Kyle Larson will have to wait until his sophomore season of NASCAR Sprint Cup competition to get his first victory.
But Larson was still clearly a cut above the series’ other freshmen this season, and after finishing 13th in Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the 21-year-old was named 2014 Cup Rookie of the Year.
“We were really competitive all season long with the Target team, and came really, really close to winning a couple of them,” Larson said afterwards. “Starting off the year finishing second, really really early in the season at Fontana was great. There was a lot of room on the Kyle Larson bandwagon on to start the season.
“I think a lot of people chose Austin Dillon to win it, and I was pretty confident in myself and in my team that we could do it. I knew there would be some ups and downs, but I felt like we would be the top contender once we got halfway through the season, and we definitely were.
“[I’m] really proud of that, proud of the effort everybody has put in on these race cars. We’ve gotten better throughout the season, and it’s just a huge honor to win this title with all the other names that have won it.”
The 2014 campaign featured a class of eight rookies, but almost immediately, many observers expected RoY honors to go to either Larson or Dillon, who was coming off winning the 2013 Nationwide Series championship.
However, Larson quickly showed that he was the best of the lot.
Although he was unable to win and did not make the Chase, he still collected three runner-up finishes (the aforementioned Fontana, New Hampshire, and Kansas). Plus, he had more Top-5 finishes – eight – than two of the championship contenders, Denny Hamlin (seven) and Ryan Newman (five).
“I think just being competitive and challenging for Top-5s and Top-10s most every week has been really good,” Larson added on Sunday night. “There are a lot of moments that stand out, a lot of heartbreak moments as well.
“We will come back next season, peel the rookie stripes off, and try and go out there and win a race and get into the Chase and do what Kevin Harvick did tonight.”
Most importantly, with Larson behind the wheel, the previously moribund No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing team became a contender more often than not during the season.
Meanwhile, Dillon was able to avoid a single DNF in his rookie year in the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevy but could only muster one Top-5 run. He was also beaten by Larson on Top-10 finishes (Larson’s 17 to his four) and on average finish (Larson’s 14.2 to Dillon’s 17.5).