Kyle Larson‘s 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season had its share of new happenings off the track and near-misses on it. The theme of his year could be summed up as “inconsistency.”
Target left Chip Ganassi Racing following the 2017 season, so for the inaugural campaign, the No. 42 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 was decked out in the various blues and cool shades of Credit One Bank, DC Solar and First Data.
Not really a great plate racer, Larson, 26, from Elk Grove, Calif., finished 19th in the Daytona 500 (won by fellow Chevy driver Austin Dillon), and then picked up his first top-10 of the season the next week at Atlanta Motor Speedway with a ninth-place run.
He finished third in the first race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway as the Western Swing got underway, finishing 18th at ISM Raceway in Phoenix before heading to one of his most dominant tracks, Auto Club Speedway in California. Despite an early crash with fellow favorite Kevin Harvick, Larson wheeled his Camaro into a runner-up finish.
Subpar finishes returned in a snow-delayed Martinsville race (16th) and the crashfest that was the spring event at Texas Motor Speedway (36th).
The short tracks of Bristol and Richmond yielded top-10s with another second at Bristol Motor Speedway and a seventh at Richmond Raceway. A last-place finish at Talladega then occurred before Larson reeled off four straight top-10s at Dover, Kansas, Charlotte and Pocono (10th, fourth, seventh, and second, respectively).
In addition to that hot streak, Larson also welcomed his daughter Audrey into the world in May, making Owen a very proud big brother after Audrey arrived a few weeks early.
What an exciting night/morning! Baby came a few weeks early but glad I was able to be in town for it all. Katelyn did amazing and we are excited to welcome a baby girl, Audrey Layne Larson! Owen got to hang out with his new little sister this morning and loves her a bunch. pic.twitter.com/XPlADoIN5A
— Kyle Larson (@KyleLarsonRacin) May 7, 2018
On the negative side, the No. 42 was penalized 20 points following Kansas for a rear-window violation.
Larson’s playground of Michigan resulted in a 28th place finish after rain cut the race short, but he rebounded with a pole at Sonoma Raceway, though the No. 42 finished 14th at the northern California road course.
Larson battled with Kyle Busch at Chicagoland Speedway, the two making contact several times before Busch emerged victorious as Dale Earnhardt Jr excitedly hollered his now-famous “Slide job!” call.
After getting caught up in a crash during the July race at Daytona, resulting in a 29th-place finish, Larson rebounded somewhat at Kentucky Speedway with a ninth-place run.
A 12th-place run came out of a strange race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, followed by a lackluster performance in the second Pocono race (started 32nd after flunking prerace inspection, finished 23rd).
Up until this point, Larson was by far the best Chevrolet driver in what had been a terrible debut year for the Cup Camaro, routinely running the top 10, often within the top five. But Watkins Glen was where that started to change. Though he qualified fifth and finished sixth, Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott dominated and picked up his first MENCS victory.
The return trip to Michigan didn’t go much better than the first, as he finished exactly where he started in 17th.
The regular season went well, starting on the pole in the fall Bristol race and finishing second there before starting second and finishing third at Darlington Raceway in the Southern 500, where he crushed the field but couldn’t get his car working on short runs. Larson started the Brickyard 400 in seventh but finished 14th at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The playoffs opened well, with a runner-up finish in the first ever fall race at Las Vegas, and the second trip to Richmond netted another seventh-place result. In the first race at the Charlotte ROVAL, Larson was caught up in the lead pack crash late, but his battered car was able to limp around the track on three wheels, which was just enough to slip past a spinning Jeffrey Earnhardt for 25th, putting him into a three-way tie in the standings with Aric Almirola and Jimmie Johnson, advancing him into the second round.
Larson also married his longtime girlfriend Katelyn Sweet before the ROVAL race.
Congrats to the newly wedded Mr. and Mrs. Larson!
— Chip Ganassi Racing (@CGRTeams) September 26, 2018
The round of 12 was pretty tame, with a 12th at Dover, a lucky 11th at Talladega after battling tire failures (and receiving a 10-point penalty) and a third-place run at Kansas, which resulted in being knocked out of the playoffs.
The fall race at Martinsville saw Larson exit early with a blown engine, finishing 37th in a 40-car field. The fall Texas race saw an improvement to fifth, which he bettered at first race on the newly-reconfigured ISM track, running third.
Homestead-Miami Speedway, where he traditionally runs really well, didn’t see the expected results pay out this year as he started 11th and finished 13th. Larson finished ninth in the standings.
Overall, Larson had three poles, five stage wins, 12 top fives and 19 top 10s this season, his fifth full-time in the MENCS. Running six XFINITY Series races, he picked up a pole and four wins at Las Vegas, Chicagoland, Daytona and Bristol. The other two races likely would have resulted in runs near the front, too, but for a crash and an engine failure. Ross Chastain and John Hunter Nemechek also won in the No. 42 CGR NXS Camaro this season.
Veteran (and 2004 champ) Kurt Busch will become Larson’s teammate in 2019 after moving from Stewart-Haas Racing, taking over the No. 1 from McMurray, who will probably run the Daytona 500 in a third CGR car before retiring to a management role within the organization.
According to Larson’s social media, the offseason so far has been filled with family trips to the golf course, ski lodge and the CMA Awards, along with dirt racing in sprint cars. Larson will compete in the the Super Bowl of midget racing, the Chili Bowl, in Tulsa, Okla. in January before the 2019 MENCS season kicks off.
2018 season stats: Three poles, five stage wins, 12 top fives, 19 top 10s,
Best finish: Second (California, Bristol spring, Pocono I, Chicagoland, Bristol fall, Las Vegas fall)
Points standing: Ninth
Season grade: A-