CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Kyle Larson, flashing his new Rolex watch, was unfazed Thursday after learning Chase Elliott was going to replace Jeff Gordon in the iconic No. 24.
Many NASCAR fans have believed that Larson was the heir apparent to the four-time champion, a notion Gordon fueled with constant praise of the reigning Sprint Cup Series rookie of the year.
Only Larson drives for Chip Ganassi Racing, and says he is happy right where he is behind the wheel of the No. 42 Chevrolet. Gordon announced last week that 2015 will be his last in the car, and Hendrick Motorsports has named 19-year-old Elliott has his replacement.
“That’s cool for him,” Larson said. “I’m happy where I’m at. Just flip-flop the number, I’m good.”
Larson was part of Ganassi’s four-driver lineup that won Sunday’s prestigious Rolex 24 at Daytona, where the victors receive special-edition timepieces. He also won a sprint car race this month in Arizona, a midget race in Oklahoma, and he’s riding a wave of momentum into next month’s start of his second Cup season.
Although he grew up a Gordon fan, he said he never dreamed of driving Gordon’s car.
“When I was a kid, Jeff Gordon was invincible and I probably thought he was going to race the rest of his life,” the 22-year-old Larson said.
He cheered for Gordon as he won his four titles and climbed to third on the all-time victories list, and now believes he’s got the chance to make his own mark in NASCAR while driving for Ganassi.
“A lot of people have told me that the 24 then was what the 42 is now where they weren’t the biggest team in NASCAR and Jeff kind of took that and made it into what it is,” said Larson. “I like that possibility to be the guy to make Chip Ganassi Racing a championship team year in and year out. I look forward to hopefully spending a long time with Chip and win a lot of races.”
Gordon has been one of the many drivers to laud Larson as the next big thing in NASCAR, and said a year ago that he sat down with Larson to discuss his future. There’s never been room in the Hendrick Motorsports lineup for Larson to join the organization, and Elliott was ready to be promoted in 2016 when Gordon steps out of the car.
“I think Chip did a great job scooping him up and backing him the way they have and giving him opportunities to go showcase his talent and now getting him into Cup, where he truly belongs,” Gordon said a year ago. “I see a guy that gets more out that car than anybody can get out of it. He’s just got a lot of talent and is creative and searching around the racetrack. He just has what it takes. Bobby Bowden told us it’s about the ‘It.’ He’s got the ‘It.’
“I’m disappointed that we weren’t able to put something together,” he added. “But I’m very happy for him and our sport is going to benefit from it.”
Similar praise has come from three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart, who has raced sprints and midgets against Larson. Stewart has boldly said that Larson is better than he is: “You can bet the farm on it. I guarantee it. If not, you can take everything I own, because I’m that confident,” Stewart said.
Larson said he looks forward to developing a rivalry with Elliott and seeing where he can go with Ganassi.
“When I think of a rivalry, I think of two drivers who butt heads,” Larson said. “Me and Chase are friends and he’s really, really good. I hope we have a rivalry in a competitive way, that means we’re both up front, competing for wins.”