By JENNA FRYER
SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — Over the last 20 days, Kyle Larson went to victory lane in NASCAR's second tier Xfinity Series and picked up a pair of wins in his sprint car. He knocked off several podium finishes during Ohio Sprint Speedweek and finished third in NASCAR's main event at Michigan.
Now it's time for Larson to produce in his full-time job.
He wouldn't mind doing it at Sonoma Raceway on Sunday.
Larson is riding a wave of momentum into NASCAR's first road course race of the season, and he believes it could translate into his long overdue first career Sprint Cup series win. It may seem odd that Larson would choose a road course as the potential site of his breakthrough win considering his lack of experience on anything other than an oval.
But Larson is quite comfortable on the picturesque 10-turn, 1.99-mile course in California wine country.
"I really enjoy road course racing, especially here with friends and family," said Larson, who grew up less than two hours away from the track in Elk Grove, California, and was a regular fan in attendance every time NASCAR came to town.
Yet, Larson is the first to admit, "I don't have hardly any road course experience," and his first real experience turning left and right on a race track came in 2013 when he made the full-time move to NASCAR.
But he's progressively improved and was a road-course best fourth at Watkins Glen, the only other road course on the Cup schedule, in 2014.
Some of his experience comes from running the 24 Hours of Daytona sports car event with his Chip Ganassi Racing teammates, and he went from an overwhelmed rookie in 2014 to winner in 2015. He likens the feel of racing on a road course to the sensation he's used to in a sprint car, where Larson honed his racing skills.
"I'm getting more experience, but still I probably ran only a little over 10 road course races in my life," Larson said Friday. "But I like them because you can feel the car kind of move around a lot more. You can feel the suspension, so it feels more similar to kind of a dirt track.
"I don't know if it's the dirt track, but just sprint cars and stuff the suspension moves around a lot and you can feel the balance of the car. On this stuff you can, too, where on the ovals our cars are so stiff and rigid you can't really feel a whole lot with them. I think that is why I can feel a little bit better, and these tracks get really slick and you have to hit your marks every lap, which is something I feel like I'm OK (doing)."
He wasted no time showing how comfortable he's become by leading the field after Friday's first practice session, followed by Ganassi teammate Jamie McMurray. Both Ganassi drivers are competing this week under the watchful eye of team owner Chip Ganassi, who celebrated his first entries at Le Mans with a class victory in the prestigious 24-hour event last weekend. Ganassi's teams went first and third at Le Mans in a dominating performance for the newcomers.
So Larson is certainly feeling some pressure to deliver in his third full season in Cup, even though Ganassi doesn't lay it on his young driver.
"I don't think I put any pressure on him," Ganassi said. "He knows what's up, he knows he has to win. He knows what it takes and what is expected of him."
Larson is the longest-tenured driver from a current crop of young talent that is chipping away at the veterans in what is developing to be a changing of the guard. Although he's shown bursts of promise, Larson has yet to string together any consistency, and he's currently being challenged by Austin Dillon and rookies Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney to become the newest face in victory lane.
"It would be nice to be the next new person to win a Cup Series race. It's been a long time since a new person has won," he said. "There are a crop of us young guys in our early 20s that would like to get a win. Chase is probably realistically got the best chance. He has been so close week after week now. Austin started the year out really strong, but I like road courses a lot. So, we will try and get it this week."
A win would lock Larson into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, which teammate McMurray made last year. There are 16 slots available in the field, and Larson thinks he's got a shot at qualifying on points even if he doesn't get a win.
He was penalized 15 points by NASCAR for failing post-race inspection at Michigan, a race which crew chief Chad Johnston missed because of suspension for a different infraction. That leaves Larson 22nd in the standings with 11 races remaining to set the Chase field.
Larson thinks Johnston, in his first season at Ganassi, is helping him hit his stride.
"I haven't had any experience with a new crew chief coming in before Chad," Larson said. "It's hard for them to come in and make all the changes that they want right away. It's kind of a process. It took some time, a couple of months, and now we are building racecars the way Chad wants them built, the bodies, all that stuff.
"It has made our level or speed in the racecars get quicker. I think that has been the main thing is Chad's influence has been key the last couple of months and we have been building the cars how he wants them. I just think it takes a little bit of time to get working together right, and now we seem to be clicking."
(Copyright 2016 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)