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By Dan Gelston | Associated Press
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Kyle Larson just may be the next great NASCAR driver.
Make it, "will be" the next star in the sport's top series. Says who? Just ask Tony Stewart.
"I guarantee it," Stewart said. "If not, you can take everything I own, because I'm that confident. It's not a matter of if, it's when."
That's a bold prediction from a three-time Cup champion not known for hyperbole.
Stewart, though, has every reason to be impressed. So are many of NASCAR's elite drivers, from Jeff Gordon to Kasey Kahne, who are wowed by the natural speed, talent and versatility flashed by the 20-year-old Larson. New cars, new series, new tracks. None of it has slowed down Larson from the fast track to stardom.
He won a low-level NASCAR developmental series championship last season, the first time he raced in stock cars, and had three top-10s in his four Truck Series starts.
He raced all over the country in any series where he could find a ride. Larson counted 92 races in 2011 and 123 races in 2012.
"The past two years have been pretty crazy," Larson said. "I've been running different cars, it seems, every night. I kept busy. I had a lot of fun, won a lot of races. I won a lot of big races, too."
Larson takes the next step when he drives in Saturday's Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway. But first, there are short-track races Monday and Tuesday nights at Daytona in the "Battle of the Beach." Oh, and that's after he finished second in the ARCA race, making him one of the busiest drivers of Speedweeks.
He even found time to win Sunday night to win a USAC midget race at nearby New Smyrna Speedway. In case you missed it, @KyleLarsonRacin tweeted video of the race.
Larson is leading the way of a new generation of young stars ready to make an impact in NASCAR. Chase Elliott, Darrell Wallace Jr., and Dylan Kwasniewski are just a few of the prospects set to take over as today's crop of 40-something Cup drivers inch closer toward retirement. They've raced their way through NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program or been pegged as members of the "Next 9" -- a select group of up-and-coming drivers.
It's more than just young blood they're adding to NASCAR -- but different bloodlines.
Wallace will drive in the Trucks Series, making him the fourth full-time black driver in NASCAR history. Larson's mother is Japanese and his father is of Native American descent.
Larson openly talked of wanting to usher in a new fan base in a sport that has long suffered on the track and in the stands from a lack of diversity.
He just needs a crash course on Japanese:
"All I say is, 'Sayonara,'" he said, laughing.
But he's serious about sparking interest in auto racing in new cultures.
"It's the greatest sport in the world and a lot of people haven't been here to experience it," he said. "If I can get Japanese-Americans interested in the sport, I think it would be good for me and NASCAR.
"As long as I can keep running up front, I'll catch their eye a little bit. They might come to watch the races and meet me and walk around the garage area."
Larson, locked into a development contract with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, put the sport on notice in 2011 when he won races in three different series on the same night at Stewart-owned Eldora Speedway. He moved on to a ride with Rev Racing and place the first champion out of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program.
Larson has talked at length of wanting to pattern his career after drivers like Stewart and Kahne, who started their careers on dirt tracks in open wheel cars.
Stewart turned down an offer by owner Roger Penske to return his open wheel roots and run in this year's Indianapolis 500. Larson said he'd love the chance to drive in IndyCar's signature race some time down the road.
"I'd like to run the Indy 500 someday, for sure," he said. "I think being with Chip Ganassi Racing, you have that chance. I'd also like to run the 24-hour race at Daytona. Being with Chip Ganassi, you get those options if you're doing well and he likes you."
What's not to like?
Gordon went on TV last year and said, "he makes me look like nothing," at his age. Gordon, the four-time Cup champion, become a friend of Larson's and texts him after every win. That's a lot of texts.
"It's definitely been beneficial for my career getting my name on Speed Channel and every Sunday on 'Speed Report,'" Larson said. "It's been really big with Jeff Gordon talking about me quite a bit. Hopefully, I can keep running up front and keep those guys talking about me."
But NASCAR history is littered with "can't miss" prospects who missed. Joey Logano was called "Sliced Bread," as in, greatest thing since, when he was just a teen and replaced Stewart at Joe Gibbs Racing. Only 22 and with two Cup wins, Logano has already moved on to Penske Racing looking for a fresh start after failing to live up to the massive hype at JGR.
Larson understands there are no guarantees in auto racing. But he feels he's ready.
"I haven't felt any pressure yet," he said. "But I can see how people would think I might feel pressure."