NASCAR & Auto Racing

Could NASCAR’s odd couple pairing at Ganassi Racing produce sport’s next megastar?

FILE - In this Nov. 5, 2017, file photo, Kyle Larson greets fans during driver introductions before the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas. As Larsen enters his sixth season at NASCAR’s top level it is clear that once he starts winning on a consistent basis he could become the biggest star in the country. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 5, 2017, file photo, Kyle Larson greets fans during driver introductions before the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas. As Larsen enters his sixth season at NASCAR’s top level it is clear that once he starts winning on a consistent basis he could become the biggest star in the country. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File) AP

Fitting, isn’t it, that the two polar opposites in the room also occupy opposite ends?

On a dreary Tuesday at Chip Ganassi Racing, and as rain drizzled down around the facility and forced practically everyone indoors, Kyle Larson finally caught a glimpse from across the team’s workroom. Media members, cameras, lights, tripods — they all blocked his vision.

Some 25 paces and several small tables away sat Kurt Busch, nestling into a chair for his first official interviews as a CGR employee. His hair slicked back, per usual, he stole a glance to the right and returned Larson’s gaze. He peered over at the man he now will mentor (right?), or collaborate with (maybe?), or even compete against (the only definite).

So consider that pair:

Larson, the 26-year-old California kid. Calm. Well-mannered, laid-back. Full of potential.

And Busch, the 40-year-old former-champion. Confident, matter-of-fact. Abrasive even, verging on cocky.

They are NASCAR’s new odd couple, the sport’s strangest pairing and one of its greatest unknowns heading into Sundays qualifying sessions for the season-opening Daytona 500.

The hope, internally especially, is that Busch’s experience — he won the 2004 Cup title and drove for Stewart-Haas Racing last season — will push Larson into becoming the best version of himself. Even at his young age, Larson has been touted for years as NASCAR’s next superstar, and shown flashes of greatness.

The question is whether Busch, his exact opposite in age and personality, is the one to prod permanent greatness out of Larson.

“We all want to see more out of Kyle,” Busch said, “and I know that when you have teammates all pushing each other in the proper way, that’s the strongest thing that can help a team win.

“If teammates aren’t pushing each other in the right way, then that can tear things apart.”

‘He’ll push everyone’

For the first five full-time Cup Series seasons of his career, Larson only knew one teammate: Jamie McMurray.

But McMurray, even as a former Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 winner, was never a legitimate playoff or championship contender. In his best season, when he won three races in 2010, McMurray still finished outside the top 10 in the final points standings. In 16 full-time seasons and 582 races in NASCAR’s premier series, McMurray won just seven times.

Larson, meanwhile, won his first Cup race at 24 and had his breakout season the following year when he won four races and was a championship contender. If not for an engine randomly blowing up in the playoffs, Larson was on trajectory to advance to the Cup Series championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

But in 2018, Larson took a step back. He finished the year ninth overall in points and was runner-up six times, but ended the year without a win.

“I feel like half of those we could’ve won or should’ve won if I did things differently, if things just worked out differently,” Larson said. “It’s easy to look at last year when we had zero wins and it’s a bad year or whatever, but we could’ve easily had three wins and finished ninth in points and it would’ve been a good year.”

Larson is still at the age where he’s figuring it all out. There will be more breakout seasons, even if the media does not call them such, and likely sooner rather than later.

The goal is that Busch, with his resume and ... let’s call it “competitive edge,” will be able to expedite that process.

“When you’re teammates with someone, you respect them,” Larson said. “And then I think he’ll push everyone at the shop, and myself, just to be ... better.”

‘You don’t know what you don’t know’

As if NASCAR’s newest odd couple needed any other qualifiers to their relationship, how about this:

That dreary day at the CGR shop, already late into January, was the first day they’d spent together in person as teammates.

Seriously.

“It just hasn’t worked out to where we’re in town at the same time,” Larson said. “We’ve talked on the phone a few times, texts and stuff, but haven’t gotten to hang out with each other yet.”

There will be plenty time for that, and introductions, and everything that comes with a new teammate. Busch knows that full and well, having driven for five different Cup organizations before CGR, but Larson ... not so much.

Larson’s crew chief Chad Johnston, who previously worked at SHR when Busch was there in 2014 and 2015, said Larson might actually benefit from experiencing some change around him.

“There’s a lot of knowledge to pull from Kyle’s standpoint when it comes to Kurt because he’s been successful, he’s run for different organizations, he knows what’s normal and what’s not,” Johnston said. “Where as Kyle, he’s already been doing it a while, but he’s only been here. Like, this is normal to him. You don’t know what you don’t know.

“So I think Kurt will be able to shed some light on that.”

‘Maybe it will work out’

At this point in Busch’s career, there might be something to say for the value of mentoring Larson.

Busch already has his championship, and while he’s won at least one race each of the past five years, his days as a legitimate championship contender are probably through. He will still be competitive — he wouldn’t be himself if not — but not like he was a decade ago.

There’s also the matter of Busch’s character, which has taken its fair share of hits over the last 10-plus years. From a 2005 DUI arrest to numerous confrontations with and outbursts toward reporters, to a NASCAR suspension in 2015 over allegations of domestic violence against his ex-girlfriend (he was never charged), Busch has developed a less-than-sterling reputation over the course of his career.

All that said, he admitted one of the reasons he was drawn to Ganassi this offseason was to help get the most out of Larson.

“Larson can be bigger. He can be better, and I see something in him,” Busch said. “That’s part of the draw of why I came here. There are plenty of reasons, but that’s one of those things on the side. It’s not a trophy. It’s not a win.

“But I would feel a sense of accomplishment by helping him out.”

Busch said that he gets the same sense now from Larson that he did years ago from another famous Kyle — his brother, 2015 Cup champion Kyle Busch.

Whether or not Busch can actually help Larson reach his immeasurable potential remains to be seen. Truthfully, it’s something that might not ever manifest itself.

But it also might.

And if it does, it’ll be because two polar opposites slammed together and helped produce NASCAR’s next megastar.

So, betting odds as to whether the Busch-Larson pairing will actually work? Probably best to default to Johnston.

“I would say they’re on opposite ends of the personality spectrum,” he said. “You know, Kyle is laid back and he just kind of goes with it — Kurt is not. They both have their benefits, so I think it’ll be a good combination, 50-50.

“Maybe Kurt lights a fire every once in a while, and Kyle can calm down him down every once in a while. ...

“Maybe it will work out.”

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.


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