CHARLOTTE – As a first-time father who brought a newborn to 90 percent of his NASCAR races last season, Kyle Larson’s personal life significantly changed last season.
But professionally, the No. 42 Chevrolet driver said it had no impact on why he struggled through a disappointing sophomore season in Sprint Cup.
“I don’t think that stuff affects anybody, but I think a lot of people on the outside can point to stuff like that and make excuses on their own,” he said. “I personally think it doesn’t affect you at all. So I still know what my job is in the race car. Even if you’re up at 3:30 in the morning to change a diaper and back asleep at 4:15 (a.m.), I don’t think it affects you on race days.
“It makes the racetracks more fun for sure while you’re not in the car, because you know you have something to do when you go back to the motor home. So that part of it is fun. As far as the focus and keeping your eye on the prize, I don’t think my personal life came into play at all.”
The 2014 rookie of the year regressed in most statistical categories — points standings (17th in ’14 to 19th in 2015), top 10s (17 to 10) and average finish (14.2 to 19.3) – and failed to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup after many predicted he would earn his first win in NASCAR’s premier series.
Larson said his Chip Ganassi Racing team often had decent speed but struggled to execute with consistently strong finishes.
“We had top-10 or top-12 speed most weekends, but whatever the case was the last quarter of a race, we’d fall apart,” he said. “Either my (doing), or just decision-making on the box or pit crew or whatever, we would fall apart. Hopefully, we’ve all learned from that.”
The lessons won’t apply for much of a team, which was overhauled in the offseason starting at the top. Crew chief Chad Johnston, who took Martin Truex Jr. to the playoffs in 2012 and worked with Tony Stewart from 2014-15, has replaced Chris Heroy, who left for Richard Petty Motorsports and Brian Scott.
“I think 50 percent of our team is new,” Larson said. “I hope that brings consistent races and good finishes and some wins as well.
“Change is good. I had the same team pretty much for the first two seasons and loved them guys like brothers (and) still am really good friends with all of them. But NASCAR is a business, and when you haven’t had success the first two years, with that comes a change.”
Larson also has made changes since missing a March 29 race at Martinsville Speedway because of a fainting spell the previous day. He said the cause was dehydration, and he changed his habits as a result.
“Just trying to stay hydrated throughout the days,” he said. “I probably didn’t do a great job of that. NASCAR has a lot of early morning practices where I would just wake up 15 minutes before the first practice. After (Martinsville), I was up in time for breakfast, fluids and all that and was hydrated and ready to go.”
Johnston said missing the Martinsville race also might have compounded Larson’s difficulties because it closed off a points avenue to making the playoffs.
“I think they got into a place after Martinsville that they felt they needed to win, and they kind of got a little bit desperate and maybe had some missed opportunities,” Johnston said. “But he ended the year very well with speed and opportunities to win the last few races or had the speed to do it if circumstances would allow.”
After three runner-up finishes (at Fontana, New Hampshire and Kansas) as a rookie, Larson managed only two top fives (a third at Dover and fifth at Miami) last year.
The Elk Grove, Calif., native said a victory is a priority this season.
“For sure,” Larson said. “There was really no expectation when I first got into Cup and by the end of the season, everyone is waiting for me to win. I had that confidence in myself and the team last year, we just didn’t get it done.
“I want to be in the Cup series for a long time, so I feel if you don’t win in the first few years, you’re not the real deal and not going to be here for a long time. This is definitely a year I feel we need to get a win and show I’m capable of being a Cup racer for a long time.”