With four wins in 2017 and arguably the third-best overall car that year, Kyle Larson entered the 2018 season with soaring hopes that a new car would produce a title run from the Chip Ganassi Racing camp. That run never materialized. Larson went winless last season and regressed in total top 5s and top 10s compared to the year before. It was in large part a product of inconsistent performance. Larson’s longest streak of consecutive top-10 finishes all season was four races — a feat he pulled off just one time, at Dover, Kansas, Charlotte and Pocono in the spring.
“I felt there were times that I was really close to being where we needed to be to contend for a championship, and then we’d have a few weeks in a row where we’d kind of struggle,” Larson says. “I think that when you look at teams that win championships and contend all the time, they’re up front every race.”
Rather than enduring playoff heartbreak like he did in 2017, Larson dropped out quietly following the second round in 2018. He only advanced that far because a highlight-worthy moment at the Charlotte road course allowed him to make it out of the playoffs’ first round when a car stalled just before the finish line and Larson was able to motor by with a damaged car. Larson never rose higher than seventh in the point standings after peaking at fifth following the season’s third race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Qualifying and other issues ahead of each race’s green flag certainly played a role in Larson’s struggles last season. His No. 42 team led the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in races started from the rear with seven total — twice due to practice crashes, twice due to inspection failures, twice due to unapproved adjustments and once due to a missed driver introduction session at Kentucky Speedway. Meanwhile, Larson’s qualifying average dropped nearly 1.5 spots from 2017.
“As a team, we need to get better at all of the racetracks, but a lot of that falls on me, too — I need to not go to Martinsville and be the worst driver there,” Larson says with a slight laugh. “There’s a lot of tracks where I need to clean up what I’m doing.”
Martinsville has bedeviled Larson for most of his Cup career. Illness forced him out of a race there in 2015, and he’s scored just one top-10 finish, rolling in third in 2016. Larson’s Martinsville average finish is 24.2.
Larson did show improvements in some areas last season that should help as long as Ganassi can get the cars to his liking. Despite going winless, Larson set a career-best average finish (12.6) and finished four more races on the lead lap than the previous season. He did that despite being involved in accidents at all four restrictor plate races.
If anything needs to change, Larson says, it’s timing for his Ganassi team. “We just need to try and peak at the right time,” Larson says. “The first few years of my Cup career, we would start the year off terrible, but we would be good come playoff time even though we didn’t make the playoffs. The last two seasons, we’ve started off the years really, really good and then didn’t necessarily improve as much as some other teams.”
The Ganassi team hopes the offseason signing of Kurt Busch as Larson’s new teammate will deliver solutions to the problems Larson describes. Busch, signed to a one-year deal, replaces Jamie McMurray in the No. 1 Chevrolet.
“We’ll work hard on trying to get better and more consistent — less DNFs and things like that,” Larson says. “We can come back stronger and hopefully contend.”
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2019 Cup Championship: 7/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)