- Associated Press - Monday, February 18, 2013

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. (AP) - Kyle Larson just may be the next great NASCAR driver.

Scratch that.

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 world 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 won again Monday night, taking a short-track race at Daytona International Speedway in the “Battle at the Beach.” He’ll compete in another short-track race on Tuesday night, then take a big step up when he drives in Saturday’s Nationwide Series race.

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 Sunday night to win a USAC midget race at nearby New Smyrna Speedway. In case you missed it, (at) 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 Truck 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.

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