Chip Ganassi Racing had a subpar season in 2015. For the second consecutive season neither Jamie McMurray or Kyle Larson were victorious in the 36-race season. There were flashes of bright spots for both teams, but each wants to pick up the performance in 2016.
It would be normal to think that McMurray was satisfied in making the cutoff for the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time in his career. The No. 1 team showed instances in which it could contend for the win with two second-place finishes at Phoenix in the spring to Kevin Harvick and Martinsville in the fall to Jeff Gordon.
The short tracks are where the team has excelled in the past few seasons. One area in which the team decreased from 2014 was at the 1.5-mile racetracks. Throughout his career, McMurray has been solid on the mile-and-a-half tracks, but last year was an exception.
It was just two years ago that the No. 1 car won the Sprint All-Star Race and McMurray left Charlotte Motor Speedway $1 million dollars richer. Last season was a struggle, which is why in 2016 one of the team’s main goals is to re-establish itself on those tracks.
“Ultimately, it’s just about better cars and better setups,” McMurray told Speedway Digest last month at the NASCAR Media Tour. “I’ve been able to win at some mile-and-a-half racetracks in the past. In 2014, we were just really good at those tracks and in 2015 we weren’t as good.”
McMurray, 39, is coming off a season in which he posted four top fives and 10 top-10 finishes, down from the 13 that he posted a year prior. However, the Missouri native was consistent with a career-best 14.9 average finish, but finished with a career-low in laps led, 14.
In the 11 1.5-mile tracks that were on the Sprint Cup schedule, McMurray averaged a 15.8 average finish, leading nine laps at Texas back in April. Based on the fact that he accumulated just two top-10 finishes in those 11 races, he knows that he needs to improve in 2016.
“I didn’t particularly do anything different,” McMurray said. “Ultimately, it’s just about being able to have the right car and the right setup underneath you.”
Compared to 2014, McMurray had had a better average finish on the 1.5-mile racetracks, but didn’t run up nearly as much. In the previous season, he had two finishes outside of the top 35 at Kansas and Kentucky, but ended the season with three-consecutive top-five finishes at Charlotte, Texas and Homestead. The No. 1 car finished inside of the top five in both races in NASCAR’s hub in 2014.
All year long, Larson struggled in 2015. The driver that had so much animosity behind him due to his remarkable rookie season ended up with a disappointing 2015 season.
In his first year of competition at the Sprint Cup level, Larson exceeded expectations, though he didn’t go to Victory Lane. It could be argued that it was the best rookie season since Jimmie Johnson in 2002. The results were different last season.
The No. 42 car is notoriously known for riding within an inch of the wall at the majority of the 1.5-mile tracks. The closer to the wall, the more grip there is. But if you get too close to the wall, it will come and grab you, ultimately damaging the car.
“I think just as an organization we want to be better on the mile-and-a-halves,” Larson said. “That’s the majority of our schedule, so we kind of need to focus the most on that. 1.5-mile tracks are my favorite tracks too. I definitely look forward to going to them every week and I feel like we got better on them throughout the year last year.”
Last season, Larson earned just two top fives and 10 top-10 finishes, down from eight top fives and 17 top 10s in his rookie year. The mile-and-a-halves were tracks that the he really struggled on.
With the exception of the season finale at Homestead, Larson recorded zero top-five finishes. He had six finishes of 25th or worse on the 11 1.5-mile racetracks that marked his average finish down to a disappointing 21.1. With a fifth-place finish at Homestead, in a race that looked like he was going to track down race leader Brad Keselowski before a late-race caution, there is reason for optimism heading into 2016.
If the team could go back to the way it performed in the 2014 season, Larson could qualify for his first Chase this season.
The new aerodynamic package for the 2016 season could play into Larson’s hands. The way that the new setup will be plays into a dirt racers hand, with the way that the car slides around. This is something that he normally runs well in as he has had a lot of experience on dirt. In the two races that it was raced in last year at Kentucky and Darlington, the overall racing was some of the best racing all year long.
“I think the aero package will probably help the mile and-a-half racing the most to which will hopefully help our race team,” Larson said. “I would love to be better on mile-and-a-halves than we were last year.”
The team has made multiple changes over the off-season including the addition of crew chief Chad Johnson. He has been atop the pit box for three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart in the last two seasons which were two of Stewart’s worst years to date. Prior to that, Johnston was the leader for Martin Truex, Jr. at Michael Waltrip Racing, where the two accumulated a lot of success, resulting in only one victory at Sonoma in 2013.
In order for this year to be a success, both cars will need to make the Chase and potentially complete for the first Sprint Cup championship in team history.
Prior to last season, Felix Sabates, co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing guaranteed that both of his drivers would make the Chase. Though he was wrong, there is reason to believe that this could be the year, especially with the money and resources that Rob Kauffman is bringing in from MWR.