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Kyle Larson became the third rookie to win the NASCAR K&N Pro Series championship in the last decade, joining Joey Logano and Ryan Truex in that category. But Larson, who hails from a decorated open-wheel background, is quick to point out one key distinction.
“It's a really cool accomplishment, especially being my first year in stock cars,” Larson said. “That's what makes it mean the most. Joey and Ryan were rookies and won the championship, but they had stock car experience. I'm a true rookie.”
Prior to speedweeks at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida last February, Larson had never even competed in a full-bodied stock car. And backed by a recently restructured Rev Racing operation, nobody really knew what the 2012 season held for Larson.
The 20-year-old Elk Grove, California, driver won a pair of races and posted eight Top-5 and 12 Top-10 finishes in 14 races this season. Capitalizing on consistency – and avoiding the troubles that plagued other championship contenders over the final few races of the season – Larson was able to deliver Rev Racing and NASCAR's Drive For Diversity initiative its first series championship.
Even team owner Max Siegel admitted that he wasn't so sure Larson was capable of a championship in his rookie season, not with the learning curve that faced him in adjusting to stock cars and a strict diet of asphalt racing.
“To be candid, he's talented, but no, I never thought it would happen,” Siegel said. “Early in the year, his luck wasn't great. I thought Ryan (Gifford) was poised to be a breakout talent for us with the experience he had coming into the year.
“But from the selection process we have now, we're getting higher quality candidates, and Kyle's success shows that. The selection committee is looking at things that are indicators for success.”
Larson, however, never saw a reason he wouldn't compete for the championship and a handful of race wins. He'd won more than 30 Sprint and Midget races in the two seasons prior to this year, and before the K&N Pro Series East schedule started in 2012, he'd already knocked off a win at the prestigious Chili Bowl and two Late Model wins at New Smyrna.
“I might have even expected more than what I accomplished, but I changed my goals after the first couple of (K&N) races,” Larson said. “I'm used to racing with adults 30-50-years old with tons of experience in racing. With so many young drivers in the series, I thought it wasn't going to be as tough. It turned out being almost tougher.
“Everybody is so hungry to win, and they've all been racing full-bodied race cars since they were really young. And because they've been racing on pavement in stock cars since they were really young, I think they have just as much experience as guys I grew up racing sprint cars with.”
Larson's first victory came at Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, Ga. One month later, after finishing 21st in a 22-car field at Columbus (Ohio) Motor Speedway, Larson thought his championship hopes had evaporated.
Five straight Top-10 finishes to close out the season, including a win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, however, powered him to the title.
“I knew it was going to be a long-shot to win the championship,” said Larson, who has his sights set on moving to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series or NASCAR Nationwide Series as an Earnhardt Ganassi Racing development driver in 2013. “Every week after that, Brett (Moffitt) started having a lot of bad luck and Corey (LaJoie) and I started inching our way back into it. Then at the end, I guess I got a little lucky after the halfway point in the season.”
Larson was good enough to be lucky, of course. And the driver with a previous bias toward drivers based on dirt developed a new appreciation of asphalt stock car racers.
“Going into racing stock cars and being a dirt racer, I was always biased into thinking the best drivers are on dirt because you hear that it's all about the cars and the crew chiefs on pavement,” Larson said. “After racing this year, I don't believe in that as much. Having a good driver is important.”
And Rev Racing was fortunate enough to land one of their own in Larson.
“I think they helped my career out a lot,” Larson said of the multi-car team. “Stock car racing is tough to get into when you come from a dirt background. Especially getting a ride for free – that just doesn't happen. So for Rev Racing and Drive For Diversity, I'm very thankful for what they've done. I'm glad I got the opportunity to run for them.”
Larson and the whole Rev Racing team will be presented with the 2012 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship trophies on Saturday, Dec. 8 as part of the NASCAR Night of Champions Touring Awards ceremony in the Crown Ballroom of the Charlotte (N.C) Convention Center inside the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The awards ceremony is slated to be streamed live online in three languages – English French and Spanish – at www.nascarhometracks.com.
The rookie Larson was a quick study in asphalt stock car racing in 2012. He finished outside the top 10 just twice in 14 races. Getty Images for NASCAR