By Seth Livingstone, NASCAR Wire Service
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Kyle Larson knows that his career is on the clock.
At 23 years young, the driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates isn’t outwardly expressing complete urgency to win his next race. But that pressure to not only win, but make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup is building.
“There were really no expectations when I first got into Cup,” said Larson, speaking at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour presented by Technocom. “Then, by the end of the (first full) season, everybody is just waiting for me to win.
“I want to be in the Cup Series for a long time. I feel like if you don’t win in the first few years, you’re not the real deal and you’re not going to be here for very long. So this is definitely a year I feel like we need to get a win and show that I’m capable of being a Cup racer for a long time.”
A three-time winner in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, Larson is winless in his first 75 Cup starts. With 10 top-five finishes (eight in his 2014 Sunoco Rookie of the Year season), he has come close – notably at the 2015 season finale at Homestead where a late caution flag thwarted his run and relegated him to a fifth-place finish.
“I’m definitely not happy that I haven’t won a race yet, but we have been close a handful of times which is nice,” Larson said. “It’s not like we’re running outside the top 10 or 15 all the time. We’ve contended for wins.”
To hopefully get him over the hump, Ganassi recruited Tony Stewart’s former crew chief Chad Johnston, who along with Jamie McMurray and his crew chief Matt McCall are making it a priority to improve on mile-and-a-half tracks.
“We just were inconsistent last year,” Larson said. “We had top-10 or top-12 speed most weekends. But whatever was the case, the last quarter of a race we would fall apart. Either it (was me) or decision making on the box or the pit crew – we would fall apart. Hopefully, we’ve all learned from that.”
As his clock ticks, one thing Larson refuses to use as an excuse is his personal life, including the birth of his son Owen in December 2014. He says having Katelyn and Owen at the track for the majority of races had no effect on performance.
“Personally, I don’t think that stuff affects anybody,” Larson said. “I still know what my job is in the race car, so even if you’re up at 3:30 in the morning and back asleep at 4:15, I don’t think it affects you on race day. It makes (life at) the race track more fun, for sure. You know you have something to do when you get back to the motorhome. But as for the focus and keeping my eye on the prize, I don’t think my personal life came into it at all.”
McMurray made the Chase, finishing 13th in series points last season, but the 2010 winner of the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 hasn’t been to Victory Lane since Talladega in 2013. His 76-race winless streak in points races in one race longer than Larson’s.
“Our biggest improvement needs to be at mile-and-a-half tracks,” McMurray said. “If you can be good at those, you can get by and get away with (your performance) at short tracks and road courses. In 2014, I thought mile-and-a-halves were our strongest tracks, so that’s been our primary focus.”
McMurray and Larson will race at Daytona prior to the majority of their Cup rivals – albeit on the road course. They’ll team with Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan, seeking to defend Ganassi’s title in the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. Their car, the Ford No. 02 EcoBoost Prototype, is a very different kind of animal.
“I’ve driven a lot of race cars and that’s the most different and difficult one,” Larson said. “ It takes three or four laps until you have (tire) grip. There are hand controls, knobs — there’s 30 switches over here (to my right) that you have to memorize. It’s just a complicated race car, but pretty fun to drive once you have the hang of it.”
McMurray says the 02 car could have its hands full trying to repeat its title, in part because of rules changes to balance power.
“They took some power away from the style engine we run and I think they gave some power to some different types of cars,” said McMurray, who tested at Daytona two weeks ago. “Our speed was fairly close to what we ran last year, but some of the other cars seem quite a bit quicker.”
Image: Bob Leverone/NASCAR via Getty Images