NASCAR: Kyle Larson Looks to 2016 Breakout Year

2015 wasn't the year Larson had hoped for, but 2016 is right around the corner.
2015 wasn’t the year Larson had hoped for, but 2016 is right around the corner.

Celebrated as the 2014 NASCAR Sunoco Rookie of the Year and poster child for NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, Kyle Larson was expected to be the sports next protégé, with many expecting him to capture his first NASCAR Cup win during his 2015 sophomore season.

So lofty were the 2015 expectations for Larson as driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet SS that Felix Sabates, co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing (CGR), “guaranteed” that both of his team’s two drivers would make the Chase in 2015.

“I’ve never guaranteed anybody anything in all the years I’ve been in racing, but I guarantee both of these guys will be in the Chase,” Sabates declared.

Well, only one driver did, and so the hammer fell at the #42 team with a crew chief change, as Chris Heroy departed CGR for a crew chief job at Richard Petty Motorsports with the newly reconstituted #9 Ford ride with driver Brian Scott.

Instead, the crew chief gambit of musical chairs during the NASCAR off season continued with Chad Johnston, formerly Tony Stewart’s crew chief, being named as the new CGR crew chief for Larson and the #42 Target team.

Felix Sabates, a long time fixture on the NASCAR scene, has high hopes for Larson.
Felix Sabates, a long time fixture on the NASCAR scene, has high hopes for Larson.

The tale of the tape was evident in comparing Larson on-track performance between 2014 and 2015:

  • In 2014, Larson had eight top 5’s and seventeen top 10’s, displaying remarkable prowess and improvement over the season
  • In 2015, Larson was a picture of inconsistency with only two top 5’s and ten top 10’s. Moreover, what really stands out in 2015 is the differential between qualifying (a season average starting position of 13th), compared to a disappointing average finish of 19th. No doubt that the Target Ganassi Racing team failed to improve the car during the course of the race
  • More revealing, for the 35 races that Larson competed in during 2015, he finished shabbier on 23 of those tracks as compared to 2014. That is a stunner, given that Larson was returning to these tracks for a second or third time after his rookie year

Reflects Larson, “As much as I’m going to miss (Heroy), I support it. You have to make some kind of change, I guess, if you haven’t won…I think a change has to come.”

Whether owing to not keeping up with the track or executing poorly on pit stops, the crew chief ends up being held accountable for such weak results. And a well-known sponsor like Target is looking for a sizeable marketing payoff on their partnership with Larson, in which they often double down sponsorship on combo weekends when Larson races in both the XFINITY Series and Cup events.

Larson is undoubtedly an exceptional talent, and Johnston is eager to get to work with him and build a foundation of success. Often, Larson seems to be the initial driver to hit upon the high line and showcase the fastest way around the track during race weekend. However, running nearest to the wall is also the easiest way to put the car into the fence on one’s own. As head coach, ideally Johnston can find the right balance by ensuring that Larson takes care of his equipment over the course of the race and not make novice slipups that seemed more evident during 2015.

Nonetheless, the NASCAR Cup Series is a highly pressurized environment where crew chiefs must cope with the persistent mindset of “What have you done for me lately?

For 2016, it’s the right time for Larson to deliver on the grand expectations of both fans and his sponsors. Larson already has three career wins in the XFINITY Series. During the last laps of the 2015 Homestead-Miami Sprint Cup finale, Larson was in contention for the win until a late race caution relegated him to a 5th place finish. For 2016, snatching his first Sprint Cup victory would be an enormous confidence shot in the arm for both Larson and Johnston.

By Ron Bottano. Let’s connect on Twitter @rbottano

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