Larson’s Rise Highlights Successful 2016 for Chip Ganassi Racing

HHP/Alan Marler

2016 wasn’t the best year in company history for Chip Ganassi Racing, but it was a noticeable step in the right direction after a subpar 2015.

Chip Ganassi’s Chevrolet organization had a lot to prove in 2016.

Both of the team’s two drivers entered the year searching for answers after a season of struggle.

Dirt-track favorite Kyle Larson garnered praise after replacing Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 42 Chevrolet in 2014. The Californian’s rookie season yielded eight top-five finishes and numerous close calls with victory lane en-route to a 17th-place finish in the standings.

After his successful first season, expectations were high for Larson entering 2015. However, Larson fell victim to a sophomore slump, scoring just two top fives and missing a race at Martinsville Speedway after fainting at an autograph session. Larson would finish 19th in the series standings.
Coming into 2016, Larson’s goals were clear. The third-year driver needed to prove to critics and fans that his 2014 season wasn’t just a flash in the pan – that he could become a contender on NASCAR’s top level for years to come. Larson needed to make the Chase, and he needed to win.

Jamie McMurray faired better than his teammate in 2015, riding four top fives and 10 top 10s into the Chase, but the Joplin, Mo., native was quickly eliminated in the playoff’s first round, sending CGR into a state of obscurity among the NASCAR paddock.

After failing to deliver as an organization, the pressure was on CGR to take a step in the right direction in 2016.

Thankfully for Ganassi, they did just that.

Larson started the season off on a high note, earning a seventh-place finish in the Daytona 500. Though he followed the result with four-straight finishes outside of the top 10, the Californian parlayed a strong drive at Martinsville into a third-place finish in the race he’d missed one year earlier to give the field an early indication that he could be a contender.

Such would be the tale of Larson’s season, as the recent father struggled with inconsistency.

On some weeks, Larson was among the best in the paddock, scoring finishes of second and third in the year’s first trips to Dover International Speedway and Michigan International Speedway, and a sixth-place run in July’s return to Daytona.

On others, Larson’s No. 42 team struggled, rattling off six finishes of 29th or worse in the 26-race regular season.

Meanwhile, McMurray continued to do what he accomplished so well in 2015: be consistent.

While he was rarely seen toward the front, McMurray kept himself in contention for a Chase bid throughout the year by minimizing mistakes and keeping out of trouble. The 14-year veteran had just nine top 10s during the regular season, but he compensated for the lack of speed by finishing inside of the top 30 on all but one occasion (34th at Daytona).

In the end, the two drivers took vastly different paths through the regular season, but the result was the same for each of them – a Chase berth.

Larson came on strong over the late summer months, contending for good finishes in four-consecutive races from Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July through Bristol Motor Speedway in Aug. Though two of the races ended in crashes, the speed the No. 42 team displayed gave the them newfound confidence.

In the end, that speed and swagger was rewarded. Larson got the better of rookie Chase Elliott on a late restart and drove off to claim his first-career victory in the year’s second race at Michigan, earning a Chase bid and rewarding Ganassi for his decision to take a risk on the young star in the process.

McMurray never made his way into victory lane, but the 40-year-old’s consistency kept him afloat. McMurray made his way into the top 16 in the standings following the third race of the season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and never fell out again.

Wins from Larson, Tony Stewart and Chris Buescher over the summer made the No. 1 team’s path to the Chase more challenging down the stretch, but the 2010 Daytona 500 champions picked up the pace when it counted, tallying six top 10s in the final nine race of the regular season to claim the final playoff position on points.

With both teams in the Chase for the first time in company history, CGR entered the postseason with momentum.

However, that momentum quickly fizzled out.

McMurray and Larson both struggled in the opening round of the Chase, combining for just one top 10 and two finishes outside of the top 20.

In the end, both drivers were eliminated in the Round of 16, out before the playoffs truly began to kick into gear.

Though they were out of the Chase, the duo would go on to score six top 10s over the final seven races, with Larson ending the season on runs of third and second at Phoenix International Raceway and Homestead-Miami Speedway, respectively.

Dover’s double elimination was a difficult end for CGR’s championship hopes, but the team can still look back on 2016 with a smile knowing they took steps in the right direction.

Larson delivered CGR their first victory since the fall of 2013 at Michigan. The company’s 12 top fives, 27 top 10s and 379 laps led were each second only to 2014 over the last six years, and their double Chase berth marked the first time the company has managed to place each of their Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series teams in playoff contention.

CGR also enjoyed moderate success in the XFINITY Series, earning three victories between Larson and Justin Marks and sending rookie Brennan Poole into the inaugural NXS Chase en-route to an eighth-place finish in the standings.

After a strong 2016, the onus for CGR in 2017 is to take another step up and rise into legitimate championship contenders.

Upon first glance, the coming seems ripe with possibilities for Ganassi’s organization to do just that.

With Stewart-Haas Racing moving to Ford in 2017, CGR is poised to compete with Richard Childress Racing in a battle to become Chevrolet’s second team behind Hendrick Motorsports.

Larson and McMurray will both be back, with all eyes on Larson to improve once again and potentially earn wins in droves.

There will be a few questions to answer, such as who will step up and support Larson as Target slowly maneuvers away from the sport — they’ve already quit sponsoring Ganassi’s IndyCar programs, and are scaling back five races in their support of Larson next year – but the overall trend for both drivers appears to be a positive one.

CGR is also set up for success in the NXS, bringing back Poole and adding Camping World Truck Series winner Tyler Reddick to the No. 42 team’s roster.

In the end, 2016 will be viewed one of two ways for CGR. The season will either be looked upon as a good year for an organization that’s managed a few of them, or the first big step in the path to championship contention.

The complete story won’t be told until the passing of 2017 and beyond.

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