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Larson breathes new life into No. 42 team

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Chip Ganassi Racing crew chief Chris Heroy still gets a kick out of his driver Kyle Larson's request after the 21-year-old rookie scored his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series runner-up finish two months ago in his native California.

"He came on the radio and asked me if he could do a burnout," Heroy recalls with a laugh. "I told him, 'Next time, if things work out.' "

That first victory burnout sure feels imminent.

It's good times and happy days at the No. 42 Target Chevrolet. That's what happens when you combine the super smart, but easygoing Heroy with the massive natural talent and unbridled enthusiasm of Larson.

Only three other drivers have more top-10s (five) than Larson this season and their names are Gordon, Kenseth and Earnhardt Jr.  Larson's streak of three top-10s in the last four races certainly makes it easier for he and Heroy to smile a little about the season's start.

On the very first lap of Larson's 2014 Sunoco Rookie of the Year campaign he slapped the Daytona International Speedway wall.

Ten races later, he's leading the rookie championship, 122-104 points over Daytona 500 pole-winner Austin Dillon. Larson has been Rookie of the Race seven times in 10 races, including the last four consecutively.

After his hard-earned ninth-place finish at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, Larson overtook Dillon in the Sprint Cup Series championship standings moving to 13th place overall, five points up on Dillon in 14th.

He's also ranked ahead of perennial title chasers such as 2014 two-race winner Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart.

"I'm pretty happy where we've been running," the typically understated Larson said this week. "After Daytona, which didn't go real well, we dug ourselves back out of the hole and back in contention.

"Our cars have been fast, our crew is working well together and it seems like Chip (Ganassi) is in a good mood, too.

"It's nice having confidence in your ability as well as how your car is going to run and we've had that pretty much going into every race."

The three-time Cup champ Stewart was like many others who presciently predicted good things from the young Californian even as Dillon -- grandson of team owner Richard Childress -- received most of the pre-season hype as the prevailing Rookie of the Year winning prediction.

That's been fine -- even preferred -- with Larson and Heroy. Hype and hoopla isn't really their style. They'd rather be out front on the track than in the media.

And that's been happening more and more.

"Me and Shine (Heroy's nickname is "Sunshine") are both really laid back and quiet and we talk really slow," Larson said. "We both think about what we say before we say it, and I think it's a good thing."

Not getting easily flustered has helped several times this year in addition to the inauspicious Daytona 500 debut. After starting on the pole two weeks ago at Richmond, Larson was bumped by veteran Clint Bowyer on the first lap. Instead of panicking or losing focus, both driver and crew chief methodically and patiently went about business -- just a change in course -- and Larson salvaged a 16th-place run.

"We don't get too worked up, like when things happen like they did at Richmond," Larson conceded. "We just had to go into fight mode and get the best finish we could. I think that's a good trait for what will hopefully be a championship team."

That remains the goal just as the No. 42 team had high hopes with its previous driver, former IndyCar champ and Formula One driver Juan Pablo Montoya, who returned to open-wheel this year.

There is good continuity and high expectations. The crew remained in place after the driver and the Ganassi team switched to the championship-winning Hendrick engines last year.

"We always had speed with Juan (Montoya) but never seemed to put all together," Heroy said. "I think it's really just that's it's a fresh start with Kyle.

"The two are definitely dedicated to their craft. With Juan in 1999-2000 he was winning CART championships and Indy 500 and driving the wheels off everything he got in. He came to us as a veteran.

"I'm just getting Kyle at the beginning of his career while Juan had already accomplished a lot. I get to enjoy the excitement of Kyle just hauling butt at Fontana, things like that."

Heroy sounds like someone genuinely enjoying the ride and looking forward to what's down the road.

And with each race, that victory burnout feels closer.

"Absolutely, our goal is to win a race and make the Chase," Heroy said without hesitation. "He's definitely close. We just have to get him in position where he has a chance. He'll get it done, the kid's that good.

"Rookie of the Year is definitely a goal for us and Target, but we have bigger aspirations than that, too.

"The sky's the limit with this kid. We're focused on trying to beat everyone, not just Austin Dillon."

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