2014 can be summed up in one phrase for Chip Ganassi’s organization: the best of the rest. After missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup with Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray, they finished 17th and 18th in points, respectively. However, the sub-par finish in the standings certainly does not show the progress this Chevrolet team made in 2014.
After Juan Pablo Montoya announced he was leaving Ganassi for Team Penske’s IndyCar Series team, there were multiple candidates to replace the vacant seat. While plenty of veteran drivers were available, Ganassi selected Larson to pilot the No. 42 car with backing from Target. Although plenty of media members, including myself, had plenty of doubts of Larson’s capabilities in a Sprint Cup Series ride considering he wasn’t able to win a Nationwide Series race in his rookie year in that division, he proved us all wrong in 2014.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year was on pace to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, and would have finished the year inside of the top-13 in points if it weren’t for the new format. However, that cannot take away from his impressive results, which included a runner-up finish at Auto Club Speedway during the fifth race of the season. He had another second-place finish at Loudon in the fall, but failed to win a race in his first year. With eight top-fives and 17 top-10s, Larson was the strongest Rookie of the Year since Denny Hamlin in 2006.
Getting adjusted to the Cup Series was tough for Larson. But compared to the large rookie class in 2014, he did rather well. Austin Dillon, who brought back the No. 3 car for Richard Childress Racing, entered the season as the favorite to win Rookie of the Year after taking over Kevin Harvick’s ride. Moreover, Larson and crew chief Chris Heroy clicked better than expected, which led to him leading 53 laps, including a season-high of 20 at Chicagoland Speedway in the summer.
McMurray showed just as much, if not more speed than Larson, throughout the 36-race season. The 13-year Sprint Cup Series veteran had seven top-fives and 13 top-10s in 2014, but he led 368 laps. With a best finish of third at Charlotte in October, the No. 1 team was not able to get the job done. They had plenty of speed, and had a solid shot at winning multiple races in 2014, yet his car just lost the handle to it late in events.
A common pattern from McMurray’s cars over the course of the year saw this team start our poorly in a race, then start running top-five laps times, but they fell off in the last 50 or so laps. This was shown at Martinsville, Bristol, Kansas, Chicago and Charlotte. But McMurray just couldn’t seal the deal, and that gave him an average finish of 16.2 on the year.
Crew chief Keith Rodden clearly made a difference for this team. Moving over from Hendrick Motorsports, he took the job at Ganassi after McMurray struggled in 2013 with just nine top-10s. After the team swapped to Hendrick Motorsports engines in 2013, they didn’t have the right aerodynamic package to go along with the upgrade in horse power. However, Rodden brought experience from Hendrick, which ended up being a key difference maker in McMurray’s season.
There is a lot of change going on at Ganassi. Target has opted to put an end to their funding of Tony Kanaan’s IndyCar ride and instead – they are enumerating their money to Larson’s program. This will evidently give a boost to the Cup Series team as a whole, especially since they’ll be receiving a few extra bucks to develop more competitive cars.
The team lost LiftMaster to Kasey Kahne’s No. 5 team, but that’s not all they lost to Hendrick.
After rumors had Kenny Francis moving away from the pit box in 2015, Hendrick recently announced that Rodden will take over as Kahne’s crew chief. The change could have been drastic for the No. 1 team, but Ganassi has signed formed Robert Yates Racing developmental driver Matt McCall to become McMurray’s crew chief. McCall has been racing at the short track level for the past few years, but he became an engineer within Richard Childress Racing.
Although this will be McMurray’s third crew chief in as many years, he is looking to build on the momentum he had from the 2014 season. He’s expected to have one of his strongest years since he joined the team, yet he’s going to have to get a victory early in the year in order to build more confidence, which he was fortunate to have with Heroy.
As for Larson, there is nothing stopping him from getting at least one or two wins in 2015. The soon-to-be father is moving into a new house, and his prestige is on the rise. There won’t be any major changes to his team, and if he makes the Chase, he should be a top contender for the championship.