Kyle Larson is the Next One. No doubt. His arrival -- be it in NASCAR or the Izod IndyCar Series -- could take a few years, though.
For now, Larson, 19, is motor sports' next burgeoning star after winning in all three USAC divisions this season on unfamiliar tracks with unfamiliar teams and in fields populated with more experienced drivers, meaning he will be the next driver to have his path to the big leagues meticulously scrutinized. In a sport in which success is so dependent on factors besides talent -- there is the matter of team, equipment, timing and, always, money -- his rise might take longer than it has in the past.
Seven years ago, Larson likely would already be a member of a Sprint Cup team's developmental program, but with the risk-reward of such systems dismissed long before the economy walloped motor sports, drivers such as Larson are left on the fringes, scraping for funding and opportunities. Some Sprint Cup teams, such as Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing, field cars in grassroots circuits like the K & N Series, but none underwrite the multilevel developmental systems seen a few years ago.
And in the oddest of all ironies that may eventually serve him better than the system that consumed and spat out drivers -- or at least chewed up some years better used for growth -- like Casey Atwood or Reed Sorenson, who were afforded their best big-league chance when they were young, inexperienced and ill-prepared to exploit it.
"I think it's good," Larson conceded, before the cynicism that develops too young for drivers took over. "Well, it's good and bad, I guess. It's good that I do get more time to develop, but, also, I'm sure there will be another kid coming along that's just as good as I am in a few years ... when the economy turns around. I'm just hoping I'm still in the spotlight when it does turn around."
Toyota Racing Development had an alliance with Keith Kunz Motorsports before Larson was signed to drive its midget cars this year, but TRD president and general manager Lee White said his company was not prepared financially or philosophically to support or promote individual drivers.
"We'd love to keep him associated with our brand, but we don't do driver development programs," White said. "I've watched them stutter and fail for three decades. There was a time back in a prior life that I actually built engines for the Baby Ruth car that Jeff Gordon was driving in [Nationwide for Bill Davis Racing] and Ford had all kinds of plans that he was going to be a Cup driver and look what happened.
"I sat on the sidelines and watched [former Ford competition head] Dan Davis sponsor and herd Kasey Kahne through the program and was going to put him in a Cup car and look what happened -- [he] never got there. If you don't own or control the team, when sponsors have equity in drivers, there is no way you can guarantee when that guy is ready you're going to have a seat for him."
Toyota's role so far has been facilitating handshakes. The company hosted Larson at a Chicagoland event and introduced him to several team owners, but there were no firm offers or commitments, Larson said.
"Kyle Busch Motorsports said maybe they could give me a test, but I doubt it," he said. "I don't know. They probably would want money or something."
Larson said although NASCAR would offer a more lucrative career destination, he is interested in open wheel, especially with IndyCar's ladder system offering money to fund an IndyLights ride on ovals for the winner of the previous season's USAC national points title. Larson is in the top three in points in midget and Silver Crown, and 21st in sprint. Former NASCAR prospect Bryan Clauson earned an IndyLights scholarship this season by winning the 2010 USAC national points title.
"It doesn't really matter to me," Larson said of his career path. "NASCAR, I think would be great. I think I'd like to choose NASCAR over IndyCar just because it seems there's more exposure there and it's a more competitive series to run in. So it would just be more fun, I think, than IndyCar. But IndyCar is definitely cool. The cars are really cool. They can seem like they're trying to make their series better. Either one would be fine with me."
White said the K & N Series would be Larson's best next step if he wishes to attempt NASCAR.
"To me that is the place he needs to go if he's looking toward NASCAR," he said. "Whether he is willing to commit himself to the couple of years it will take to make him a tiptop racer, that's only a question he can answer."
And ultimately, White said, a lack of immediate opportunity might be a blessing for Larson. A cautionary tale of rushing prospects, White said, is right there in the Toyota paddock. Joey Logano, a prodigy as a mid-teen who made his first Cup and Nationwide starts for JGR at 18 and became a full-time driver the next season, has one win in 104 Cup starts.
"Just speaking from experience," White said, "it certainly looks like Joey Logano could have benefited from a full year going for a championship in the Nationwide Series before saying, 'OK, we've got to do something here. We're going to put him in this Home Depot ride. You know?' It could very well be that would benefit [Larson]."
SI.com: What is the state of Toyota in Sprint Cup right now?
Lee White: It's cyclical. Right now Kyle [Busch, eighth in the driver standings] is points racing and we'll let you know in another three or four weeks how that all works out. Denny [Hamlin, who is 12th] and [crew chief] Mike Ford qualified for the Chase, but they're working on getting themselves re-established for next year, I think. We certainly don't have the number of cars and strength in our program that we had hoped to have at this point, speaking bluntly. The Gibbs guys have done a phenomenal job since they came on board. They've won 35 races. We've won 38 since 2008. That's nothing to sneeze at, but you're here to have a chance to win championships and you need more than two guys in the Chase to get that done. We're working on that.
SI.com: How does the demise of Red Bull's Sprint Cup team affect your business model and/or your plan of attack to get that first championship?
White: Certainly the intent with Red Bull in 2006 and 2007 when they came aboard was that they were going to provide the budget to hire the absolute best people, provide the best equipment and go get the best drivers. Unfortunately, it hasn't worked out that way. The idea to them of a Red Bull athlete has not resulted in getting Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon. It's primarily a driver development thing with young guys, which is fine, but it certainly didn't meet our objective.
SI.com: So they applied money, but badly?
White: There was a disconnect there between the people who were in the states, managing the program and who we initially spoke to when we signed the agreement and then those people were terminated and replaced by Jay Frye, who was a actually a guy we recommended. I think it's probably easy to say that still some of the recommendations were not met with the overall ownership of Red Bull. So it made it challenging because there were cultural differences, just the way the program went I don't think it really suited their objectives, so they've decided to move on and do something else.
SI.com: Will Toyota attempt to partner with more teams?
White: Probably not. We're focused on Gibbs and Waltrip and making those organizations as good as they can be.
SI.com: How has the TRD integration with Gibbs' engine shop progressed?
White: It seems to be going well. But you're not really going to know anything until you start building fuel-injected engines and competing with them next year.
SI.com: If, as expected, Clint Bowyer joins Michael Waltrip Racing for 2012, how much is Toyota improved?
White: If he did, it would be great. Clint's a guy who is capable of winning races. I think he's a guy that could help lead an organization and that would help Michael and that organization. He's a guy that three of the last four years has been in the Chase, so he knows how that feels, and if it happens, we're excited.