Ganassi's Larson among the fresh, young newcomers to NASCAR

Posted: April 11, 2014

FOR THOSE of us eagerly awaiting an influx of young racing talent in NASCAR to stimulate interest, it appears our wish is coming true. Thank you, Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott and others.

Larson, 21, finished second in the California Sprint Cup race March 23 after winning the Nationwide Series race the day before. He finished fifth at Texas in Monday's rain-delayed Cup race.

Dillon, 23, is 12th in points with an average finish of 15.2 in the season's first seven races.

Elliott, 18, won the Nationwide race at Texas. Last June, the son of former NASCAR star Bill Elliott won the ARCA series event at Pocono Raceway.

Greg Erwin is among those impressed with skilled young racers like Larson, who's 15th in Cup points. Erwin, from Hatboro, is a former Sprint Cup Series crew chief and now the Team Penske's competition director in the Nationwide Series.

"Larson has come a long way in 1 year," Erwin said yesterday from Penske headquarters in Mooresville, N.C. "Some people are real high on him, others are critics, but I think he's done a terrific job. His Nationwide program is pretty stout: I think he'll be in the top five weekly. We didn't see that last year."

Erwin is working with another talented young racer, Ryan Blaney. Erwin said Blaney, 20, son of racing veteran Dave Blaney, will drive in about 15 Nationwide races for Penske this year. Blaney is sharing the ride with Penske Cup drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.

"[Ryan] is one of those kids who seem to have it," Erwin said. "He beat us in the final restart at Kentucky last year. I think it was only his second time in the car."

Ryan also is racing full time for Keselowski's team in the Camping World Truck Series. Since Keselowski lobbied hard to bring Logano to Team Penske last year, he also must think highly of Ryan.

Let's not forget, Logano is among these racers barely old enough to shave. At age 23, Logano is the "senior citizen" of the group: He's already in his sixth full Cup season. Last year, finished eighth in his first Chase.

Logano collected his fourth career Cup victory at Texas with a smooth-as-sherbet pass of Jeff Gordon on the last lap.

"[Logano] wasn't ready for the job at Gibbs. He'll admit it now," Erwin said, of Logano's replacing Tony Stewart in 2009. "All he heard was 'Tony this, Tony that.' That was a lot for Joey to swallow.

"The equipment here is very good, but he's elevated his game in qualifying and races. We're all ticked to death with his performance. Like Brad, he's here every day."

Since Logano grew up in Connecticut, people were curious about his interest in UConn's run toward the men's NCAA basketball title. Turns out, Logano doesn't pay attention to any sports besides auto racing.

Told that Logano allegedly asked "How many teams are in the Final Four?" Erwin laughed and said, "That wouldn't surprise me: Joey's all about racing."

A certain Daily News auto racing writer is smacking himself upside the head with a restrictor plate for not including Logano in his Sweet 16 Chasers. My preseason Chasers (not in order of finish) were Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman.

Gordon on top

Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon is leading the points standings for first time since May 2009. Gordon has three top-five finishes this year.

Gordon should be more eager than most to arrive in Darlington, S.C., for Saturday night's Cup race at "The Track Too Tough to Tame" (love that nickname!) He's a seven-time winner at NASCAR's oldest superspeedway (first race, 1950). Only David Pearson (10 wins) and the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. (nine) have more victories at the track than Gordon. Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson is next with three wins.

At age 42, Gordon knows he won't have many more years to secure his elusive fifth title. The last championship for the active wins leader (88) was in 2001.

This week's race

Bojangles’ Southern 500

Darlington Raceway, Darlington, S.C.

When: Saturday, 6:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Fox 29/WNPV (1440-AM)

Course: 1.366-mile oval

Distance: 367 laps/501.3 miles

Forecast: clear, mid-70s

Last year’s winner: Matt Kenseth

Last year’s pole winner: Kurt Busch, 181.918 mph (track qualifying record)

Track facts: Matt Kenseth’s victory last year was his third in the season’s first 11 races. He led only three times for 17 laps, including the last 13. Denny Hamlin was runner-up; Jeff Gordon was third. Kyle Busch led the most laps by far (265) but finished sixth. Polesitter Kurt Busch finished 14th ... Darlington is one of only two tracks where Tony Stewart has not won a Cup race. Kentucky is the other, where only three Cup races have been run ... Following Greg Biffle’s consecutive wins at Darlington in 2005 and 2006, there have been seven different winners at the track ... Weird stat: All six of Travis Kvapil’s finishes this year are in the 30s, from 33rd (three times) to 39th.

Wins: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Joey Logano.

STANDINGS

1. Jeff Gordon 259

2. Matt Kenseth 255

3. Carl Edwards 247

4. Joey Logano 235

5. Kyle Busch 231

6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 228

7. Jimmie Johnson 228

8. Brad Keselowski 218

9. Brian Vickers 205

10. Paul Menard 203

11. Ryan Newman 202

12. Austin Dillon 202

13. Denny Hamlin 197

14. Tony Stewart 189

15. Kyle Larson 187

16. Greg Biffle 187

17. Clint Bowyer 187

18. Marcos Ambrose 186

19. Kasey Kahne 178

20. A J Allmendinger 173

Up next: Toyota Owners 400, April 26, Richmond International Raceway, Richmond, Va., 7 p.m.; TV: Fox; last year’s winner: Kevin Harvick.

Note: The headline on this story originally identified Larson as a member of the Penske Racing team. He is a member of the Chip Ganassi Racing team. We regret the error. 


Email: fleiscb@phillynews.com

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