• 73°

Larson and Johnston return to Daytona after near miss in 500

Daytona coming up this weekend

A race fan takes a selfie photo with Dale Earnhardt Jr., center, as others try to get autographs as he walks through the Fan Zone section after a NASCAR cup auto racing practice at Daytona International Speedway, Thursday, June 29, 2017, in Daytona Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

By Jenna Fryer

AP Auto Racing Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Kyle Larson found himself leading the Daytona 500 with one lap remaining and a shot to win the biggest race on the NASCAR calendar.

Then he ran out of gas and finished 12th.

Pretty good day, Larson thought as he left Daytona International Speedway.

“At the moment, I wasn’t that upset because I never thought I’d have a shot to win the 500,” Larson told The Associated Press. “I was just really excited that I had a shot to win. It was the days after that I was really bummed out, realizing that I could have won the 500.”

Well, his crew chief was bummed out even before the fuel tank ran dry on the Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.

It was an agonizing final five laps for Chad Johnston, who knew the No. 42 was close to running out of gas but wasn’t sure if the car could make it to the checkered flag. As car after car ran out of gas and Larson moved to the front, the team was 2 ½ miles from victory.

“Half a gallon of gas,” Johnston told AP on Thursday. He said those final five laps were “sickening.”

“We gave it away,” Johnston said of the race won by Kurt Busch. “We knew we were close. We didn’t know we were going to run out.”

Larson and Johnston are back at Daytona in the first garage stall, their right as NASCAR’s points leader.

With two wins this season, the team has been second to only Martin Truex Jr. as the class of the Cup Series this year. They’ve got a solid spot in the playoffs, and a hot summer of racing ahead of them, but Johnston said the plan is still to win every weekend.

There’s no rest for this Ganassi team, not after how long it has taken to get into this position. For Larson, the promised future star of NASCAR, it has taken almost four years for him to finally scratch the surface of his potential.

But for Johnston, it’s been a roller-coaster ride. He went through the biggest cheating scandal in NASCAR and a stint with Tony Stewart during the lowest point of Stewart’s career before his pairing with Larson.

Johnston was Truex’s crew chief in 2013 when the team raced its way into the playoffs, only to be stripped of the spot when it became clear they were the benefactor of Michael Waltrip Racing’s organizational manipulation of the finish. Truex’s teammates had aided his path into the playoffs, even though that team had no part in the shenanigans, and NASCAR kicked them out of the playoffs.

Less than three months later, that entire team was out of work and MWR eventually went bust.

Johnston landed at Stewart-Haas Racing, crew chiefing for his boyhood idol Stewart, but the duo never found success together as Stewart was in the twilight of his career.

It bothers Johnston immensely that he didn’t have success with Stewart.

“With Tony, I didn’t run as well as I wanted. He’s a hero of mine, still a hero of mine. So it was pretty unfortunate for me that I couldn’t do any better than I did over there,” Johnston said. “It was heartbreaking. But then to come over here … it makes it a little bit more rewarding.”

Johnston and Stewart split before Stewart’s final season, and Johnston made the move to Ganassi. He guided Larson last year to his first Cup victory and a spot in the playoffs. It was the first time in Ganassi history the owner placed both of his Cup cars in the playoffs.

Johnston also gets to work with a raw driver in Larson, who has the same sprint car background as Stewart among other similarities.

“He’s the closest thing that has come along to Tony. No matter what he gets in, he’s fast,” Johnston said. “He doesn’t concern himself with what springs are on the car. He just drives it for all it is worth and tells you what it needs to go faster. Tony was the same way. It’s fun to watch Kyle. He’s fast. You could strap him to a lawnmower and he’d be fast.”

For Larson, he has found a crew chief who can pull feedback from him and has learned how to push him.

“When I first met him, he was very, very quiet and a little awkward,” Larson said. “But he’s far from awkward. He’s stern and not afraid to get on people and get push them to be better. He’s good. He’s a very good leader.”


More AP Auto Racing:






Catawba College hosts three in-person commencement ceremonies


With high case loads causing numerous staff departures, Child Protective Services seeks more positions


Livingstone College graduates celebrate ‘crossing the finish line’ during commencement celebration


Rowan sees 4 new COVID-19 deaths as mask mandate lifted, vaccines administered continue decline


Spencer is latest town updating its development ordinance


Salisbury native Kristy Woodson Harvey makes NY Times bestseller list


Board of Commissioners will convene for third time in May


Biz Roundup: Salisbury, Kannapolis among recipients of Region of Excellence Awards


Cheerleading team competes at Disney


Salisbury High to celebrate football, swimming champions with parade

High School

High school girls soccer: Isley, Webb lead all-county team


Spencer awarded $10,000 to develop trails at Stanback Forest


‘Tails and Tales’ coming to library this summer


Public Records: March Deeds


Salisbury Symphony’s ‘Return to the Concert Hall’ available May 24-31


Salisbury teen becomes one of first in age group to receive COVID-19 vaccine


Local farm and creamery poised to add goat yoga, artisan goat cheese to offerings


Pandemic’s impact, uncertainty of transit funding prompt request to eliminate Rowan Express service


New Waterworks’ exhibit opens June 1

High School

High school football: Walsh accepts the South football challenge


Price of Freedom Museum gets donated landscape project


Rowan Museum will have Upscale Yard Sale Saturday


Seventh dragon boat festival set for July 24; deadline for sponsorships is May 28


‘Shocking and horrifying’: Israel destroys AP office in Gaza