NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender, Kyle Larson, has won the pole award for the ARCA 200 at Pocono. Larson’s No. 4 Chevrolet, fielded by Turner-Scott Motorsports, set the pace in ARCA Series qualifying with a staggering time of 53.106 seconds – edging out second-place qualifier, Brennan Poole, by over a tenth of a second.
Larson will be pulling the double this weekend as he will race the No. 42 Chevrolet in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series as per usual. Prior to Pocono, Larson has run just two career ARCA Series events, including a second-place finish at Daytona last season. During this weekend’s event, Larson has teamed up with his Cup Series sponsor, Target, to run the ARCA Series event in an attempt to gather more experience before hitting the Pocono Raceway for the first time.
“It just helps me learn the track a little bit better. I’ve never raced here before. I’m trying to run as many laps as I can,” Larson said. “I’m not sure if it’s hurting me a whole lot, but it certainly is helping.”
Larson later joked about how the team has made him drive around town in his Chevrolet Camaro – attempting to figure out a way to shift smoother in the Cup Series car where drivers shift at least two times per lap.
Justin Allison will start third in the No. 88 car. Allison is the grandson of former NASCAR driver, Donnie Allison. Current ARCA Series point leader, Grant Enfinger, will start ninth as teammate to Allison. Entering Pocono, Enfinger has five top-10s in six ARCA Series races this year. Of those who qualified inside of the top-10, Poole (who will be replaced by John Wes Townley for Saturday’s event), Frank Kimmel and Enfinger are the only drivers to record a victory in the ARCA Series.
Dylan Kwasniewski is different. He is vibrant. He is courageous. He has gone through things that no teenager has gone through. However, he is still young, and the best has yet to come.
At 18-years-old, Kwasniewski is struggling in NASCAR’s second-tier division. Not too many young drivers admit when they make mistakes, yet something is different about Kwasniewski that sets him aside from his peers.
Besides taking the risk of a lifetime by advancing to the NASCAR Nationwide Series instead of racing in the K&N Pro Series East for another season, Kwasniewski made the daring move from Las Vegas to Charlotte, N.C. It is not too rare for an 18-year-old to move out of his house, but Kwasniewski is doing things a little bit different than most kids that opt to go to college or the military.
“It has been tough, and I am still not completely used to it by any means. It is what you have to do. You have to get used to it. This is where the center of racing is. This is where my team is at. This is where everyone in NASCAR is at. It has been tough, and it is definitely different. But I have to get used to it, and I do like it. It is a long process to get acclimated to everything,” Kwasniewski said in an over-the-phone interview.
When he made the move, Kwasniewski became friends with some of his peers such as Darrell Wallace Jr., Ryan Blaney and his teammate, Kyle Larson. Living in the same apartment complex has certainly helped the three drivers. Not only have they helped each other adjust to life off of the track, but they give one another advice about their on track life.
It is a long, grueling journey to race to the top in NASCAR. Kwasniewski is set out to do it. He is just fortunate to be in the situation he is in right now. If it were not for his sponsor, Rockstar Energy, Kwasniewski would likely still be in the lower divisions in the sport. Last summer, during his feature “Flat Out” on AOL, Kwasniewski was seen having numerous meetings with the energy drink company while finishing up his senior year in high school – hoping they would sign on for a Camping World Truck Series or Nationwide Series slate in 2014. Ultimately, they chose the Nationwide Series after extensive negotiations with the team.
“It showed not only the NASCAR world, but the rest of the world what it is like to move up through the ranks as a young driver. It was more public spotlight and exposure. It was just great overall.”
In that show, Kwasniewski’s immature side was shown. However, since then, he has grown up plenty. However, this show helped him get noticed. It was the setting stone for him to have more meetings with Rockstar, Turner Scott Motorsports and he.
After his first eight races, Kwasniewski has recorded just one top-10 finish (Daytona). He has shown he has a habit of trying too hard. At his home track in Las Vegas, he not only wrecked in qualifying – forcing his team to go to a backup car, but he also wrecked in the race. However, amidst the struggles comes hope for Kwasniewski.
“Well, I think the biggest thing is off track stuff. Once we do get to the race track, and we do get adapted to the tracks, we do alright. I have put myself in some pretty bad spots. I haven’t been as patient as I need to be. I haven’t had the mentality that I had over the last two years with my success in the K&N Series. I just get a little too far over my head. I feel like I need to be outperforming what is expected of me,” Kwasniewski admitted as he elaborated on his struggles.
“When I go out there and don’t get the finishes that I like to, and I really do get frustrated with the car or how our day is going – I put myself in a bad spot and I don’t have the collectiveness to calm myself and make sure I just slow down a little bit. As I see that and see that I need to calm down on the track as well as off the track too, I just need to keep preparing myself for these tracks that I have never been to. I have to do everything I can to try to put myself in a good spot, so when I actually do get onto it (not overdriving), I will be able to learn the nuances of the track.”
As a contender for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year award, Kwasniewski is set out to have a tenacious battle with point’s leader, Chase Elliott, along with fellow rookies, Ty Dillon and Chris Buescher as it stands after eight contests. If he wants to contend for this prestigious award, he will have to start improving, and fast.
Working with veteran crew chief, Pat Tryson, appears to be helping Kwasniewski. But even that might not be enough to solve a young driver’s overeager driving style. Moreover, Kwasniewski has begun to himself for the team’s struggles – something that he understands won’t help the situation.
“Obviously, for any crew chief, it is going to be tough to try to understand everything we need to try to get that communication better and start making good changes so that we can be in that good place that we need for the car. Like I said, we have been struggling a little bit in every aspect of it, but I think me and Pat have been working well. The crew guys have been making an awesome effort like they need to be. There is not a lack of dedication or a lack of hard work. Our team is working really hard to make sure that these cars are good. I just need to do my part to prove to them that we are working hard for a reason. We can go out there and win races,” said Kwasniewski about working with his new crew chief.
The hardest part about adjusting to the hectic Nationwide Series schedule for Kwasniewski has been going to new tracks. He is used to racing at short tracks. He grew up racing on short tracks – racing go-carts in Connecticut as well as Phoenix, and then Bandolero’s in the midst of Sin City. When he started dominating the K&N Pro Series West and East, Kwasniewski was only able to race on a handful of tracks which NASCAR’s top ranks compete within.
Not going to the tracks has put him behind. Sure, he has Tryson’s experience, but that is all. Kwasniewski has been smart, however, as he goes to his Turner Scott Motorsports teammate, arson, for advice. Larson, 21, is competing for the Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year award, and just won that accolade last season in the Nationwide Series. However, even though he is doing well, there is not much in Larson’s arsenal to help Kwasniewski advance his setups since it is his sophomore year in NASCAR’s second-tier division.
“I think that the biggest thing is watching the in-car camera footage and footage of the races, but as well as just talking to every driver that I can from my teammate, Kyle (Larson), and really any driver that is willing to open up and bring me into their bag of tricks. I thing that is really big, watching the in-car camera because you get the lifting points, the braking points and just trying to get into the mode of how you are going to be on the race track. Tracks like Daytona are kind of straight forward because of how they are. But at these other tracks, it is good to get that in your head so you at least have an idea when you get on the race track,” Kwasniewski said as he described his struggles in attempting to learn tracks.
Even with some struggles, Kwasniewski is learning.
His struggles have led for Kwasniewski to become more mature. Entering the season, there was speculation that Kwasniewski was not mature enough for the Nationwide Series because of his different personality. Some even judged him, and still do, because he wears a different type of hat with his sponsor’s logo slammed all over it. But this adversity has made him an even stronger racer.
Recently, Kwasniewski signed a driver-development with one of NASCAR’s larger teams – Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. Ganassi already has Larson driving the No. 42 Chevrolet in the Sprint Cup Series, but the team is a two-car organization with veteran racer, Jamie McMurray, in the team’s second car. Therefore, there is no need to rush Kwasniewski up to the Cup Series, and that is the least of his concerns – at least for now.
“It is a long process like anything. To do a contract like that takes a lot, but they saw potential in me just like they saw with Kyle Larson, and they are willing to take a risk on young guys. It is great. It is great for the sport. It has proven to other team owners that you can develop a driver, and stick to the roots with the young guys. I need to show the guys over there that it was worth it, and that the potential that they saw will pay off in the long run,” Kwasniewski said.
“It is hard to pinpoint what time you would want to move up to Cup. But it all depends on when I believe I am ready for it, or when Chip Ganassi believe I am ready for it. There is not really a number that you can put on it, but I have to be confident in my own ability that I am ready to move up. It will be at least two to three years, which is for sure. I want to establish myself in this series first before I move up. I definitely don’t want to move up too quick by any means.”
Not only has Kwasniewski been trying to prove he is capable of racing in these larger, more powerful automobiles, but he has been spending time at the shop as well. In this era, it is important for a young driver to show his credibility to an organization, and Kwasniewski is doing just that with CGR and TSM.
“I just get in there and show the guys that I am here for support. I go to the Turner shop and hang out there. I go to (Chip) Ganassi (Racing with Felix Sabates) and talk as much as I can over there. I just need to learn to utilize what I have and what is around me a little more, so we can be more prepared and start doing a little bit better,” Kwasniewski said.
Kwasniewski’s development contract will surely lead him to the Cup Series sooner rather than later. However, he needs to start proving he is mature enough to compete for wins. Wrecking cars and learning is one thing, but doing so while running mid-pack is another thing. When Larson was having a rough start to his Nationwide Series campaign, he was running towards the higher part of the field. However, Kwasniewski has not finished higher than 11th since Daytona, and the struggles don’t seem to be going away after another crash at Richmond.
Moving forward, Kwasniewski has a lot to prove. Not only does he have to keep his emotions together on the track, but he also needs to show he is able to live alone just like his peers in an apartment complex right near the Turner Scott Motorsports shop. Now that he has a development deal with a Cup Series stable, Kwasniewski can focus on his learning curve. He will make mistakes. He is not immortal. However, he is a teenager. He can have fun, but he needs to prove he is going to be a vital force for Chip Ganassi’s team in the years to come.
“I need to prove more of the mentality that I had the last two years. I was in the right state of mind the last two years where I had the right mentality to win two championships. Even though it was in a different series, a less competitive series with a lesser spotlight, but I was very patient. I went through a lot of stuff. A lot of adversity, and I need to take that mentality into this year. I need to be more patient, more forgiving, understand a little bit more about it and stop trying to go out there and trying to get something out of the car that I can’t. I need to be content with where I finish and be happy with it going from a race finish to the next race. I need to improve myself. I need to show them that I can compete with the best of the best with these Sprint Cup Series drivers in the Nationwide Series.”
Kyle Larson will be starting on the pole for this evening's running of the Toyota Owners 400 at the Richmond International Raceway. Larson, 21, has never led the field to green in his 12 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series starts preceding Saturday's event.
The Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates driver currently sits 15th in points after eight races this season. Even though Larson has a pair of top-five finishes to start off his first full-time season in NASCAR's premier division, he has three finishes of 20th or worse. However, Larson has excelled at tracks which he has driven at before, and Richmond is one of those venues.
In three Nationwide Series races at Richmond, Larson has an average finishing position of 8.7. He also recorded a top-five finish in his lone K&N Pro Series East race at Richmond in 2012. Now, he is on NASCAR's biggest stage, and the pressure is starting to lighten up now that people understand he is capable of racing for wins.
Larson's pole award will not count as an entry into the Sprint Showdown at Daytona to begin the 2015 season next February. However, it will help him earn experience at the front of the pack - racing against some of the sport's top drivers. He already scored his first career Nationwide Series pole award with Turner Scott Motorsports at Bristol a few weeks ago, but starting up front in the Cup Series will put the Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender's integrity to the test.
His Ganassi teammate, Jamie McMurray, finished fourth in the last race at Richmond back in September after leading a handful of laps. Besides holding the top speed in practice on Friday morning, Larson had the 10th fastest average of 29 cars that ran 10 consecutive laps during that first practice.