There’s no doubt NASCAR currently has some of the most skilled drivers ever on the track right now, but there are a number of ways to evaluate who’s the best. Defining the best could range from looking at championships or wins — or even wins at specific tracks — to demonstrated skills and moves, even if they don’t always result in a checkered flag.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart elected to look at raw talent this week on the Dale Jr. Download podcast.
“There’s guys that have raw talent,” Stewart said on the weekly podcast, “and then there’s taught talent. You can sit there you can watch videos, you can study, you can talk to people. Raw talent are guys that don’t have to think about what they do. They just get in and do it. It’s not taught.”
The three-time NASCAR champion is, arguably, one of the best people to evaluate who has raw racing talent. Stewart has raced just about everything over the course of his career – he’s won both IndyCar and NASCAR titles – and even though he’s not racing stock cars anymore, he’s still actively competing behind the wheel.
So when it comes to current drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series, Stewart sees one driver that stands out with the most evident raw talent, and it’s not one of his own Stewart-Haas Racing drivers. It’s Kyle Larson. He also pointed to second-tier Xfinity Series driver Christopher Bell as maybe being in that category too, but at the top of NASCAR, he thinks Larson is currently alone.
On the Dale Jr. Download, Stewart explained to Earnhardt:
“I’m not picking them because they’re dirt track guys by any means. But you look at what Kyle does in a car — he overdrives everything he does, but he can still will make it work. I mean, there’s times he’s got that thing sideways and saves it, and it’s like, there’s not a lot of guys that could save it and push it that hard for that long and not make that mistake.
“And he still makes a mistake every now and then, but I’ve watched him when he was (in) open-wheeled cars before he got (to the Cup Series), and he’s like playing video games and then he just puts his phone down, gets in the car and goes and races. He doesn’t think about what he does; he just gets in and does it.
“And there’s a handful of guys that fit in that kind of category. Robby Gordon was one that you and I both got to race with. Robby had a lot of raw talent. Now, it was rough around the edges raw talent, but you could put Robbie in anything and he could get 90, 95 percent of the way there like that. And there’s just not a lot of guys that can do that. And I think everybody has an amount of raw talent, but there’s just a handful of guys that I think are just truly pure, raw talented drivers.”
Now entering his sixth full-time Cup Series season, Larson – who, like Stewart, will race almost anything with wheels – had his breakout year in 2017. He got four of his five career Cup Series wins that season, winning at Auto Club Speedway, Richmond Raceway and Michigan International Speedway twice. The No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet driver’s first win in 2016 was also at Michigan.
However, Larson struggled a bit in 2018, along with other Chevrolet drivers, and finished the season without a win. But he came in seventh in Sunday’s Daytona 500.
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