The original plot line — before Carl Edwards and Joey Logano crashed and before Jimmie Johnson somehow rallied to his record-tying seventh Cup championship — in last fall’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway was breaking in Kyle Larson’s direction. His No. 42 was the fastest long-run car, and Larson had shown masterful skill in running inches from the wall for much of the 400-mile race with hardly a scratch on the right side. It was his race to win, right until he didn’t.
Fortunately, Larson has a short memory.
“It stings, I guess, for a couple days,” Larson says. “But my life’s so fast and hectic that it’s easy for me to move [on] and forget about it.”
Larson, 24, races so often and in so many places that it’s easy to believe him. Just four days after that Homestead finale, he was winning the Turkey Night Grand Prix, a prestigious USAC National Midget Series dirt track event in Ventura, Calif.
Now starting his fourth season in Cup for Chip Ganassi Racing, Larson is doing all he can to fully break through at stock car’s highest level. He’s getting closer.
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Last year, in what he called “definitely my best year” in Cup, Larson qualified for the postseason for the first time thanks to a well-timed first career win at Michigan International Speedway in August. It was an exclamation point on a season that also saw Larson lead more laps in Cup than ever and set a new career benchmark for top-10 finishes (15) in a season. But getting to that point wasn’t easy.
“Our racecars were really bad to start the year, and we had a new crew chief,” Larson says, referring to Chad Johnston. “I think it took (Johnston) just a couple months to get things how he wanted. Once his cars got to showing up to the race track, that’s when we really picked up speed.”
Larson’s change in performance last season reflects his theory about Johnston’s touch. In the first 12 races of 2016, Larson averaged a 21st-place finish and a 19th-place start. The rest of the 36-race schedule saw Larson rocket to a 12th-place average finish and eight of his 10 top-5 finishes. An improvement like that makes it easy to choose what to focus on in the new year.
“Hopefully, we can keep up with it through the offseason,” Larson says. “That’s where we struggle. It seems like in the three years I’ve run, we end the year good, but we don’t start the years off great, so we’re always working really hard to gain points back.”
Larson will continue this season to run dirt races where he can. He has a limit of 25 per year, but he says he’ll struggle to find time this season to fill that number, thanks to NASCAR’s calendar featuring one less off-week than normal.
Likely not on Larson’s calendar — at least for 2017 — is a turn in a Ganassi IndyCar seat at the Indianapolis 500.
“I would love to run the double, and Chip knows that,” Larson says. “He always told me to worry about winning a Cup race first, so now I’ve done that. I haven’t asked if I could run, but I would for sure love to do the doubles some day. I’d love to run the Indy 500 at least once in my lifetime.”
Larson knows this season will be an important one for his career, thanks to a soon-to-expire contract and the prospect of a potential change in sponsorship on the No. 42 in 2018. Target, Larson’s largest primary sponsor, opted to end a 27-year relationship with Ganassi’s IndyCar program due to a corporate strategy shift after last season and has a contract on Larson’s car that expires after this season.
Larson, as usual, is taking it all in stride and just focusing on better results.
“I’d like to be more consistent, have less DNFs, and make the final four at Homestead,” Larson says. “To win the championship would be the ultimate goal, but final four at Homestead would be great, just knowing you had a shot at winning the championship.”