No rookie has qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup since 2006, when Denny Hamlin became the only first-year Cup driver to reach the postseason since NASCAR introduced the format in 2004.
But rookie Kyle Larson has a chance to make the Chase, thanks to the new 16-driver format. Larson will enter Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway ranked 12th in the Sprint Cup standings, and would be assured of a spot in the Chase if it began at this point.
Because only 10 drivers have victories in the new win-and-you’re-in format, a win by Larson in any of the nine remaining races before the Chase would most likely assure Chip Ganassi Racing of getting its first driver in the Chase since 2009. But before Larson begins calculating his chances at breaking through to the Chase, he wants to get through the unpredictability of Daytona.
“Going into Daytona, everybody has a good chance of winning,” said Larson, who famously went airborne into the stands at the finish of a 2013 Nationwide Series race at Daytona. “We’re really confident, but at the same time it’s a track where things can go really badly. Just kind of setting goals as every other week, try to finish the race and get a top 10 and see if we can put ourselves in position to get a win at the end. That would be great.
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“The biggest goal is to try and stay out of the ‘big one,’ because it’s going to happen. I’m sure there will be one or two of them throughout the race. Try to stay out of trouble. But yeah, it’s been nice … running as well as we have, and if we could get a win sometime before the Chase, that would be great.”
In addition to contending for the Chase, Larson is also leading the Rookie of the Year standings. A year ago, Larson, who turns 22 on July 31, was the NASCAR Nationwide Rookie of the Year and first Asian-American driver to win a rookie award in a NASCAR national series. In what is considered a strong rookie Sprint Cup class, Larson leads Austin Dillon by 19 points for the rookie lead.
“In past years, maybe there’s been one or two rookies, and the award doesn’t really mean a whole lot,” Larson said, “but this year, with having a bunch of kids having great résumés, to win that would be awesome. Austin Dillon has won a championship and Rookie of the Year in the trucks and the Nationwide Series, so if I could beat him to win the Rookie of the Year award, that would be great, just because I’ve only got a couple years of stock car experience right now.
“It’s definitely one of our main goals, and so far we’ve been doing well, staying ahead of him. Had a couple bad races the last couple weekends, but we’ll rebound from that and hopefully get back going.”
Finishes of fifth at Pocono and eighth at Michigan last month moved Larson to as high as seventh in the standings, but the No. 42 Chevrolet team has struggled the last two weeks with finishes of 28th on the road course at Sonoma and 40th after blowing a tire and crashing into the wall at Kentucky.
“We’ve had two bad races here the last couple weeks,” Larson said. “I think my crew chief said it best. He’d be worried in the last couple years, but now our car has been fast, so he’s not worried at all. That’s good and gave me some more confidence because … you go to Daytona where the chances of another bad weekend are high, so it’s easy to get nervous about that.
“We haven’t had many struggles all year, and now we’ve had a couple bad ones. Just got to get back on track.”
Rookies normally require a greater learning curve before contending for a championship, but Larson’s background in varied series, even as a teenager in Elk Grove, Calif., prepared him for the rigors of Sprint Cup racing.
“When I was 15, 16 years old, I would be racing winged sprint cars one night, non-winged the next, a pavement track the next night,” he said. “I got good at adapting to things and learning really fast. That helped train me a lot for now being young and in the Cup series with still not a lot of stock car experience.
“All my dirt track and World Outlaw, USAC, all that kind of background of racing helped me learn fast and helped me for each weekend learn the tracks, learn the cars, learn the style of racing and all that.”
Sprint Cup data
The race: Coke Zero 400
The place: Daytona International Speedway, a 2.5-mile tri-oval
The time/day: 6:30 p.m. Saturday (TNT)
The distance: 400 miles, 160 laps
2013 winner: Jimmie Johnson
Friday: Nationwide Subway Firecracker 250, 6:30 p.m., ESPN2.
Sunday: Formula One British Grand Prix, 7 a.m., CNBC.
Sunday: Pocono IndyCar 500, noon, NBCSN.
Sunday: NHRA Summit Racing Equipment Nationals, 8 p.m., ESPN2.