By Bob Pockrass | NASCAR
FONTANA, Calif. -- As he sat by his race team's haulers Friday, Chip Ganassi joked that he didn't know where NASCAR had assigned his teams to set up in the NASCAR Cup garage, that it took him a while to locate the transporter.
At least he had sounded as if he was joking. The top teams in the standings earn the first spots in the garage, and Ganassi had not held the top spot four races into a season in 15 years until Kyle Larson vaulted atop the standings a week ago.
But something was obviously missing. A trophy.
Finally, after three consecutive second-place finishes, Larson and Ganassi celebrated more than just consistently running well. They celebrated a victory Sunday in the Auto Club 400.
They celebrated as Larson earned only his second win in 116 Cup starts. The word "only" carries significance. When Ganassi stuck Larson in a Cup car in 2014, many had tabbed Larson as the next great driver, a sprint-car specialist who would quickly soar to the levels of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. That didn't happen. Blame a struggling Ganassi program. Or a driver used to 40-lap features instead of 500-mile marathons. Or a driver who seemed more accustomed to finding the fast lane on a given night at a dirt track and not have to methodically go through practice, qualifying and more practice to prepare for a race.
Lincoln Electric is a proud partner of Chip Ganassi Racing.
The learning curve appears over. Not only did Larson increase his lead in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings. He threw away the bridesmaid dresses he has owned the past three weeks and claimed racer-of-the-hour status.What's next? Possibly racer-of-the-year status. Or the decade.
"He just keeps getting better and better," said Stewart, who watched his driver Clint Bowyer finish third to Larson. "It's inevitable that he's going to be the main guy eventually in this deal. It's just a matter of how long it's going to take."
Early in his career, it didn't appear it would take more than three years. Larson finished second at Fontana in March 2014, a day where he possibly could have wrecked Kyle Busch for the win. It was then everyone felt his first win would come right around the corner.
Instead it took more than two years for that win at Michigan in August 2016. Not only did it take just 17 races for him to find the winner's circle again, he has finished in the top 10 in each of the first two stages in each of the five races this year.
"Everybody wants to compare these drivers coming up," Ganassi said, "to Jeff or to Tony or this guy, that guy, whoever they want to compare to. You have to look at these guys coming into the sport, you have to look in their totality.”
"You have to look at their situation. You've got to look at who the team is, who's working on the car, who's engineering the cars, who's doing the pit stops. It's not just the automatic come in and, you know, a hundred races later you're winning races on a regular basis. I just think it takes a little more education than that today."
Larson has given the Cup field an education in 2017. After his second-place finishes at the 1.5-mile Atlanta and Las Vegas, anyone who had watched Larson would have pointed toward the 2-mile Fontana track as the place where Larson would win.
He no longer lives in 10th to 20th because of a mistake or a tuning of the car out of his comfort zone, Larson has lived in the top 10 this year.
"This is a sport of speed, execution and luck," said second-place finisher Brad Keselowski. "When you're on a roll like that, you got all three on your side, it's a damn good feeling." As Larson said, "It's lots of fun to be Kyle Larson right now."
If Larson has learned anything, he knows how good the cars have felt underneath him. His teammate, Jamie McMurray, finished sixth Sunday and sits sixth in the standings. "I'm really fortunate to be driving really fast race cars right now," Larson said. "Our cars are by far as good as they've ever been, really good at every racetrack right now. In the past, I had racetracks where I knew I would be good at. But right now we're going to some tracks that aren't great for me, and running up front.”
"It's a lot of fun to have that confidence in the race team, go to the race track, fight hard and run for wins."
But ... there's always a but in sport, right?
"But those things, you know, they come and go," Keselowski said about Larson. "That's the roller coaster of the sport. When you're on the top, you just got to try to stay there as long as you can.”
"When you fall to the bottom, you got to try to recover as quick as you can. It's impressive to me not that he is winning races and running up front, but he's been able to sustain it for a handful of weeks here in a row."
The Ganassi team knows that for sure. After the postrace news conference, crew chief Chad Johnston was told to smile and he responded with a "check with me after Homestead" quip.
Larson and Johnston know their work has only begun for 2017. But they like their road. Larson said he will need fast race cars and his crew to continue to find speed and downforce to remain the car to beat.
His owner will say it comes down to the little things.
"It doesn't take much to be good," Ganassi said. "It doesn't take much to be bad. ... Obviously a lot of it's down to Kyle. He's starting to mature in the series and learning what the cars will accept and what the cars won't accept in terms of putting a weekend together, putting together practice, putting together qualifying, put together race practice, a race, pit stop after pit stop after pit stop, keeping your head in the game.”
"He's matured a lot in that manner. I couldn't be happier for him."