Of the many NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers still hunting for their first race victory of the season, two who appear to be ready break through are Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates teammates Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson.
With 16 of 36 Sprint Cup races in the books, rookie Larson is an impressive 10th in points, with McMurray having climbed from 24th to 19th in the last five races. Clearly there are a number of top drivers — Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer among them — who could win their first race of the year as early as Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.
But it would not be a surprise at all to see one of the two Ganassi drivers in Victory Lane first.
Last weekend at Sonoma Raceway, McMurray qualified on the pole and finished a season-best fourth in the Toyota/Save Mart 350. After an unfortunate start to the year, McMurray has suddenly gotten very hot with two top fives and no finish worse than 13th in his last five races. Last year at this time, McMurray had zero top fives and only three top 10s.
And let’s not forget the cool $1 million McMurray won by capturing the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race last month at Charlotte Motor Speedway. All in all, it’s been a huge improvement from where the program was last year.
"Our cars are just really good, the engines are good," McMurray said last Saturday after winning his second consecutive pole at the Northern California road course. "The simulation is working really well. I feel like our teams are working well together. … I think our short-track cars are good. I think the intermediates are good, speedway; all of them have been great this year. It’s nice that Kyle and I both put together good (qualifying) laps today, but it’s not just about these cars. I think it’s about our entire program right now. I feel really good about it."
One other factor to consider: McMurray was runner-up at Kentucky last year.
Likewise, the rookie Larson is having an excellent season, despite losing his power steering at Sonoma and finishing 28th. In March, Larson nearly won at Auto Club Speedway, where he finished second to Kyle Busch, and Larson has three top fives and seven top 10s in 16 starts.
With 10 races left in the Sprint Cup regular season, Larson is in great position to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup and win rookie of the year honors as well.
So far, 10 drivers have won races, leaving slots for the six winless drivers highest in points. Heading into Kentucky, Larson ranks third among the winless drivers in points. His team is making sure he always knows where he stands.
"I kind of know where I have to be, because each week they let me know based on averages, kind of where you have to finish to make the Chase if you don’t win a race," said Larson. "So I kind of know that. And that’s my goal, just beating that position every week. And the number keeps getting bigger and bigger, so we can relax a little bit, but you’ve still got to finish every race. It would be nice to get a win, but you’ve got to be consistent to be up there in case you don’t win a race. And right now, we’re sitting in a pretty good spot."
That spot just might get even better for one or both of the Ganassi drivers very soon.