FLORENCE, S.C. — Kyle Larson is grateful for the exposure he’s received as part of NASCAR’s “Next9” initiative. He is confident it won’t take long for the group of up-and-coming racers to compete for checkered flags and championships at the sport’s highest level.
Larson, 20, will continue his rookie season in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series tonight at Darlington Raceway. Larson won the truck race at Rockingham in April to become the first from NASCAR’s “Drive For Diversity” program to win on the circuit’s three national touring series.
He has enjoyed getting to know some of the sport’s other rising young drivers, including 17-year-old Chase Elliott and 19-year-old Darrell Wallace Jr. Larson and the others made their final appearance together Thursday since a new group will be named in June, according to PJ Rashidi, NASCAR senior manager for driver services.
“It’s really cool to see a group of young guys coming up,” Larson said. “Because the past six to eight years, there really hasn’t been many young drivers getting opportunities. Now, it seems like those doors are starting to open more.”
Larson’s victory at “The Rock” made the opening even wider. He’d largely been known by NASCAR fans for his accidents and near misses. He went airborne into the catch fence in a frightening crash at the end of the Nationwide event at Daytona. More than two dozen fans were injured in the accident.
Then in April, Larson came close to hitting an air-dryer truck at Texas Motor Speedway.
Larson has struggled to find consistency on the track. He finished second at Bristol in his second start this season, yet has placed 32nd at Texas and 38th at Talladega last week.
“I was hoping we’d have some momentum after the win” at Rockingham, Larson said. “But it’s gotten worse. It’s as bad as we can get lately.”
Then again, big disappointments often go hand-in-hand with big expectations.
The “Next9” effort identifies talented young drivers who are believed to be the future of NASCAR. These nine were picked last season and have made group appearances throughout the year, giving them face time in markets like Phoenix, Chicago and Los Angeles they might not have as development drivers in regional races, Rashidi said.
Elliott, the son of NASCAR great Bill Elliott, says being picked as someone headed for success is a career boost, but it’s still up to the driver to make things happen on the track.
“I think we’re close,” said Elliott, competing in the truck series. “I think I just have to do a little better job out of the gate.”
Elliott doesn’t spend too much time worrying about where he’ll be racing down the road, preferring to enjoy where he is at the moment. “I’m just trying to make the most of every race,” he said.
Wallace, like Larson, is a graduate of NASCAR’s diversity program designed to attract minorities and females as drivers. Wallace is competing in his rookie season in the truck series and stands eighth through four races.
“There’s always pressure when you start out racing,” Wallace said. “It’s been OK for me. I know I carry a different face into it. There’s some extra pressure there, but I do my best to put that aside and go out racing,”
Larson, of Japanese-American descent, got the attention of NASCAR president and CEO Brian France after the Rockingham victory. France called the win a landmark for stock car racing.
“We applaud his tremendous talent and this landmark milestone for the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program,” France said.
Larson was glad for the notice and is ready to make his mark on his own with another set of young NASCAR drivers looking to jump into his seat.
“It’s been a learning curve, I guess,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed it. I know there are going to be a group of guys below us coming up, but I think I’ll do a good job.”