, I wouldn’t say so.
Q. Chip, when it was clear that you and Montoya were splitting, in Europe the comment was you would bring him back to open-wheel racing. To what percentage was Target, your sponsor, involved in signing Kyle or was it your own decision?
CHIP GANASSI: It was our own decision. It was a racing decision. Target has been our sponsor for a long time, but it’s a team decision.
In terms of Juan, bring him back to open-wheel racing, whatever, I think at this time let me say this: Juan has been a great asset to our team for many years. We’ve enjoyed a lot of success with him. He’s not only a driver of our team, he’s a great friend of mine.
I think there are always opportunities in our team that seem to present themselves. You never know from time to time when those come along.
With all the different cars we have, it does make for some great opportunities at different times. I’m certainly not counting him out of any opportunities or potential opportunities coming along.
Q. Kyle, as you’ve already seen in this press conference, there’s a lot of people who have at some time or another questioned whether or not you’re ready. For a young guy who is starting out in racing, whose goal is to race in the best and biggest series that there is, is there ever a time you’re not ready?
KYLE LARSON: I don’t know. I feel like I’ve learned quite a bit this year in the Nationwide Series, the K&N Series, all the stockcar stuff. Even the Sprint car stuff I run helps when I come over here and race the stock cars.
I guess there’s a point when somebody’s not ready. But I feel like I am ready. I feel like I can go out there and contend. I raced with some Cup guys in the Nationwide Series this year and learned a lot from them. Raced them hard. Beat some of them.
I think I can do it. I think Chip obviously thinks I can do it, so that’s all that really matters to me.
Q. Ryan Newman said earlier today when an owner comes up to a young driver like yourself and offers them a deal like this, it’s up to the driver to have the maturity and responsibility to say if he’s ready or not. Was there any doubt in your mind that you could do this?
KYLE LARSON: No. Like I said, I think I can do it. These opportunities don’t come about very often. You never know when you have another shot like this. You have to capitalize on it and do the best you can.
You know, there’s been people that are a lot younger than me that got their start in Cup. I think I’ll do okay, like I said. I’ll be all right.
Q. Kyle, a number of people have said, including Jimmie Johnson and a couple of other drivers, that the Cup car may actually suit your style better given your background with the higher horsepower and greater weight. Wondered what your thoughts on that are.
KYLE LARSON: I believe so. The Nationwide stuff, I don’t know, it’s about 200 horsepower less than a Cup car. With my Sprint car background, they’re 1400-pound cars with 900-horsepower engines. I’m used to having way too much horsepower. I think it will translate well to the Cup cars.
I’ve gotten to test earlier this year at Rockingham. I feel like I did pretty well in it, enjoyed it. I feel like it suited me a little bit better. We have to finesse the car a little bit more. It wasn’t so much momentum driven.
I think that’s where I struggle a little bit in the Nationwide stuff, I probably don’t understand momentum quite as good as Kyle Busch or somebody. That’s why I think the Cup stuff will be a little bit better for me. We’ll just have to wait and see, I guess.
Q. Chip, talking about the opportunity he may have this season to run a few races in preparation for next year, what experiences specifically would you like Kyle to have to kind of condition him for running in the Sprint Cup Series? Kyle, in running both series, is there any room for Sprint cars as well on the schedule?
CHIP GANASSI: That’s a good question. What kind of experience? Obviously, there’s no better experience than being in the races themselves, just going through all these sort of cycles that you have to go through as a young driver coming into the sport.
I think a lot of those he’s been through already. These younger guys that come along today, they seem to take a lot of these things in stride that we all as adults think they’re big deals, scary things, whatever. These young drivers seem to take it like a fish to water.
He’s shown a great ability to field anything that gets thrown at him, if you will. So I think that’s what said it all for me.
KYLE LARSON: Racing both Nationwide and Cup next year, that takes up about your whole weekend. I know I won’t be able to race as much Sprint car stuff. I’m cool with it. Getting more experience in stock cars is a little bit better than racing Sprint cars. That just shows where my focus is at being in the NASCAR stuff.
If I could still race 10 Sprint car races next year, I’d be totally fine with that.
CHIP GANASSI: Not all of us might be (laughter).
KYLE LARSON: I run nearly 55 to 60 this year. That’s a bit much. I’m ready to slow down a little bit. If I could still be part of Sprint car racing, whether it be in ownership or having a small part in it, I would still enjoy it quite a bit and feel like I’m over there racing.
Q. I don’t know what Kyle’s contract situation was with you before all this came down, but I do wonder, how important was it for you to give him this opportunity so somebody else didn’t?
CHIP GANASSI: You know, I don’t know. That’s a question that’s probably three years old. I mean, that’s how long ago I met Kyle. I don’t know. I think that’s about when we did our first deal, two or three years ago.
To tell you the truth, I don’t have a good answer. I think you know me well enough to know I have a pace at which we do things at our team. Outside interference doesn’t affect that much.
We have our plan. We work our plan, plan our work. I’m sorry, but your column doesn’t influence me that much (laughter).
Q. Chip, will Kyle run the full Nationwide schedule next year or just companion races or go for the title?
CHIP GANASSI: Yeah, I mean, hopefully he’s running for a championship there next year, too. Is he going to run every race? That might be a stretch. The idea is to do that. The idea is to run as many as he can. If he misses one or two, he may have to. Not just companion races, no.
Q. Chip, in your career you’ve brought in a lot of young guys with good and bad results. What were you looking for during his Nationwide races to know that this was the right move?
CHIP GANASSI: You know, I think I answered that already. His level of maturity approaching the racing, of the race itself. I said earlier I thought it looks sometimes like he’s back there in 10th or 12th, but always seems to be in the top 5 at the end. I think that’s a good thing.
You know, there’s obviously a lot of questions about whether a guy like Kyle, I’ve heard from everybody, It’s too soon, too early. Let’s take the list of drivers that we say it’s too early or they came too early and put that list over on one side. On the right side let’s put a list of guys that at tracks all across the country, Saturday night tracks, dirt tracks, that never got the opportunity. How long is that list, okay? That list is 50 times longer than the list of guys that came along too soon.
As I said, there’s an opportunity here. He’s a great driver. He’s obviously the number one pick, as said by many other people besides myself. Nobody deserves a shot more than he does.
Q. Chip, certainly over the last couple of years you’ve made a lot of changes within your organization. Is it to the point where your organization was ready for this type of opportunity to have a young kid? Maybe I’m going out on a limb, but typically a young driver isn’t going to be able to come in and say, We need to do this to make the car better. Has your team gotten to the point where you can take this opportunity?
CHIP GANASSI: I think so. You know, I think our cars, like I said earlier, have shown they can run easily in the top 5, top 10 on a pretty regular basis this season. For one reason or another we’re not there at the end.
But I think plugging in a guy like Kyle, certainly the team is ready for that. Again, until you’re winning every race and you’re winning every championship, you know, you’re never really complete, your team is never really complete. I’m sure every race team in this garage area would like to tweak one or two things on their team from time to time.
What you’d like to do and what you actually can do are two different things sometimes, whether it’s availability of people, resources. Lots of things come into play. It’s not like scripting a movie. It takes a lot of things to happen on one of these teams when you make changes or you anticipate improvements.
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