Larson, McMurray surge as CGR work bears fruit
BUY TICKETS: See the races at Bristol A strong finish to the 2016 season and an equally impressive start to 2017 has placed the two-team effort of Chip Ganassi Racing squarely in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series spotlight. These are heady days for drivers Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson, crew chiefs Matt McCall and Chad Johnston, and the dozens upon dozens of support personnel surrounding the No. 1 and No. 42 teams. Not that you would know it from speaking with the principals. "No, I think that's what we expected," Johnston said of the organization's rise up the competitive ladder. Johnston's driver, Larson, is the series' points leader heading into Monday's Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway (1 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR). "I think it catches some people off guard and I think it's gotten a lot of hype, but we felt like we were pretty good last year toward the end of the year; we weren't as consistent as we wanted to be. "But performance-wise we felt like we were pretty good. We also knew we needed to continue to work hard to keep gaining on it through the offseason. I think anything less than what we started off would have been a disappointment for all of us." McCall said the resurgence is more than lip service. The results back up the attention being paid to the Ganassi organization this year. "Because you know how it is, everyone always claims they're working hard, working hard and that's the case," he said. "But until you actually have something to show for it, you really don't get to show the world that. "It's good for everyone that works here, a lot of long hours, to get a little recognition for all the work that's been put in." RELATED: Penske, Ganassi battle for early season supremacy The explanations run the gamut, from the obvious to the intricate. "I don't know what the difference ... is, but our race cars are just way faster," said Larson, who has banked one win and four runner-up finishes after seven races. "I think after we struggled so bad through this point of the season last year, (Chad) got really aggressive on what changes he wanted done in the race shop and with the race cars, with the bodies. As soon as he got his bodies and chassis built, we had a great test at Pocono (in April 2016), then we went to Dover, almost won that race; came to Charlotte, won the Showdown , almost won the All-Star Race. "Really since that point, we've had a lot of speed in our cars and we've just built on that and made them better and better." There's been no magic bullet, according to McMurray, who sits eighth in points and has four top-10 results this season. Instead, he said, it's a combination of things that have, in some cases, taken years to develop and implement. Better cars, better personnel, better decisions. The organization has been a contender before, but it's also had its share of expectations that failed to pan out. "It's been kind of years in the process of getting every department just a little bit better," McMurray, 40, said. "I think taking everybody's ideas from engineering, from the guys on the shop floor that have grown up racing, taking all that and combining it and it's all added up to a really good performance." McMurray has been "on both sides" of the situation -- those times when you show up at the track confident that you will contend and those times when you know there's still plenty of work to be done just to survive. "The frustrating part is that you know it's not one little piece," he said. "It's a lot of little, small things that are going to add up to getting you there. "(From) 2010 being as high as you can get to, by 2012 it was horrible. It was super frustrating to go every week and know that if you did everything right you were maybe going to run 20th. Super frustrating weekends." McMurray won the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the Charlotte fall race in '10. He also won four poles. Two years later, he had only three top 10s and finished outside the top 20 in points. "But right now we are back on top and it's so much fun to show up every weekend and know that even if your car doesn't drive great that you're going to run really well and hopefully have a shot to win," he said. Two Teams, Two Styles, One Goal There's a 16-year difference in ages between McMurray and Larson, and nearly as large of a gap in their approach to racing. Now in his fourth full season in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Larson's approach is simple: "I show up and drive," he said. McMurray, however, is a product of his past, having arrived on the scene at a time when "guys that were big into setups and how do you make your car drive better," he said. "I was raised with that mentality of kind of understanding the car and trying to make the right adjustments to it to make the car faster. Where Kyle really doesn't know anything about cars. He doesn't really give suggestions of what he thinks you need on the car to make it faster. He just searches around. A lot of times that works out well for him, so that's opened my eyes up to maybe not trying to make the car perfect but maybe just search around and try to find something on the track." Larson calls his teammate "a very underrated driver" with a ton of experience. "He's won every big race on our circuit," Larson said of McMurray. "I can go to him ... and just pick his brain and get any bits of advice I could, look at his data and compare it to mine. "I feel like we are very similar drivers and the way we use our hands and feet and how aggressive we are, so we mesh well together. I love working with Jamie; I hope he stays around for a long time and we can work together for a long time, as well, and have a lot of success together." While the drivers come from different backgrounds and developed different approaches, the crew chiefs come from similar backgrounds. Both McCall and Johnston had driving careers and served at one point as engineers for other teams. While experience behind the wheel has been helpful, understanding the methodology behind making a car go fast has been more crucial as the two made the move atop the pit box. "I think the driving part, that sort of changes week to week," McCall said. "Especially every time you change a package and the tires change. ... "The other side (of that) is the managing skills, the people skills -- there's no experience for that so that's definitely different on the crew chief side." Johnston said the "other side of the steering wheel pays a lot better but it comes with a lot more hassles, too." "The engineering side and just knowing all the nuances, the aerodynamics ... things like that probably helped me more than anything," he said. The two teams work as one, with key personnel working out of one trailer every week at the track. That promotes open dialogue, with both teams knowing what each is doing at any given time. The differences in the cars and their setups are minor, tweaked to suit each driver's individual needs. And their driving styles really aren't that different. While some folks make much over Larson's high-groove, sideways-here-I-come approach, Larson said it's certainly not by design. Changes in the aero package and the loss of downforce, he said, have actually hurt him as much as anyone. RELATED: Larson fast, atop the standings and having fun "Everybody thinks that because I grew up dirt racing that I like the car sideways and all this and that," he said. "But I don't. Stock car sideways is a way different feeling, a bad feeling, compared to Sprint cars. When you're sideways in a Sprint car, you still have grip; you're making more grip, to a certain point. Where with stock cars, you've got to worry about tire management so much and all that. "If anything, I would honestly say less downforce is bad for me. In 2014, my first year in Cup, we had the most downforce we've had since I've been in NASCAR and I ran really well that year. That's been my best season up until this year. I know last year we won a race and made the (playoffs) and all that, but consistently (2014) was our best up until this season. "Lower downforce, the racing is better but I wouldn't say it suits my driving style any better than it suits anybody else." Having been in the spotlight before, McMurray isn't fazed by the recent surge in attention paid to the Ganassi operation. He's just happy to be a part of the process. "I don't know that when you're on the inside that you view it that differently," he said. "When I think about our shop I know all the sacrifice and the work that's gone into this and sometimes you don't get rewarded for that. Sometimes you put all that time and effort in and it doesn't translate to speed. "But when you're on the inside, you know everything that's happened and why it is. I'm just thankful for it."
Austin Dillon tops Sprint Showdown practice
Biffle and Truex Jr. finish second and third in 100-minute session RELATED: Learn more about the Sprint Showdown MORE: Full practice results Austin Dillon topped the lone practice for Friday night's Sprint Showdown (7 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, MRN, SiriusXM) at Charlotte Motor Speedway . Dillon turned a fast lap of 189.288 mph at the 1.5-mile track during the 100-minute session. Greg Biffle (188.910 mph) was the second-fastest in the session, followed by Martin Truex Jr . (188.798 mph). The Sprint Showdown consists of two segments of 20 laps each, with the winner of each segment advancing to Saturday night's NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race. The winner of the first segment will not race in the second segment. Biffle has not missed an All-Star Race since 2004. Truex Jr. is currently second in the Sprint Cup Series point standings with 10 top-10 finishes in the first 11 events, but has not qualified for the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race. Paul Menard (188.758 mph) and Danica Patrick (188.613 mph) rounded out the top five in Friday's practice. Clint Bowyer , who won last year's Sprint Showdown , finished seventh in practice. Chase Elliott , who has made two Sprint Cup starts this season, finished 10th in practice (187.533 mph) and logged the most laps (53) in the session. Elliott is attempting to give Hendrick Motorsports five cars in the field for the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race on Saturday night (9 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, MRN, SiriusXM). He is also slated to compete in this weekend's NASCAR XFINITY Series 3M 250 at Iowa Speedway . Qualifying for the Sprint Showdown will take place at 4:15 p.m. ET Friday on FOX Sports 1. It will be a two-round session, with the opening round being 20 minutes and the top 12 advancing to the second round for a five minute session to determine the top 12 starting spots. FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
Paul Menard wins pole for Sprint Showdown
Greg Biffle will start on front row for Friday's night event RELATED: Learn more about the Sprint All-Star Race MORE: Full qualifying results Paul Menard took the pole for Friday night's Sprint Showdown (7 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, MRN, SiriusXM) at Charlotte Motor Speedway . Menard used a fast lap of 189.673 mph in the second of two round of group qualifying to take the top spot. Joining Menard on the front row will be Greg Biffle (189.660 mph). The Roush Fenway Racing driver topped the opening round at 189.960 mph. The second row will be made up of Michael Waltrip Racing teammates David Ragan (189.049 mph) and Clint Bowyer (188.298 mph). Bowyer won last year's Sprint Showdown . Second-year drivers Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson will make up the second row. Starting in the first three rows has been a theme of success in recent Sprint Showdowns. Eight of the past 11 winners of this event have started in the top six. The lone exceptions being Martin Truex Jr . (started 11th in 2007 win and started 20th in 2010 win) and Sam Hornish Jr . (started 8th in 2009 win). Truex will start seventh while Hornish will be starting 13th on Friday night. Danica Patrick will start 8th as she looks to race her way into the Sprint All-Star Race. Chase Elliott will start 11th as he attempts to get a fifth Hendrick Motorsports car into the field for the Sprint All-Star Race. Should he make the race, it will be a busy weekend for the defending XFINITY Series champion as that series competes at Iowa Speedway with practice and qualifying on Saturday and the 3M 250 on Sunday (2 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, MRN, SiriusXM). The Sprint Showdown will be on Friday night at 7 p.m. ET (FOX Sports 1, MRN, SiriusXM). The two winners of each 20-lap segment will advance to Saturday night's Sprint All-Star Race (9 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, MRN, SiriusXM). The winner of the first segment will report directly to the garage at the conclusion of the first segment. The Sprint Fan Vote winner will round out the field for the Sprint All-Star Race.
Chase Elliott to run in Sprint Showdown
XFINITY Series champ will look to race his way into Sprint All-Star Race Chase Elliott will attempt to make next weekend's Sprint All-Star Race by running in the Sprint Showdown on May 15 (7 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1), Hendrick Motorsports announced on Tuesday. Elliott must win one of the two 20-lap segments in the No. 25 Chevrolet SS to make the Sprint All-Star Race on May 16. "I couldn't be more excited about the opportunity to run the Showdown ," Elliott said in a release provided by the team. "It allows me to gain more experience with my NAPA Auto Parts team before we race again at Charlotte a week later." The 19-year-old will be busy the weekend of the Sprint Showdown as the NASCAR XFINITY Series will be at Iowa Speedway that weekend as well. Elliott will go back-and-forth between Iowa and North Carolina that weekend. "I'm grateful to Mr. Hendrick and everyone at NAPA for the chance to do it," he said. Elliott has made two Sprint Cup Series starts already with a third coming the week after the All-Star Race in the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24. "Those additional laps will be a tremendous benefit when it's time to run 600 miles," Elliott said. The defending XFINITY Series champion is also slated to make starts this summer at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Darlington Raceway . Hendrick's four full-time drivers: Jimmie Johnson , Jeff Gordon , Dale Earnhardt Jr . and Kasey Kahne are already locked into participating in the Sprint All-Star Race. FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
Sprint Showdown pit stall assignments
See where the drivers will line up on pit road for the Sprint Showdown
Sprint Fan Vote: Current top 10 revealed
RELATED: Cast your vote now The Sprint Fan Vote is underway, and now, we have updates on (perhaps) your favorite driver. There's still plenty of time left to vote but, so far, the top-10 vote-getters are as follows, in alphabetical order: AJ Allmendinger , Trevor Bayne , Ryan Blaney , Clint Bowyer , Matt DiBenedetto , Chase Elliott , Kyle Larson , Casey Mears , Danica Patrick and Brian Vickers . Patrick, who won the Sprint Fan Vote last year and in 2013, is the first two-time Sprint Fan Vote winner. Elliott and Blaney are the current leaders in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year competition. Fans are able to vote daily by downloading the NASCAR Mobile App or visiting www.nascar.com/SprintFanVote. Votes that are shared on Facebook or Twitter will count for double, so make sure to post on your social media channels. So if you're voting for one of the 10 drivers above, get to it! If your driver isn't on the list, don't worry -- there's still plenty of time to help him or her catch up. Fans have until 5 p.m. ET May 20 to cast their votes. NASCAR will announce the winner of the Sprint Fan Vote in Victory Lane after the Sprint Showdown at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Friday, May 20 (7 p.m. ET, FS1/MRN/Sirius XM NASCAR Radio). The NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race is scheduled for May 21. If any of the Sprint Fan Vote candidates wins in the races leading up to the Sprint All-Star Race, he or she will automatically earn a spot in the race and their name will be removed from the Sprint Fan Vote ballot. To purchase ticket packages for the Sprint All-Star Race weekend -- which includes the Sprint Showdown , NASCAR Camping World Truck Series N.C. Education Lottery 200, Andy Grammer pre-race concert powered by Rayovac and the Sprint All-Star Race and qualifying -- call Charlotte Motor Speedway at 1-800-455-FANS or visit CharlotteMotorSpeedway.com . Fans wishing to engage in the #SprintAllStar Race conversation through the #SprintFanVote window are encouraged to follow @MissSprintCup, @CLTMotorSpdwy and @NASCAR on Twitter.
Weather wipes out Sprint All-Star Race qualifying
RELATED: See the lineup in photos Inclement weather wiped out Saturday night's Sprint All-Star Race qualifying at Charlotte Motor Speedway . This meant the lineup was set by owner points, putting Stewart-Haas Racing 's Kevin Harvick on the Coors Light Pole. RELATED: Complete lineup for Sprint All-Star race The qualifying session was scheduled to start at 7:10 p.m. ET on FS1 and was set to precede the Sprint All-Star Race at 9 p.m. ET (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Driver introductions began at 9:05 p.m. ET as NASCAR Air Titans continued to work on drying the track. Green flag dropped at 10:12 p.m. ET. Earlier Saturday, Trevor Bayne , Greg Biffle and Kyle Larson all earned berths into the Sprint All-Star Race by each winning one of three segments in the Sprint Showdown . Chase Elliott and Danica Patrick were first and second, respectively, in the Sprint Fan Vote to complete the 20-car Sprint All-Star Race field. Denny Hamlin , who qualified for the Sprint All-Star Race with a win in the 2015 season, is the defending champion of the Sprint All-Star Race. MORE: Live leaderboard for Sprint All-Star Race
Who is eligible for Sprint All-Star Race?
The Sprint All-Star Race is scheduled for May 21 at 7 p.m. ET (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Charlotte Motor Speedway , and drivers can qualify in a variety of ways. Drivers who won a race in 2015 or so far in 2016 are in the event. So, too, are former premier series champions and former All-Star Race winners. Three drivers will be added to the field by winning one of three Sprint Showdown segments, and the Sprint Fan Vote will also add a driver into the field. If there aren't a minimum of 20 cars in the field by that point, the next highest vote-getter in the Sprint Fan Vote would be added to the field. Below is a list of drivers who meet the above criteria, according to NASCAR. Editor's note: Jeff Gordon qualified for the event, according to NASCAR. However, he retired from full-time competition following the 2015 season and is not on the entry list for the race. Therefore, he is not included on the list below.
Larson: 'I had to do what I had to do' in Showdown
RELATED: Results from Segment 3 CONCORD, N.C. -- Kyle Larson shoehorned his way into the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race by whatever means necessary, making a full-contact lean on Chase Elliott 's fenders on the last lap of Saturday's Sprint Showdown preliminary. Did the contact cross the line of sportsmanship? Maybe not, with both drivers deeming it a compulsory evil with the checkered flag in sight and a chance at a $1 million payday in the Sprint All-Star Race up for grabs. In the end, both drivers won out by transferring into Saturday night's main event, but through different methods. Larson snatched one of three transfer spots available to segment winners, joining Roush Fenway Racing 's Trevor Bayne (first segment) and Greg Biffle (second segment) in the non-points invitational. Elliott claimed his berth by winning the Sprint Fan Vote. Danica Patrick finished runner-up in the fan vote to fill the 20-car field. Larson's method of securing his eligibility ranked as the most dramatic of the five. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver recovered from an opening-segment wall scrape to work his way back to first place by the start of the final 10-lap dash to the finish. He led all the way, but Elliott gained tremendous ground on fresher tires, pulling alongside Larson through Turns 3 and 4 for the final time. Larson's No. 42 and Elliott's No. 24 Chevrolets locked fenders and scraped side-by-side all the way to the checkers, with Larson prevailing by just .015 seconds to qualify for his first All-Star Race. "I would hate to be raced like that, like I raced him," Larson said. "But I knew he was going to win the fan vote, so I knew he was going to be in the All-Star Race either way and I wasn't if I didn't win. I had to do what I had to do to get the win. Hate racing like that, obviously, but I felt that's what I had to do to make it in." Larson was on the receiving end of a similar shove in 2014, when Ryan Newman slammed him aside on the final corner of the final lap at Phoenix to land the final spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship race. Back then, Larson said he understood the circumstances. Saturday, Larson indicated that he knew Elliott was justifiably upset with him. Based on his sometimes choppy responses in post-race interviews, Elliott was, but he also said he understood Larson's aggressive move considering the stakes. "He did what he had to do to beat us back to the line, that's all there is to it," Elliott said. "Part of it." Elliott found himself on the short end of an even closer finish in the first 20-lap leg, edged by .005 seconds by Bayne, who split the middle on a bold, three-wide move shortly after the segment's final restart. That restart also proved to be the undoing of rookie Ryan Blaney , who was black-flagged for jumping the green flag and could only recover for a third-place finish overall. RELATED: Watch the Segment 1 finish unfold The nifty maneuver, though, launched Bayne into his first All-Star Race since 2012. "You don't hesitate when you can see the front any time, and especially when it's like this -- not a points race," said Bayne, who scored his only Sprint Cup win in the 2011 Daytona 500 . "If it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. You've got to win. It was pretty cool. Maybe if you're battling to get in the Chase on points, you don't make that move for third or fourth, but when it's for a win even in a points race, you've got to do it every time." Biffle, his Roush Fenway teammate, had a slightly easier time of it, slipping past Austin Dillon six laps into the second 20-lap segment to clinch his 13th consecutive All-Star start. Biffle advanced into the main event as a Showdown segment winner last year as well. His transfer inspired some lively banter with crew chief Brian Pattie. "Hope no one had dinner reservations," Pattie said over the team radio on the segment's cool-down lap. "Nope, I was planning on being here all night," Biffle replied, later noting the seven-figure incentive for the All-Star Race winner. RELATED: Biffle ecstatic after finish Patrick advanced through fan balloting for the third time in four years. "I definitely thought if there were two spots, I had a lot better shot," Patrick said. "My fans voted well."
Austin Dillon tops Sprint Showdown qualifying
Rookie will be joined by Allmendinger on the front row for Sprint Showdown
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