NASCAR: Is it finally time for Larson's breakout win?

Since Kyle Larson’s arrival in the Sprint Cup Series, it’s never been a matter of whether he'll win a race at NASCAR’s top level.

NASCAR: Is it finally time for Larson's breakout win?
Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Juan Pablo Montoya, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Juan Pablo Montoya, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevrolet heads back to the garage
Juan Pablo Montoya, Team Penske Chevrolet
Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Matt Kenseth, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet pit action
Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet

It’s only been a matter of when.

In 2013, Larson made his Cup debut in the fall race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He completed four races for HScott Racing prior to running full-time for Chip Ganassi in 2014. With high praise from both Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, Larson’s stock was high. But after 83 starts with Ganassi, Larson’s best result is second — four times.

Lately, we have been bringing really good stuff to the track. It’s been really cool just to see how hard work has been paying off and how we have been close

Kyle Larson

After a slow start to this season, things appear to be turning around for the driver of the No. 42 Target Chevy. Larson’s most recent runner-up finish came at Dover two weeks ago. Last Saturday the 23-year-old Elk Grove, Cal. native won a heated battle against rookie Chase Elliott in the final segment of the Sprint Showdown to transfer into the All-Star race.

Building momentum towards that first win

Larson acknowledged the improved performance has been a momentum builder.

“I guess you can be a little bit frustrated that we haven’t won the last few weeks of being close; but four weeks ago we couldn’t even run in the top 20 really, unless we got lucky; and never even thought about winning a race this year,” Larson said. “And now, the last few weeks, we’ve come up just a little bit short; or, at least myself been frustrated, but we’ve come a long way in a really short time. So, that’s something to be proud of with our team.

“With that comes a lot of momentum; so hopefully we can keep that momentum going. (It's a) short time I’ve spent in this sport of NASCAR, but I’ve raced for a long time, and I know that having that momentum and confidence is such a big part of running up front every week. We’re starting to get that momentum and confidence back in our race team, and it’s showing, also, on the race track. So we’ve just got to keep working hard and making the right calls at the shop and at the race track, and hopefully we can stay on top of it.”

One call that paid off for Larson was the addition of crew chief Chad Johnston, who replaced Chris Heroy at the end of last season. Heroy was the eventual successor for Brian Pattie on the No. 42 Chevy. He was hired as Juan Pablo Montoya’s crew chief for the 2012 season. While the driver and crew chief got on famously, the results weren’t there.

Montoya can relate to Larson

After returning to the IndyCar Series with Team Penske, Montoya understands the challenges Larson faces at Ganassi Racing. While the NASCAR programs are similar on the outside — with two-car teams that build chassis and bodies in-house but lease engines — the philosophy of the race shops differs greatly.

“Both (owners) are very successful,” Montoya said. “It’s just their approach of how to get the most out of people are completely opposite…They’re just different. The Ganassi organization is just different. There are just two ways of doing things.”

Montoya parted ways with Ganassi at the end of 2013 — four years after qualifying for his one and only Chase berth--and at that time the company’s only playoff appearance since the NASCAR introduced the format in 2004. Jamie McMurray earned a Chase spot last year after the field was expanded to 16.

Montoya felt his equipment was “a fair bit” off compared to the competition during his seven-year stint at Ganassi Racing. He added two wins to Ganassi’s 11 career Cup victories during his tenure.

Although Montoya experienced his own challenges in the No. 42 car, the former Formula One racer doesn’t believe Ganassi Racing is keeping Larson from achieving his potential.

“Ganassi gave him the opportunity to be there — to be in Cup, do you know what I mean? It’s all relative,” Montoya said. “He had a choice, didn’t he? He chose to be there. They have a great sponsor. They work hard.

"No continuity" at Ganassi

“In my opinion, they keep changing people. Every time they have someone that’s really smart, they get rid of them…When I started at Ganassi, I knew they were behind. You ask Chip, he knew they were behind, but they built on it. I made the Chase and after I made the Chase he fired Brian and if you ask my opinion, he’s the key why we made the Chase. They keep firing people and changing people and there’s no continuity.”

Ganassi released technical director John Probst earlier this year. Currently the teams are led by committee. But considering the No. 42 team was revamped at the end of last season, Johnston is just starting to make his mark with the team.

Larson isn’t sure what changes have been made to his cars this season. He’s just pleased to see the progress.

“I know they have talked about getting the bodies a lot better,” Larson said. “I think Chad has gotten to put a little bit more of his own input into how he wants the bodies and stuff like that built. I think when somebody new comes in it takes them a few months to build the confidence to make the calls like that. To put their 100 percent input into it.

“Lately, probably the last five weeks or six weeks or so he has gotten to do more steps of what he has done in the past or whatever and it’s showing up at the race track now. You can see in Chad as well he has got a lot more confidence at the track, in the shop, on the radio and everything. Not, that he didn’t have any before, he is quiet, but the last few weeks he is not. It’s been fun to see.”

Still, a victory could go a long way to turning the No. 42 team around and perhaps establishing Larson as a weekly contender. On Sunday, he will start 24th for the Coca-Cola 600. Larson admits that earning his first win would mean a lot — but particularly at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“Friends and family and all sorts of people are here,” Larson said. “All the teams’ families are here, it just means a lot when you can win in your hometown or for the race shop and all that. We have been rolling good the last few weeks. Hopefully, we can keep the momentum going. Our car has been getting a lot faster. Everybody at the shop has been working really hard all year long.

"We started the year off not great, but everybody stayed positive and kept digging. Lately, we have been bringing really good stuff to the track. It’s been really cool just to see how hard work has been paying off and how we have been close. It would be nice. It will be tough though, the 600 is a really tough race. A lot of the times I’ve seen drivers in the past that run well in the All-Star race don’t run well at the 600. Hopefully, that is not the case this week, but we are going to work really hard to try and have a good run. Hopefully, it all works out.”

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