Kwasniewski, Larson faced doubts before winning Touring Series titles
Dylan Kwasniewski considered not racing after his father's unexpected death
After breakout '11 season Kyle Larson had to go above, beyond to prove himself
However both triumphed and won K&N Pro Series East and West this past season
Dylan Kwasniewski questioned if he should resume racing. Kyle Larson wondered if his best was in the past.
Both faced personal doubts on the way to winning NASCAR championships this season that stamped them as among the sport's top young drivers. The 20-year-old Larson exceeded his remarkable breakout season in 2011 to win the K&N Pro Series East title in his first year driving stock cars. Kwasniewski, 17, overcame the death of his father in 2010, to become the youngest champion in the K&N Pro Series West. They comprise a class of young drivers -- featuring Ryan Blaney, James Buescher and Austin and Ty Dillon among others -- who represent NASCAR's future.
While it's easy to imagine a bright future for Kwasniewski and Larson, it's as easy to miss the challenges they've faced.
Kwasniewski coped with the death of his dad, who introduced him to racing and nurtured his passion. Randy Kwasniewski died in 2010 of a self-inflicted gunshot after taking the drug Ambien just days earlier. (The family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in February against the company that manufactures Ambien, claiming Kwasniewski was not aware that the sleep-aid drug "had the propensity to cause severe injury, including death" and "may produce suicidal thoughts.").
Dylan Kwasniewski admits he wasn't sure if he should race after his father died.
"After he was gone, I was like, "What do I do now?'" Kwasniewski said. "There was a point that I didn't know if I wanted to get back in the car because if I hurt myself, my family would have no one to take care [of them]. That point was definitely hard in my life. Once I got past that I think it definitely pushed me to be a better driver and stronger person.
"I couldn't give up my dad's dream, and I couldn't give up his legacy. He and I started my racing career when I was 5 years old. I couldn't just let it go. I had to prove it to someone that this was worthwhile. It really pushed me to go out there and win every single race because he wouldn't take anything else but a win. I used his mentality this last season and really pushed myself to not accept anything else but the best."
Still to this day Kwasniewski keeps his dad nearby. Both sleeves of his driver's uniform feature wings surrounding a cross with his father's initials, and the image also adorns his helmet and his car.
Kwasniewski became the K&N West Pro Series' youngest winner last year and won the championship this season by scoring three wins and 12 top-five finishes in 15 races. The Las Vegas resident will criss-cross the country as he moves to the K&N East Pro Series next year for Turner Motorsports while completing his senior year of high school.
Kwasniewski admits he nearly bypassed racing for baseball a few years ago but baseball didn't fulfill him like racing does.
"There was just something about racing I couldn't give it up," Kwasniewski said. "You go to the race on a Friday and you spend so much time in the shop ... you spend so much time and money on it that when you do beat all those guys in that 150-lap race there's no other better feeling."
Kyle Larson can relate. The development driver for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing has run more than 120 races this year, winning close to 30, with still more racing to go. He leaves in less than two weeks for New Zealand to race a midget car there. He'll fly from there to Tulsa, Okla., to run in next month's Chili Bowl midget race (he finished third in the main feature last year).
That event kick started Larson's memorable 2011 season. He won 21 races, including the Belleville Midget Nationals, and became the first driver to win a race in all five of the major national open wheel touring series in the same year. He became only the second driver to ever win three USAC divisions -- Silver Crown, sprint and midget -- in the 4 Crown Nationals at Tony Stewart's Eldora Speedway. All that success proved daunting entering this year.
"Last year, I had a really good year and I didn't think I would ever have another year like it," Larson said.
He showed last year was only the beginning.
Larson won in his first stock-car race, winning a Super Late Model event at New Smyrna (Fla.) Speedway in February. He didn't test a K&N car before the season opener at Bristol in March, making his first laps in that series that race weekend. He finished ninth. Five races later, he scored the first of his two series wins.
He finished 10th in his Camping World Truck Series debut in late June at Kentucky Speedway. He placed second in just his third start in that series in November at Phoenix. Although his 2013 plans haven't been finalized, expect to see him run more Truck races and maybe some Nationwide events.
When he wasn't racing in the K&N Series or Truck series this past season, it wasn't uncommon for him to race in California on a Friday night, fly to Indiana on Saturday morning and race there before heading to the next race afterward. He'd ride with his team in the Midwest. In California, he'd drive to the tracks himself.
"I can tell you where all the In-N-Outs are," he said of the popular hamburger chain in the Western U.S.
He estimates he drove for more than 20 different car owners from NASCAR to ARCA to USAC and other series. He also had a stretch where he ran 15 races in 17 days. "It was pretty tiring," said Larson, who won last month's 72nd Turkey Night Grand Prix midget car race, "but I wouldn't trade it for anything. I had a blast."
Many in NASCAR have noticed his exploits.
"I've spent some time with the kid, I really like him and I think he's going to be really good," said three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart.
Larson recalls when he first met Jeff Gordon -- the four-time champion wanted to see him. Jeff Gordon has also texted Larson after races.
"I definitely looked up to him when I was younger, so I was nervous going there," Larson said. "I still am seeing him in person."
Some day a young driver might say that about meeting Larson. Or Kwasniewski.