Kyle Larson can finally breathe easily. He is a winner in NASCAR’s top-tier division.
The No. 42 car finally came home first with Larson behind the wheel, something that was expected in 2014, when he was a rookie competing for top 5s week-in and week-out.
No longer is he coming close without sealing the deal. Instead, the 24-year-old managed to get rid of the egg in his win column with a victory at Michigan International Speedway in a fierce battle against rookie Chase Elliott.
Larson’s victory is still one that means a lot for the future of the former Drive for Diversity participant. The triumph was the first for Chip Ganassi Racing since Jamie McMurray won at Talladega Superspeedway in the fall of 2013.
Not only did Larson end the team’s dry spell, but the momentum he carried from his victory until the end of the season was priceless. Following the Michigan win, he finished third at Darlington Speedway, followed by a runner-up finish Richmond International Speedway to conclude the regular season.
The sudden change in Larson’s capability on the racetrack came at the perfect time, giving him the confidence he was missing to be a serious contender in the Chase. As the playoffs approached, he was looked at as a possible candidate for the most improved driver of 2016 after the 2015 featured only two top 5s and 10 top 10s, a decline from his rookie year.
But when the Chase came, things didn’t go the way Larson had hoped, even when he was consistently one of the fastest cars in practice.
Larson started the Chase with an 18th-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway, followed by a top 10 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. After that top 10, he sat on the border of the Chase cutoff, holding the final spot to advance into the Round of 12.
However, Dover International Speedway had other plans for the No. 42 team. Larson entered the day five points ahead of teammate McMurray and Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon for the final spot in the Round of 12. But the advantage was not enough.
Larson had one of his worst races of the year during a time when he needed to be clutch. He needed a solid finish, but failed to earn it. He ended the day in 25th, six laps down. The result destroyed his hopes at competing for a title, with Dillon surpassing him in the standings by the end of the 400-lap race.
Though Larson was booted from the playoffs early into his first opportunity to showcase his abilities under the pressure-filled situation, it did not stop him from performing well throughout the remaining seven contests.
Larson went on to have three top 5s in the final seven races, including a dominating effort in the season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. His No. 42 car took advantage of the track’s high groove, scraping the wall dozens of times on the afternoon. But the damage did not stop him as he charged to the front of the field.
He led a career-high 132 laps on the day, coming close but not close enough to Victory Lane once again. If it weren’t for a late-race restart, he would have likely held on for his second triumph of the year. But eventual Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson got by Larson for the top position, driving on to win championship No. 7.
And things will be different for this team come 2017.
Target is decreasing its sponsorship of the No. 42 car by approximately five to 10 races, according to a recent report from the Sports Business Journal. The move could be one that opens up possible partners as the team prepares to possibly lose Target, which pulled its support of CGR’s IndyCar Series team for 2017.
As Larson looks forward to his fourth season with Chip Ganassi Racing, the key to success will be consistency. It was something that the Nos. 1 and 42 teams have lacked in the past, and would have prevented Larson from making the Chase had it not been for his Michigan win.
Larson’s average finish was 14.7 in 2016, an improvement of more than four spots from 2015, but a decrease by .5 from 2014. While he had a career-high 10 top 5s, avoiding the mid-pack runs is what this team needs to do in 2017 if they want to be true title contenders.
Not only will it be a big year for Larson in terms of getting CGR to the Chase once again, but it is a contract year for the increasingly popular rising star. With a contract expiring at the end of 2017, he will certainly be looking at the market to see what other opportunities are out there.
Time and time again, Larson has been rumored to be going to Hendrick Motorsports. However, unless Dale Earnhardt, Jr. retires unexpectedly or the team agrees to buy out Kasey Kahne’s contract a year early (signed through 2018), a one-year extension with CGR could be the ideal scenario for him.