By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
It was a tale of two stories for Chip Ganassi Racing drivers Kyle Larson and Kurt Busch in Sunday’s FanShield 500 at Phoenix Raceway. However, their outcomes were encouraging as the duo finished fourth and sixth respectively.
Larson had one of the strongest Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LEs throughout the race-extended 316 lap event (leading two laps), but the bid of getting his primary sponsor McDonald’s first points-paying NASCAR Cup Series win since July 1994 would have to wait yet another day.
This was because Larson’s attempt of a dive to the bottom for the race lead didn’t worked out to his liking after Kyle Busch went very low as well which kept him from competing with race winner Joey Logano and nine-time Phoenix winner Kevin Harvick.
Despite Larson getting his first top-five of the year, he felt had his competitors ahead of him bottled up, things would’ve been different.
“I was just hoping that I could do something and maybe they’d mess up. The 18 went really low and I was just trying to run the bottom, and didn’t make up much ground,” Larson said. “If they were to get bottled up at the top, I would have enough momentum I could drive in front of them. But it didn’t work out that way, obviously. We still got a top-five, so it was a nice day for us. We fought back from a really bad car from the first run and tuned on it to come away with a top-five, so that was good.”
With Larson’s strong effort, he gained two spots in the regular season standings and will head into the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway March 15 seventh in points.
While Larson’s day can be best described as a pretty competitive one, Kurt’s afternoon was quiet yet had his ups and downs. Through it all, perseverance prevailed and he ended up crossing the line in sixth which marked his 300th career top-10 result.
Kurt said the final stretch of the race was where he felt his No. 1 Gear Wrench Chevrolet ran its best and with his teammate getting a top-five result, it was a much better outcome than he expected due to his car struggles in “The Desert.”
“I feel like we battled the best that we could have. We didn’t have much for any kind of spectacular stat, other than perseverance. We didn’t have good short run speed or long run speed,” Kurt said. “Sixth is better than we ran all day, so we’ll take that with our Gear Wrench Chevy. We really have to look hard at what we believe led to all of this. But at one point we were running 17th without a scratch on the car.”
“With Larson fourth and us sixth, that’s better than what we ran all day. I feel like we struggled quite a bit, so we’ll take that. Any time you can finish better than where you run, you have to cash those points. We survived all those last restarts, we just weren’t on offense. We just couldn’t attack. I was just kind of slip-sliding around a bit too much today.”
Kurt’s second straight top-10 now puts him from 30th in points prior to last Sunday’s race at Fontana to now 16th heading into Atlanta.
Compared to the very underwhelming Phoenix race last November, both drivers were content about the low downforce package NASCAR implemented at the site of the championship race November 8 and other upcoming short tracks.
“You just still have to find that right balance and I think we, at Ganassi, had some things that weren’t quite set right for anything,” Kurt on the package which he felt there’s room for improvement after struggling to find speed consistency.
“I didn’t have short run speed, I didn’t have long run speed, but we finished sixth. So, I can’t complain. We have to put that in the bank, learn from it and then head to the short tracks later on at Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond coming up.”
“Yeah, I thought it was better racing than we had last year,” Larson’s take on the package. “Maybe they can work on it some more and get the racing even a little better, and have a great championship race to end our season.”
Now with solid momentum on the two-car stable’s side, Larson understands how important having both Ganassi cars finishing in the top-10 for the first time this year is after feeling a better about his No. 42 Chevrolet.
“It was good. The first handful of laps, I thought we weren’t as bad as I thought we would be,” Larson said. “I just continued to get tight. I was thankful the cautions came out to allow us to work on it. We got it closer, but it still wasn’t where we needed to be. But we were close enough that we could race.”
Kurt said that having good reads will continue being key if he and Larson are going to reach that next step which is frequently competing for race wins after they won a combined two races last season.
“Chip (Ganassi) has two really good drivers getting everything out of those two cars that we can. It’s fun,” Kurt said. “Larson and I have a really good read on each other on-track and we just have to get a better read communicated to the engineer staff to help our handling.”
Larson will enter Atlanta 33 points above of the playoff cutoff, hoping to capture that elusive win at the extremely worn out 1.5-mile surface.
Kurt is just two markers ahead of 17th points man Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who had a rough afternoon due to being involved in two incidents, for the final playoff spot. He’ll be looking for his fourth win at Atlanta which would be his first since 2010.