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.