JOLIET, Ill. – When he was a kid with grand plans to become a NASCAR driver someday, Kyle Larson dressed up as Jeff Gordon when his family went to watch the races at Sonoma.
In the last few laps of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship opener, Larson found himself racing the real-life version nose to nose down the stretch at Chicagoland Speedway.
"Jeff's been racing the Cup series as long as I've been alive," the 22-year-old rookie said after finishing third.
"Easy," laughed Gordon, who wound up settling for second.
"It's just really cool," Larson came back, "that guys I've looked up to since forever are now talking about me and I'm racing them and battling for wins."
Larson isn't eligible for the season-ending playoff series, but he might have been an even bigger topic Sunday if he had managed to pull off the upset. Coming off a restart on lap 252, he got into a duel with Kevin Harvick for first. Larson stuck to the high line that he had run on successfully all day, while Harvick went low. Eventual winner Brad Keselowski squeezed between the two to grab the lead and never let go.
That set up the battle with Gordon for second. Larson lost that one, too. But as a measure of how much respect he had earned, Gordon came over after the race and two had a quiet exchange.
"I think this kid is the real deal. He's going to be a star in this series for a long time. I really wanted to see him win because I like him," Gordon said, "but I also didn't want to see those other guys (his Sprint Cup championship competitors) win."
"Stinks we got third," Larson said one more time. "Coming up close as often as I have this year is going to make that first win feel that much more special."
Yet almost no one in the sport expects that he'll have to wait long. Larson was racing go karts competitively by age 7, and barely slowed down on his way through the sprint car ranks. Two years ago, he won the Orange Blossom 100 in his first race behind the wheel of a stock car, grabbing the lead on the final lap of the race. In 2013, he was the rookie of the year on the Nationwide circuit.
But Larson would be the first to acknowledge he's still got plenty to learn. He pointed out that part of his post-race conversation with Gordon was about handling restarts.
"I'm never out front really. I'm never on the front row, so I don't know what to do. ... I'm still learning that part of it," Larson said. "He came down to give me some advice, which was nice."
That elicited a few laughs, since Gordon, too, has struggled with restarts.
"Do as I say," Gordon quickly noted, "not as I do."
Just as he was getting ready to leave, Larson was asked whether it was strange being praised by so many drivers he had admired as a youngster and now found himself competing against. Before he could reply, Gordon cut it off.
"Don't worry," he smirked. "We won't be saying that for long."