NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Beyond the Cockpit: Kyle Larson Smarter Now Than in Rookie Season

Appropriately driving the No. 42 Target Chevrolet, Kyle Larson has been the target of conversation in the Sprint Cup Series since 2014.

At that time, Larson was hot off his first and only full-time XFINITY Series season in 2013, before making the jump to the Cup ranks, where he replaced Juan Pablo Montoya, who moved to the Verizon IndyCar Series. Many called the move for Larson far too premature, saying he’d struggle to find the right combination toward speed while having to fight off the the weekly roughhouse of hype and buildup.

It didn’t take long before that all popped. Larson was inching toward that first win, very similar to what Chase Elliott is putting on in 2016, and gained the respect of the garage through numerous near-win performances. Though 2015 proved to be a sophomore slump for Larson, the now-23-year-old has blossomed into the 2016 aero package as of late, ripping off 94 laps led to complement two top-3 finishes in the last four races.

Frontstretch sat down with Kyle Larson at Pocono Raceway to talk about his gains on the racetrack, his relationship both inside and outside of Chip Ganassi Racing and what that first Cup Series win might feel like.

Zach Catanzareti, Frontstretch.com: Let’s start with the track here in Pocono. You won the XFINITY race Saturday. This track seems to have suited you over the years.

Kyle Larson: It’s a different racetrack. There’s nothing else on the schedule like it. I think that’s a reason why it may suit me. It takes a lot of rhythm, technique through different corners. I really like it. It’s not your typical track where you seem to run up front right around the top. This place you run around the bottom. It’s difficult so I enjoy it.

Catanzareti: Is the XFINITY Series still a confidence booster for you or just more on-track time?

Larson: It definitely helps with confidence with mostly on-track stuff. I can always learn a little bit from the race that will help for Sunday. That’s the biggest takeaway from it. But if you run good, the confidence is another booster as well.

Catanzareti: The aero package, if you were to give it a grade of 1 to 10, what would you give it?

Larson: I don’t like loose racecars. The racing has been better so I’d maybe give it a 7.5 out of 10. There is always room for improvement but the racing has definitely been way better this year than any year I’ve been in this. You’ve seen lots of close finishes and cars run up front together, being able to pass for the lead.

2016 Las Vegas CUP Kyle Larson racing Matthew T Thacker NKP
Larson sits 21st in points with 11 races to go before the Chase. [Photo: Matthew T Thacker NKP]
Catanzareti: What do you think about the Michigan aero changes?

Larson: They’ve taken more downforce off yet. Last year, you could see with the high drag that NASCAR came out with, that was definitely a 1 out of 10 on a scale of good racing. I don’t think it’ll be any worse than what we have right now and hopefully it’ll be better and we can go even further than that to make racing better.

Catanzareti: Explain the recent gains on the track. The month of May was a good month for you. Do you see any changes in the team tat have sparked that sudden fix on the track?

Larson: Yeah, you’re right, the last six weeks have been pretty good for us. We’ve had lots of speed and we have just been putting all our brains together to come up with smarter ideas of how to get more downforce and stuff like that.

I think we’ve really made really big gains on the bodies of the racecar. Chad [Johnston, crew chief] and I have now gotten to work together for a third of the season so we’re gelling a bit better. It’s been paying off.

Catanzareti: You just mentioned crew chief Chad Johnston. How have you guys been getting along?

Larson: I really enjoy working with Chad. He’s really smart. He’s an engineer, but he’s also smart enough to know the racing mechanics behind it. I like him a lot, (he) thinks outside the box.

Catanzareti: How about Rob Kauffman being a part of the team? Have you seen him bringing new things to the team or has it not been a big difference so far?

Larson: It hasn’t been too big a difference, at least from where I sit. I’m sure on the business end of things it’s been a lot different. I like Rob a lot, he understands racing very well, he’s a huge car guy. He’s a good guy to have around.

Catanzareti: Your comradery in the garage area seems to be healthy, having friendships with drivers. How has the Sprint Cup Series suited you since you joined two years ago?

Photo: Zach Catanzareti
Now having a child, Larson has gelled well with other drivers in the sport. [Photo: Zach Catanzareti]
Larson: As I’ve been here longer, it’s easier to walk up to people and talk to them about random stuff. Having a son, a lot of the drivers have kids now and that gives you something to talk about.

It’s fun. Ricky [Stenhouse, Jr.] and Danica [Patrick], we get along very well. We hang out with them at the racetrack pretty much every week in the motorhome lot and then at home during the week sometimes. They’re a good group of people to hang out with.

Catanzareti: Your teammate Jamie McMurray, are you at that point where you can understand each other and what you need in the racecar? 

Larson: Oh yeah. Jamie and I, we’ve worked very well together since I started in Cup. I think we have similar driving styles, a little bit different, but we can both feel the same things in the racecar. We each explain it a little bit differently to help get to the fix of it quicker.

With our team, there is no real ego. We are always trying to help each other and I think that’s the greatest thing you can have as teammates.

Catanzareti: How is dirt racing for you right now? I bet every time you get noticed a lot more. How is that experience different than just a few years ago?

Larson: When I was racing sprint cars every week, and then 2013 when I started XFINITY racing, I was probably taking more pictures and signing more autographs at the track then I do when I go back now.

I think people get used to seeing you on TV. At the beginning, it’s really exciting. But now, I go back to race just a handful of times a year, it’s not as crazy. You still take a lot of pictures and sign autographs and that stuff, but I think people have gotten that pictures and autographs so they don’t need them anymore.

(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)
Larson is one of the all-around racers in the Cup Series today. [Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP]
Catanzareti: Go back to one point of you career at Chicagoland of 2014. You, Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick with an incredible battle that impressed a lot of people at the time. What did that do to your career at that point in your rookie season?

Larson: I don’t know what it did for my career, but it was just a lot of fun racing those veterans that day. We probably would have won if that caution didn’t come out late. It was a good time racing those guys, I know Jeff had a good time and Keselowski sneaked by all of us to get the win.

Any time you can battle people who have been doing this forever and beat them, or almost beat them, it shows that you are capable of racing up front every week.

Catanzareti: Compare that to the All-Star Race this year. How has the mentality changed for you? Have you learned more stuff toward battling for the lead?

Larson: I definitely learn something new every time I’m out there. I’m probably a little more calculated and less aggressive – I’m still aggressive, but in a smarter way. It’s hard to say, you change every year and every week as a driver.

Catanzareti: This may be a silly question but would you have rather gotten your first win out of the way early, say Auto Club 2014, or would you rather have gone through these tough losses toward really appreciating when you do get it?

Larson: [Laughs] I’d love to have gotten the win a long time ago. Coming up short and close so many times, it’s just going to make that first win, whenever it does happen, that much more special. I would’ve loved to have won a Cup race in 2014, came close a few times. But it’ll feel great and it’ll be a big relief off our shoulders when we do finally get that win.

Catanzareti: Where do you see yourself in your career right now? Are you a veteran, who has been through those tough times, or are you still a young driver still learning in this series?

Larson: I definitely think I’m a young driver. I’m only 23 years old, so I’m nowhere near a veteran. I don’t think you can be considered a veteran until you’re winning consistently or running up front every week. We still have some work to do to do that but we’ve gotten better.

In the three years I’ve been in the Cup Series, I’ve definitely gotten way smarter, a lot better at racing. I don’t think I make rookie mistakes anymore but I still have a lot of room to improve on my end.

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