If there were a Kyle Larson bingo card this season, many of the boxes would already be inked.
Pre-race inspection failure. Crashing in practice. Having to run a backup car. Leading the most laps in a race and not winning. A runner-up effort. A last-place finish. DNFs. Chad Johnston questioned as crew chief of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing team. Making costly mistakes.
Come up with any event that could occur during a race weekend and Larson has likely experienced it this year. Like moths to a flame, issues have been drawn to his team. That, or a black cloud of bad luck has taken residence over the Ganassi driver.
“It is hard to not think about it or expect something to happen,” Larson said recently. “You just go out there and do the best you can, and if something happens, oh well, I guess. Try again next time.”
It’s been impressive how quickly Larson has been able to shrug off the bad days. This the same driver who has admitted he needed to “stop being stupid” after crashing in practice on two consecutive weekends. At Pocono, Larson backed away from his usual aggressive approach to ensure he’d see the checkered flag.
He spent a few weeks in the spring hearing pundits criticize Johnston by arguing that Larson needs a better leader to guide his team. Naturally, he defended his crew chief and reinforced how integral he’s been to Larson’s success the last couple of years. Larson also expressed concern at the start of the summer over the team’s self-inflicted wounds. And then there’s the fact that the driver who has been carrying the banner at Ganassi the last few seasons has been second-best statistically to teammate Kurt Busch.
Larson sat 16th in points on June 2. In the push toward the playoffs, he is now 11th and is the second-highest driver on the playoff grid without a win. His gap on the cutline is 76 points, with just Darlington and Indianapolis ahead.
Although he’s not yet locked into the postseason, Larson still feels good about how things stand. His team has been points racing as of late, and his hope is that they can start to strategize more toward winning the race over looking for a good Stage 1 or Stage 2 result.
In the short term, Larson is working on a string of four consecutive top-eight finishes going into Darlington Raceway. He led 62 laps in the last Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at the Bristol short track. A return trip to Darlington should be a cause for with optimism, since a year ago Larson dominated by winning both stages while leading a race-high 284 laps before ultimately finishing third.
“I wouldn’t say we’re over (having any issues) or I’m over it,” said Larson. “We’ve had a few clean weekends now, so hopefully, we can just keep it going.”
Making the playoffs is only one part of a team’s season. Being competitive enough to make a deep run into the postseason is another, and if the pretender-to-possible-contender box on the Larson bingo card is played, the team needs to remain mistake and problem-free.
“I feel good about (the playoffs),” said Larson. “I feel like we’ve been better than whatever I am in points, but I look at maybe six or seven guys that I’ve been outrunning here lately. So, you never know, and I’ve had so much bad luck so I don’t want to predict where I’ll go, but I feel good.
“I feel competitive and happy with how our team has been performing.”