After a fifth-place finish at Indianapolis last weekend, Kyle Larson moved on to the Chase grid for the first time since Atlanta, the second race of the season. With six races to go before the Chase begins, he holds the coveted cutoff position with a 10 point advantage on Kasey Kahne.
In his third full-time season in the Cup Series, Larson is still looking for that alluded first victory. Though statistically this isn’t his best season, he is in the best position of his career to make the Chase.
In 2016, Larson has six top-10 finishes in 20 starts, including a best finish of second at Dover in May, a track that the No. 42 car led 85 laps. But as the Chase nears, the 24-year-old is heading to some of his best race tracks.
“We started off really slow, but the last couple months we’ve had a lot of speed and had some solid runs,” Larson told Speedway Digest his 2016 season. “We had some good luck there a couple months ago and then I had some bad luck prior to Indy, but were quick. We just have to stay on top of it.”
At Pocono, Larson has two career top 10s with a best finish of fifth in his first race at the Tricky Triangle in 2014. Heading into next week at Watkins Glen, the No. 42 car finished fourth at the road course two years ago.
Bristol and Michigan are two of Larson’s better race tracks. In the spring, the Chip Ganassi Racing team finished third at NASCAR’s fastest track and in 2015 led 90 laps at Bristol, the most laps that the California native has ever led in a single event in the Cup Series.
Not only is Larson on the Chase bubble, but so is his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Jamie McMurray. The No. 1 Chevrolet sits 34 points ahead of the cutoff with two top-10 finishes in the last three races.
“Jamie and I both communicate well with each other,” Larson said. “We’re not afraid to ask each other questions and compare notes. I think we work awesome together. We’re great teammates. He’s a good dude and we have similar driving styles, so our notes relate to each other.”
The two drivers are said to work extremely close with one another. The motto at Chip Ganassi Racing is “one team, one goal,” and the two drivers put a lot of emphasis on living up to that delivering for their car owner Chip Ganassi.
Larson is in his first year with Chad Johnston as crew chief. He has previously been atop the pit box for Martin Truex, Jr. and Tony Stewart, winning one career race at Sonoma in 2013.
“I really enjoy working with Chad,” Larson said of Johnston. “I think he’s really smart, really focused and an all around good crew chief. He has a good personality and works well with all the guys on the team. I enjoy it.”
Chip Ganassi Racing looked to be near its peak when the horsepower was higher. In 2015, when NASCAR reduced the horsepower package, the team, specifically Larson struggled. This season the same horsepower package applies, but the new lower downforce package has favored the team.
Admittedly so, it took the teams a longer time to adapt to the package than the drivers. Realistically, the drivers will go out and race whatever package is thrown their way. Some drives like the package, some do not.
“I would say when we had more horsepower that suited our team and myself,” Larson said. “I think you look at the Gibbs cars since they’ve gone to lesser horsepower they’ve been better. There have been more changes that just horsepower, but they’ve definitely taken advantage of the changes and done the best with it.
Due to post-race penalties, the No. 42 team has been penalized 15 points this season, which could cost the organization a Chase birth. Larson is optimistic regarding his chances of making NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. It would mark the first time that he would have a shot at the championship in the final 10 races.