Kyle Larson’s arrival gives Chip Ganassi Racing jolt

Patrick Smith

Can NASCAR’s top-ranked prospect provide the consistency Chip Ganassi Racing has long lacked?

There is nothing quiet about this offseason for the team formerly known as Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Tired of lackluster results, the rechristened Chip Ganassi Racing says goodbye to team fixture Juan Pablo Montoya and in his place welcomes one of NASCAR's more heralded prospects in quite some time.

Will this give Ganassi the jolt it's long needed or will the organization that has perpetually underachieved do so again in 2014?

2013 in the Rearview

With two experienced and capable drivers, a slate of full sponsorship unlike most top teams and a new engine deal which brought increased horsepower, 2013 seemed the year when CGR would finally fulfill its promise. That didn't happen. Instead, it was the same unpredictability that has long defined the organization.

And no one epitomized CGR's struggles last year more than Juan Pablo Montoya. The former -- and now current -- IndyCar pilot came close several times to getting his maiden win on an oval. At both Richmond and Dover he was leading in the final laps before victory eluded him. Conversely, Montoya posted 11 finishes of 25th or worse and for the sixth time in seven years, ranked 17th or worse in the year end standings.

The inconsistency bug wasn't limited to Montoya, as teammate Jamie McMurray also yo-yoed between competitive and nondescript. Though in the latter's case, he did manage to find Victory Lane at Talladega and finish a respectable 15th in points.

2014 Driver Lineup

Jamie McMurray (No. 1 McDonald's Chevrolet); Kyle Larson (No. 42 Target Chevrolet)

Key Changes

If there is a constant each year during NASCAR's offseason, it's CGR undertaking some change of note. Two years ago there was a massive shakeup behind the scenes that saw personnel relieved of their duties. And last season the organization announced a switch of engine suppliers, which was supposed to put CGR in line with the horsepower produced by Hendrick Motorsports.

This year the turnover involves the departure of Montoya, whose contract was not renewed after seven seasons of unfilled expectations and missed opportunities. To fill Montoya's seat, Chip Ganassi has tabbed 21-year-old Kyle Larson, regarded as a can't-miss prospect.

The change in drivers isn't the only transformation afoot at CGR. No longer with the organization is McMurray's crew chief of four years, Kevin Manion. Keith Rodden, a former engineer for Kasey Kahne at Hendrick, takes over crew chief duties and could provide the jolt the No. 1 team has long needed.

Biggest Offseason Question

A rookie with just one season of national touring experience, Larson will no doubt face an adjustment and the inevitable growing pains. Yet what he lacks in experience, he more than makes up for in talent.

The 21-year-old is most often compared to the likes of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, as each has a similar background comprising of racing in sprint cars, and expectations are that Larson will eventually emulate their successes. However, the question most asked is whether Larson is fully prepared. There is a long line of drivers who jumped to Cup before they were ready, only to see their careers inevitably flounder.

Larson appears to be the exception to the rule that drivers need more seasoning in the Nationwide Series. But if his first season is down rather than up, there will be plenty of second-guessing whether CGR made the right choice to promote Larson.

The key to his development will be patience -- a characteristic not often associated with Ganassi. With time, though, he should make an impact at the Cup level and give CGR the consistent threat it's lacked behind the wheel of the No. 42 car.

Outlook

In the 10-year history of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, CGR has seen just one of its drivers snag a berth and there is no reason to think that will change this season.

Although McMurray is a capable driver who performs well on a variety of tracks -- particularly at Daytona and Talladega -- something remarkable would have to occur for him to make the Chase. Like the organization he drives for, consistency has never been his trademark, although it would surprise no one if he got a win somewhere along the way.

Also working against McMurray is that he won't have a veteran teammate to lean on for support, at least through the early portions of 2014. Instead he will be expected to help Larson and the 42 team navigate their way. Overall it's hard to envision McMurray being better than he was in 2013 -- often OK, but just as often in the middle of the pack.

As for Larson, his freshman season will likely resemble his body of work last season in Nationwide: some weeks he'll be strong, and other weeks he'll struggle. The increase in horsepower in a Cup car compared to Nationwide plays to his strengths, and if CGR can put the proper pieces in place around him, a surge in the second half of the season should be expected.

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