When Kyle Larson completed his climb from dirt racing to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2014, he made many waves and brought a large amount of attention along for the ride.
With that attention came expectations which, by the numbers, many people believe Larson has failed to live up to as he crosses the threshold from being a young upstart to becoming a series mainstay.
Five years into his tenure at NASCAR’s top level, the Elk Grove, Calif., native has five victories and has made the playoffs three times with Chip Ganassi Racing, but he’s not finished higher than eighth in the standings at the end of the season.
That has the microscope firmly on Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet Camaro going into the new season, with many pundits calling it a make-or-break year for Larson’s career at the top-level of stock car racing.
Larson doesn’t see it that way, however. In his eyes, he’s already established his long-term place in the Cup Series garage area, drawing a comparison to one of his competitors who started slowly but has since won a championship.
“As far as my career goes, I don’t feel like this is a make-or-break year,” Larson told SPEED SPORT. “When you look at a guy like Martin Truex Jr. … he didn’t necessarily struggle to get to where he’s at now, but there were a lot of things that didn’t go his way during the earlier stages of his career and a lot of people could have written him off well before he ever got to the point of winning a title in the Cup Series. It just took getting into the perfect situation and now he’s a champion and winning a bunch of races and considered one of the best drivers in the field.
“I don’t ever look at any year as a make-or-break year,” Larson added. “I think I’ve established myself enough within the Cup garage now to where even if we struggle, people will still have confidence in me.”
Larson’s winless effort last year was certainly a struggle when compared to the 2017 season when he won four times and was widely viewed as a favorite for the championship before his momentum was derailed during the 10-race playoff stretch.
Some of those struggles, however, came in part due to the introduction of Chevrolet’s new Camaro body style, which weathered some growing pains during the first half of the year before improving as the season progressed.
Still, Larson was among the highest-performing Chevrolet drivers for most of the year — he was just stuck in the back half of the top 10 in many cases instead of fighting for top-five finishes and victories.
All told, Larson collected three poles, 12 top-five finishes and 19 top-10 results in 36 races, ending up ninth in points.
“I felt like we did a really good job of making our new Camaros good to start the season. We were a lot better than the rest of the Chevy teams and at times we were close to the big three (Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Truex),” said Larson. “I just felt like the other Chevy teams caught up to us and the rest of the competition got away from us somewhat, that we didn’t improve through the season like everyone else did … and that’s what it takes when you get to the Cup Series. You just have to continue to get better each time out.
“We did improve race after race, but we just didn’t quite do it to the magnitude that some of the other teams did,” he noted. “There were some weekends where I was really surprised with the speed in our cars and felt like we had a shot to win and then other races where we were just off.”
Larson cruised into the playoffs on points, but squeaked through the opening round by way of a last-corner pass for position at the Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway ROVAL before disastrous races at Dover (Del.) Int’l Speedway and Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway in the Round of 12.
That left Larson having to win at Kansas Speedway to have any hope of continuing his championship quest. He had a chance to do so, chasing down Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch in the final laps. But he ran out of time and was eliminated from the playoff race.
“The second round of the playoffs, we just weren’t very competitive, specifically at Dover and Talladega … and that obviously put us into a must-win situation at Kansas,” Larson recalled. “We got close there, but didn’t quite get the job done. It was disappointing, but there’s nothing we can do to change it.”