Kyle Larson, crew chief Chad Johnston and the rest of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing team might be stress-free for the next few weeks, but there is still a job to be done.
With his win at Dover on Sunday, Larson is, of course, locked into the next round of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs — the first time CGR has had a driver make it out of the Round of 12. So, Larson will be the only driver unfazed by whatever may happen this weekend at Talladega, the final superspeedway race of the year, followed by the elimination race in Kansas.
However, both he and Johnston made it clear they aren’t about to start mailing it in.
“We still have to try to put points on the board, whether it’s bonus points or race-win points,” said Johnston. “There are a lot of guys that have five, six wins and a lot of bonus points that are going to roll over to that next stage; so anything we can do to close the gap on that … Martinsville being in that last round, that’s not the greatest place for us; but we feel like Texas and Phoenix are places we can win at.
“I think our focus is going to be on what can we do better going to Martinsville to make sure we have a solid run there and leave there with the most points that we can,” Johnston added.
With momentum and execution on his team’s side, Johnston believes doing anything different the next two weeks would distract from the end goal. Earning max points each week is still the focus, and having a strong run at Kansas could potentially result in learning something the team could translate to Texas.
“Phoenix with the repave races a lot like an intermediate, so I think there’s still a lot you can learn by going to Kanas and being strong. But I think, more than anything, just keep executing by trying to come out of each and every weekend with the most points possible,” said Johnston. “I don’t think taking our eye off of that prize is probably the right thing to do at this point for us.”
Dover was a timely victory in more ways than one — not just in taking the pressure off Larson but in terms of points. A victory bumped Larson’s playoff point total from six to 11. Playoff points are always a big emphasis for playoff teams as they have proven to be valuable in the quest to make it to the title race in Miami.
Seven drivers have more playoff points than Larson, including Kyle Busch who has 46, Martin Truex Jr. with 42, and Denny Hamlin with 31. Given that, Larson didn’t fall into the trap of saying he’s now a title favorite.
“Depending on who makes it out of this round, I’m still going to be a ways back on points to Martin, Kyle, Kevin (Harvick) and Joey (Logano) to start the next round,” Larson said. “To start today, I would be like 18 points back of (Brad) Keselowski, so that’s still a lot to overcome. It’s going to be even bigger probably to start the next round.
“But Texas — we could go there and win. We could go to Phoenix and have a good shot to win. Martinsville, hopefully, we can go have a good run there.
“We’ll see,” Larson continued. “It’s just nice to get a win, get some playoff points and just kind of chip away at the deficit that we’re in compared to those guys.”
Martinsville, Texas, and ISM Raceway makes up the Round of 8. All are tracks that Larson has not won at before, and Martinsville seems to be the team’s biggest concern. Larson finished 18th there earlier this year and has just one top-10 finish in 11 starts at the Virginia track.
Larson has four top-10 finishes in 12 starts at Texas. He finished 39th in the spring race due to a crash. Of the three tracks, Larson has the best average finish at ISM (13.5) where he’s earned five top-10 finishes in 11 starts and will go there with two consecutive top-six finishes.