Last season’s finish stung Kyle Larson. That was plain to see after he finished five consecutive races in the second half of the playoffs with either a blown engine or a crash that sabotaged his championship aspirations. But Larson seemed to be over the disappointment even before the final race of the season took the green flag at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“I don’t think it’s hard to reprogram or refocus for next year, just because after you get knocked out you’re kind of ready for the next year to start, you know?” Larson says. “We had some really bad luck, but they were still really fast cars.”
Larson’s routine of racing on dirt tracks around the country in between NASCAR races — and this offseason for about two weeks on the other side of the world in New Zealand — seems to have him hitting the reset button after the disaster that was the end of the 2017 postseason for his No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing team. For Larson, there’s always another race to win — while so many other drivers opt for a limited calendar that offers fewer chances to clear the memory bank with on-track success.
Last season’s failures removed a presumed championship favorite from the title fight. But that rough stretch certainly can’t cover up a hard truth that every other NASCAR team will contend with in 2018: Larson and his Ganassi team made incredible progress last season from outside contenders to weekly favorites, and they figure to be right there again this season.
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“I felt like the start of the year, we were probably the fastest car — for the first two-and-a-half months or so,” Larson says. “Then [Martin Truex Jr.] surpassed us, and [Kyle Busch] also did. We were probably the third-best car the majority of races. So there’s room for improvement, and obviously you want to be the quickest car every week. But the strides we made from the beginning of 2016 to the beginning of 2017 were massive.”
Larson’s exploits beyond NASCAR in multiple forms of dirt racing have given rise to his reputation as one of the circuit’s most capable drivers. Driving last season in the most competitive Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series car he’s ever had, Larson says, made him even better.
“I think when we have good enough race cars to ride up front like we have, it allows me to learn more and be in situations where I can win,” Larson says. “So even when I don’t win, I can learn more often than before when I didn’t really have many opportunities to find out where I can win and lose at the end of a race.”
In particular, Larson attributes a pair of wins last season at Michigan International Speedway and Richmond International Raceway to skills he’s learned in those situations. Both races saw Larson start from the second row on a late restart and score the win — thanks to skills he developed in part due to a well-publicized early season stretch in which he was runner-up three times in a row.
“Any time you finish second there’s always thinking about the kind of things you could do differently,” Larson says. “I think I’ve learned from all of those.”
The 25-year-old aims again this season to capture his first NASCAR championship after a four-win effort in 2017. He’ll be aboard the new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, a car design that Larson expects to be faster — “You always build something that’s better than what you had previously,” he says — even if it has an uneven rollout.
“There might be some learning in the first couple of months, but for the most part I feel like we have really smart people at our shop that will be learning quickly,” he says.