After a four-win campaign in 2018, hopes were high that Kyle Larson could finally be emerging as a yearly favorite for the championship. Unfortunately, a new Camaro body style coupled with a regression in performance at Chip Ganassi Racing led to a disappointing season.
Larson, 26, failed to win a race. However, the driver did make the Playoffs for the third-consecutive season.
The season got off to a rough start in the Daytona 500. After starting 38th, the California-native was involved in an accident on lap 60. The crash battered his car, and he would limp around all day. Larson would finish the race in 19th, three laps off the pace.
After Daytona, things began to turn around for Larson.
He secured his first top-10 finish of the season with a ninth-place effort at Atlanta. Then, a week later, Larson scored a third place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
At Phoenix a week later, Larson would start second and lead 54 laps early. However, he would bring out a caution on lap 122. Larson’s potential race-winning day was ruined and he finished 18th.
in the next race, which was at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, Larson would score his first of six runner-up finishes on the season. It came after a nail-biting moment early in the race when Kevin Harvick slid into the side of the No. 42 car. The contact sent Harvick careening into the wall, while Larson soldiered on.
“Yeah, it was a pretty tough race from the start,” Larson explained. “Fell back a little bit, was able to get past a few cars. Obviously Kevin and I had our issue there down the backstretch, just racing hard, side drafting each other for a few laps. I think he came down to maybe side draft down me, got in my right rear, it spun him pretty quick.
“From then on we had to repair a little damage, come from the back. Was able to get to sixth or so into the first stage in a short amount of time, which was good. Then there late, we had an issue with the left front on one of our pit stops, then had to come from the back again maybe that whole last run there. It was good to get all the way to second.”
A few weeks later, Larson was runner-up again after leading 200 laps in Bristol. He would score runner-up finishes at Pocono and Chicago before the mid-way point of the season.
Larson would crash at the July Daytona race, but he would remain clean for the remainder of the regular-season.
The night race at Bristol marked Larson’s third and final pole of the year (the other two came at Dover and Sonoma) and he would parlay that into yet another runner-up finish.
A race later, at Darlington Larson was the man to beat. Larson, who utilized the highest possible lane on the track all race long, led 284 of the 367 laps on the night. However, a caution with 24 laps remaining led to a pit sequence under yellow. Larson would lose the top spot to Brad Keselowski on pit road, and his car would fade when the green flag came back out.
Larson would slide to a heart breaking third-place finish.
“It stings, for sure, to not win at a prestigious race like this,” a dejected Larson said. “I want to win every race, but I want to win a Southern 500 really bad. So, it would have been cool to win that. But, at the same time, to bring a car to the race track like we did this weekend is something to be proud of and a big confidence-booster going into the next 11 weeks.”
After a 14th-place finish at Indianapolis, Larson was on to the Playoffs.
Larson would start the Round of 16 strong with a second-place finish at Las Vegas followed by a seventh-place effort at Richmond. But he was on the outside of the cutoff line heading into the Charlotte Roval.
However, Larson qualified seventh and had a strong car as he led 47 laps on the day. Then, on a late-race restart Larson got caught into an accident with Brad Keselowski in the 90-degree turn one left hand turn. Larson’s car was destroyed, but his crew got it repaired just enough to get back on track.
Larson struggled mightily over the final couple of laps. His tires were flattening from the damage, and he couldn’t steer his car. However he was still rolling. In the final set of turns, Jimmie Johnson wiped out while trying to pass Martin Truex Jr. for the lead. Johnson, was the guy that Larson needed to have trouble if he was to move on in the Playoffs.
As Larson pounded the wall coming off the final turn of the race to take the checkered flag, he scored exactly the amount of points he needed to surpass Johnson and move on to the Round of 12.
Larson’s bid for the title would end in the Round of 12, but nevertheless it was an impressive display of intestinal fortitude.
Larson ended the season with 12 top-five finishes and 19 top-10s, he also had three poles and he led 782 laps en route to the ninth-place spot in the final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship standings.
Moving forward to 2019, Larson should bounce back to victory lane again. His crew chief Chad Johnston and the rest of the Chip Ganassi Racing team has had the entire off-season to tweak the Camaro body to be a little more competitive this season.
Larson will also have CreditOne back as a sponsor. McDonald’s and FirstData should be back as well. DC Solar, who sponsored the majority of the CGR Xfinity Series team as well as Larson in the Cup Series will not be back after their corporate offices were raided by the F.B.I. this off-season.
The main change in the CGR organization this year will be that long-time driver for the team Jamie McMurray is being replaced by 2004 Cup Series champion Kurt Busch. McMurray, a seven-time Cup Series winner, is a very formidable driver, but Busch should elevate the performance of the No. 1 car, which in turn should help Larson boost his performance as well.
Overall, I expect Larson to win at least two races this season. He will make the Playoffs for a fourth-straight season, and he may even prove to be a true contender for the championship.