A year ago, there were a lot of questions about Kyle Larson’s readiness and ability. Was he too young, at age 21, to drive in Sprint Cup? Did his track record — he was winless in the Nationwide Series — warrant a promotion? Was owner Chip Ganassi being too aggressive bumping veteran Juan Pablo Montoya, especially considering that his top prospect didn’t even sit in a stock car until 2012?
It took just five races for the rookie to change the narrative entirely. At Fontana, Larson nearly swept both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup events, falling one position short of his first Cup win. From there, it was like a gun went off; Larson sped through the field like a bullet train while positioning himself as NASCAR’s next big superstar. It seems silly, in hindsight, to have ever possessed any doubt about his capability.
Related: Q&A with Kyle Larson
Simply earning top freshman honors, for which Larson bested a crowded field of eight, was the main goal for 2014. Now, he looks like a shoo-in for the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup and the driver who can transform Chip Ganassi’s NASCAR operation.
Answering those doubts seemed to motivate Larson. “There was a lot of room on the Kyle Larson bandwagon to start (last season),” he said in November. “I think a lot of people chose Austin Dillon to win (Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year), and I was pretty confident in myself and in my team that we could do it.”
Larson won the award on the strength of eight top-5 finishes and 17 top 10s, besting Dillon by 88 points in the final standings. He finished second three times in 2014 and was oh-so-close to winning a race.
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“I kind of set out as a goal to be a top-15 car all season, and I noticed right from the start of the season we’d be a top-10 car most races,” he says. “I changed the goals a little bit to run top 10 every race, and now, the way things are going, you want to be top 5.”
Larson shined the most once the Chase got underway. He missed qualifying for the title fight by just a few points but clicked off three top-5 finishes and six top 10s in the 10-race span to close the year. How impressive was the postseason? Had Larson qualified, he would have advanced all the way to NASCAR’s Round of 8.
All told, it was a sterling rookie debut, filled with momentum that should carry into 2015. Larson played a huge role in the success of the No. 42 and placed as the highest-achieving non-Chase driver in the season-ending point standings.
Perhaps most important, Larson’s racing style rarely brought criticism from the sport’s veteran driving corps, a group known for repudiating the ways of successful rookies.
Larson’s most successful tracks in 2014 were the 1.5- and 2-mile speedways that make up the majority of the schedule. His first win will come soon, possibly by the tour’s return to Auto Club Speedway on March 22. A Chase bid will follow, making him an intriguing postseason player. In just a year, he’s gone from question mark to unquestioned contender.
Reliable passer Larson ranked fourth in the series in adjusted pass efficiency in 2014 (53.13 percent) and first in efficiency at the quad-oval tracks, encompassing Las Vegas, Texas, Charlotte and Atlanta, with a 54.22 percent mark.
Big gainer He averaged a finish better than his average running position on all track types except short tracks. At tracks 1.0-1.49 miles in length, he averaged a finish 3.6 positions better than where he typically ran.
Martinsville is the worst The sweeping high banks Larson enjoys at bigger tracks don’t exist at Martinsville, where he struggled in 2014, finishing 27th and 30th.
Not a leader Larson’s 53 laps led were paltry and reflected his output in smaller divisions. He led only 64 laps during a title-winning 2012 season in the NASCAR K&N East and just 102 laps in the Nationwide Series in 2013.
No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Primary Sponsor: Target
Owner: Chip Ganassi
Crew Chief: Chris Heroy
Year With Current Team: 2nd
Under Contract Through: 2017
Best Points Finish: 17th (2014)
Hometown: Elk Grove, Calif.
Born: July 31, 1992
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.