Ganassi Rac­ing hopes odd cou­ple pair­ing will pro­duce next big star

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Sports - BY BREN­DAN MARKS [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

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 poten-

tial.

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 Sun­day’s 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 full­time 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 Homestead­Mi­ami 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, 5050.

“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.”

CHUCK BURTON AP

NASCAR driver Kurt Busch, right, joins Kyle Lar­son at Chip Ganassi Rac­ing this off­sea­son, and the hope is that he can help men­tor Lar­son into reach­ing his full po­ten­tial.

AP file photo

Kyle Lar­son won four NASCAR Cup se­ries races dur­ing his break­out 2017 sea­son be­fore go­ing win­less in 2018. Is new team­mate Kurt Busch, Lar­son’s po­lar op­po­site in age and per­son­al­ity, the se­cret to get­ting back to Vic­tory Lane?

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