It was 10 years ago that Kyle Larson’s career as a professional driver started to feel like a reality. He won a California championship for winged sprint cars, and his opportunities started to open. Now, a decade later and in the final season of his current contract as the driver of Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42, Larson figures to be the most coveted free agent in the NASCAR Cup Series.
It’s a position that’s enviable — who doesn’t like to be in demand? — but that also can ladle on new pressure in the form of expectations and significant, career-defining decisions. But Larson isn’t concerned after his first-ever Round of 8 postseason appearance.
“I think just me being young and naive, I don’t look to the future really ever,” Larson said at Homestead-Miami Speedway last fall. “I haven’t even thought about what I will do — if I’ll stay or go or what. I’m happy with the way things are going [with Ganassi]. This team’s improved a bunch from where it was when I first signed on in 2014. We’re close to winning a championship, and we had a great season [last] year.”
The future for Larson is wide open, but he does have an obvious requirement: the ability to race at dirt tracks across the country. “I think teams understand that is what I love,” Larson says.
Last season was Larson’s first with a new teammate at Ganassi after Kurt Busch replaced a retiring Jamie McMurray. Larson says that Busch, the 2004 Cup champion, made an immediate impact.
“He’s got high standards, and he’s really smart,” Larson says. “He’s a really, really good driver. I’ve been able to just sit back and listen to him and how he communicates.”
That observation had led Larson to change his driving habits. He says his typical style has always been to take the car and setup given to him and try to make it faster on his own — a fact plainly visible in Larson’s early-career reputation for changing lines and running a track’s high groove more frequently than other drivers. It’s a style that has a direct connection to Larson’s background in open-wheel dirt cars, because adaptation to car handling and track conditions can often make a much bigger difference in the final results in that form of racing. But Busch prefers a contrary process that makes the car’s design and setup the variable that adjusts to his constant driving style, and Larson has noticed.
“I’ve been really trying to be more patient with the changes [my team is] making and not just bail on them by trying to take control of it myself behind the wheel,” Larson says. “I think that’s helped us, and it’s been something that I’ve learned — to just try and communicate better with the team what I’m feeling.”
But that doesn’t mean Larson will be joining Busch’s pursuit of technical tinkering. Ask him what he expects from a new rules package or body style — such as the renovated Camaro body that Chevrolet teams will debut this season — and he often defers to his team for the fine-grain details. But Larson will get detailed when pointing out what went wrong last season as a lesson for what to change this year.
“We had decent speed early on, but a mixture of bad luck and then mistakes on my part or the team’s part put ourselves in a hole,” Larson says.
Larson notes “messy” things like flat tires from wall contact and crashes in practice that necessitated backup cars put the team behind early. He failed to finish six of the 26 regular-season races last year due to crashes. “I think we’ve got to have a better regular season,” Larson says. “I feel like if I just had more playoff points to start the playoffs, we would have had a much better shot at making the [Championship 4].”
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2020 Cup Championship: 10/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)