If Kyle Larson is going to contend for the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series championship, then crew chief Chad Johnston knows what his Chip Ganassi Racing team must do.
Although satisfied with how the cars have been performing, Johnston admits Larson’s finishes have not correlated. Johnston said ahead of this weekend’s race – where the team looks for its fourth-straight Michigan win – they have often finished worse than the car was capable.
“Years prior or last year we did a better job increasing our finishing position. If we had a fifth-place car, we finished third with it,” said Johnston. “Last week (at Pocono) we had a fifth-place car, and finished second with it. But majority of the year I felt like we’ve had fourth-, fifth-place cars and ended up seventh for one reason or another.
“I think we’ve got to clean that up as a team to be on par with those guys to be able to compete with them. Because bottom line is, you don’t have to win a race to get to Homestead to win the championship. So if we can get consistent and get the most out of our cars on most weekends, two spots better than the car should be, I think we’ll be in a good position.”
The “those guys” Johnston references are Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and even defending champion Martin Truex Jr. Larson chased Truex across the finish line last weekend as the No. 78 won its second race of the year. Busch and Harvick have combined to win nine of the season’s 14 races.
Early predictions have Busch, Harvick and Truex looking good for spots in the championship race. Asked about the progression of his team, Larson said he feels he’s been “a step behind” the other three.
“I definitely felt like the 4 [Harvick] had the most power down the straightaway [at Pocono], the little bit I was in front of him there at the end,” Larson said. “I felt like even when I get a good exit off [Turn] 3 he would close on me a lot compared to the 18 [Busch] and the 78 [Truex]. But the 4 was definitely really fast. We’ve just got to continue to work hard and try to get our cars a little bit better.”
Johnston will worry about that part of the equation.
“When he shows up, he shows up to drive and that’s what he does. He’s not involved in any of the setup stuff or any of the details,” said Johnston. “If he’s worried about setup or aero balance or seatbelts, whatever it may be, he’s not 100 percent focused on what he needs to do.
“It’s our job to take care of all that other stuff so he can focus on what he needs to do, and it’s our job to show up and make sure we’ve got something that he can get in and be comfortable and be safe and be competitive.”
Larson has been the most competitive Chevrolet driver, which Johnston attributes to the team doing what it knows even as it works with the new Camaro body.
“You could go and put in all the downforce you can all at one time and not keep it balanced, but we’ve worked pretty hard to keep it balanced to where they drive pretty similar, and we could use the setups that we had success with in the past,” said Johnston. “We’ve taken a little bit different approach and that’s how we came into the year, trying to keep it balanced and keep it to what we were comfortable with and what we knew Kyle was comfortable with.
“Seems like other guys have fought the balance more than we have … He [Larson] is pretty adaptable to just about anything he gets in, so that plays in our favor, but we’ve worked hard to keep the balance aerodynamically pretty similar from last year to this year.”