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NASCAR: Sprint Cup rookie Kyle Larson finding success early

Kyle Larson isn’t afraid to admit he has a lot to learn.

So far, though, the learning process certainly has been exciting to witness.

Five weeks into the NASCAR season and Larson has earned his first Nationwide Series victory and has been involved in three last-lap battles with Kyle Busch for victories.

The most recent came Sunday in the Auto Club 400 in Fontana, Calif., when Larson earned is career-best second-place finish in just his ninth Sprint Cup Series start.

Many wondered when team owner Chip Ganassi moved Larson into the Cup series full time this season if Larson was being moved up too fast.

It appears those concerns have all been answered.

“After the first three weeks, I realized to even get a top-15, you have to be almost perfect or have a perfect race,” Larson said of his venture into the Cup series. “It’s tough to come back from mistakes in this series. I learned that really quick.”

Larson, 21, learned another lesson at Auto Club Speedway when he was penalized early in the race for speeding on pit road.

This time, however, he and his No. 42 Chevrolet team were able to overcome the mistake and still find themselves with a chance to win.

“Nothing has really been easy. It’s all been tough. Everything is tough in the Sprint Cup Series,” Larson said. “I got a glimpse of it last year being able to run four races so I understood how tough it was going to be this season.

“Everybody races extremely hard all race long. The field is really tight. In Nationwide from what I was used to last year, it’s pretty spread out as far as the quality of the field. In Cup, there are 25-30 drivers that are pretty fast. That’s what makes the Cup series really tough.”

Larson, who grew up in Elk Grove, Calif., began racing at the age of 7 in go-karts. Once in his teens, he moved to open-wheel cars in the U.S. Auto Club midget, Silver Crown and sprint cars and also competed in World of Outlaws sprint cars.

He didn’t make his stock-car debut until 2012 and won in his sixth start in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East.

This season, Larson is competing with Turner Scott Motorsports in all of the Nationwide races run as a companion event with the Cup series, in addition to his Cup schedule with Chip Ganassi Racing.

“When you’ve grown up racing winged sprint cars, I used to think the best drivers in the world were in the World of Outlaws series. I still think they are very good, but the depth of the really good drivers in the Cup series is really amazing,” Larson said.

“That’s what makes it really tough, is there are 25 to 30 drivers out there each week that are extremely good and fast. You go to the World of Outlaws race, there might be seven or eight guys you have to beat.”

Larson will face another learning experience this weekend, when the Cup series moves to Martinsville (Va.) Speedway for Sunday’s STP 500. He ran at the track last fall, but his car’s engine blew up before the finish.

“Martinsville is a lot different than what I’ve ever done. I didn’t feel like we were very good there last year when I ran the Cup race and we ended up blowing our engine up so I didn’t get in a full race,” he said.

“But gaining that little bit of experience last season will help some going there again this year. It’s probably not a race I’m looking forward to; I’m pretty nervous about that one.

“Hopefully, we can just stay out of trouble and get a good finish.”

It’s the mantra of a successful Cup rookie season thus far.

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter
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