Top NASCAR stories of 2014: No. 16 — Kyle Larson, super-rookie

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MotorSportsTalk will be counting down the top 20 stories of the 2014 NASCAR season over the month of December.

Here’s what we’ve done so far:

Today, we hit No. 16 – the rise of one of the most heralded Sprint Cup rookies in recent memory, Kyle Larson…

A lot of things in life are not necessarily worthy of the hype they receive.

But in his freshman Sprint Cup season, Kyle Larson proved that he was indeed worthy. The dirt-track phenom entered NASCAR’s top level in 2014 and quickly set himself apart from his fellow rookies.

Revitalizing what had become a so-so No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing team, Larson put up three runner-up finishes, eight Top-5s, and 17 Top-10 finishes. He stayed in Chase contention until the final stages of the regular season and was the no-brainer choice for Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year honors.

Additionally, Larson had a solid year in the NASCAR XFINITY Series with two wins, 14 Top-5s, and 21 Top-10s in 28 starts there.

One of those two XFINITY wins came at Auto Club Speedway in the spring, and one day after that win, he effectively announced himself as a future Cup star on the same two-mile California oval.

Larson took the last restart of the Auto Club 400 in ninth position but quickly shot through the front-runners to challenge Kyle Busch on the final lap.

“Rowdy” was able to hold off the charging Larson, but it was still one of many impressive moments in 2014 for the 21-year-old. His other two runner-up performances came during the Chase at New Hampshire and Kansas, elevating him to a sort of co-starring status along with the championship contenders.

And as Larson continued to rattle off one strong result after another, the sport’s veterans started to become effusive with praise. Perhaps the biggest instance of this came from four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon, who said Larson was “going to be a star in this series for a long time” after they battled up front during the Chase opener at Chicagoland.

2014 was also a special year for Larson off the track, as he and his girlfriend announced in mid-season that they would be welcoming their first child. The baby, which is a boy that has already been named Owen, is due to arrive toward the end of this month.

After all of that, one can’t help but wonder what awaits Larson in 2015.

James Hinchcliffe on Andretti: ‘It’s certainly the place I want to be’

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Since before the start of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season, James Hinchcliffe tirelessly has worked to ensure the future would include a full-time return in 2021.

And with an opportunity to run the final three races this season with Andretti Autosport, there seems a surefire (albeit unlikely) path.

“If I go out and win all three,” Hinchcliffe joked with IndyCar on NBC announcer Leigh Diffey in an interview Friday (watch the video above), “it would be hard for them to say no, right?”

Regardless of whether he can go unbeaten at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course next weekend or the Oct. 25 season finale at St. Petersburg, Florida (where he earned his first career win in 2013), Hinchcliffe will have the chance to improve his stock with the team that he knows well and now has an opening among its five cars for 2021.

All three of Hinchcliffe’s starts this season — the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, July 4 at the IMS road course and the Indianapolis 500 — were with Andretti, where he ran full time in IndyCar from 2012-14.

“Obviously, the plan from January 2020 was already working on ’21 and trying to be in a full-time program,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed being reunited with Andretti Autosport, and everybody there has been so supportive. It’s been a very fun year for me on track. It’s been kind of a breath of fresh air in a lot of ways.

“It’s certainly the place I want to be moving forward. We’ve been working on that, working on those conversations. Genesys has been an incredible partner in my three races. We’ll be representing Gainbridge primarily, but Genesys will still have a position on our car in the last three.”

Gainbridge is the primary sponsor of the No. 26 Dallara-Honda that was vacated by Zach Veach, who left the team after it was determined he wouldn’t return in 2021. Hinchcliffe can empathize having lost his ride with Arrow McLaren SP after last season with a year left on his deal.

“You never want to earn a ride at the expense of somebody else in the sense that has happened here with Zach,” Hinchcliffe said. “I feel bad that he’s not able to see out the last three races of his season. I’ve got a lot of respect for him off track. He’s been a teammate this year, a colleague for years before that and honestly a friend for years before that. I’ve got a lot of time for him and his family. I understand a little bit of what it’s like in that position and what he’s going through.”

Hinchcliffe is ready to seize the moment, though, starting with the Oct. 2-3 doubleheader race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He had been hoping to add the Harvest Indy Grand Prix to his schedule and had been working out for the possibility.

“Then last week I had given up hope (and) was resigned that wasn’t happening,” he said. “I told my trainer, ‘I think we’re done for this year.’ Three days later, this call comes. I’m glad we didn’t make that decision too early. I feel great physically.

“I look at it as a great opportunity to continue to show I’ve still got what it takes and should be there hopefully full time next year on the grid.”

Watch Hinchliffe’s video with Leigh Diffey above or by clicking here.