by Ryan Isley
The 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Rookie of the Year battle was a two-horse race, with the driver who wears a cowboy hat not being the one to win the award. It was Austin Dillon who was the early talk of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie class but in the end, he was left holding his cowboy hat while Kyle Larson was holding the Rookie of the Year trophy.
Dillon came into the Sprint Cup Series in 2014 as a 23-year-old rookie (he turned 24 in April), having won the championship in the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2013. He and his grandfather – car owner Richard Childress – announced in December that they would be bringing the legendary No. 3 car out of what had been an unofficial retirement following the death of Dale Earnhardt. The news earned Dillon the early headlines and notoriety of the rookie class.
He started strong, winning the pole for the Daytona 500 and finished ninth in the season-opening race. Proving that wasn’t a fluke, Dillon had his only top-5 of the season in the July race at Daytona, coming home fifth. It was a year of learning for Dillon, however, as he finished in the top-10 just four times and had an average finish of 17.5.
For the 22-year old Larson on the other hand, 2014 was an arrival, as the 2013 Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year showed that he was ready to hang with the big boys. The No.42 car in the Target Chip Ganassi team became available with the departure of Juan Pablo Montoya and the team didn’t hesitate to put Larson behind the wheel. He didn’t disappoint.
Larson was the highest-finishing rookie in 26 races this season, with Dillon the highest finisher 10 times and Larson finished higher than Dillon in 15 of the final 18 races. Dillon was the highest finishing rookie in consecutive races just twice – a streak of two wins and a streak of three. Larson, meanwhile, was the highest finishing rookie in at least three straight races five times, including a streak of eight races in a row from August 23 at Bristol to October 11 at Charlotte.
Larson got off to a sluggish start, finishing 38-20-19 in his first three races before picking up a top-10 at Bristol and then was the runner-up to Carl Edwards at Fontana. The race at Fontana was the first of three runner-up finishes on the season. Larson finished the season with eight top-5s and 17 top-10 finishes, both good enough for ninth overall in the series. He ended up finishing 17th in the points standings, but had the series never gone to the Chase format, Larson would have finished eighth.
The only drivers to finish with more top-10s than Larson in 2014 were Jeff Gordon (23), Joey Logano (22), Matt Kenseth (22), Kevin Harvick (20), Jimmie Johnson (20, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (20), Brad Keselowski (20 and Denny Hamlin (18). Keselowski (17), Logano (16), Harvick (14), Gordon (14), Kenseth (13), Earnhardt Jr. (12), Johnson (11) and Kyle Busch (9) were the only drivers with more top-5s than Larson. That’s not bad company for a rookie.
The eight top-5s were more than Montoya had in a single season in his seven seasons behind the wheel of the No. 42 and the 17 top-10s were one shy of Montoya’s 18 in 2009. Montoya had more than eight top-10s just one other time when he amassed 14 in 2010. In his last three seasons combined (2011-13), Montoya had just six top-5s and 18 top-10s in 108 races.
Larson finished on the lead lap in 28 of the 36 of the season’s races, tying him for sixth most in that category with Hamlin. Meanwhile, Dillon finished on the lead lap just 23 times. Finishing on the lead lap helped Larson end the season with an average finishing position of 14.2 – the eighth-best in the Sprint Cup Series and was better than drivers such as Hamlin, Johnson, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne and Busch.
Even though Larson missed the Chase for the Sprint Cup this season, he made an impression once the Chase began. The rookie reeled off five straight finishes of sixth or better from Chicago to Charlotte with two runner-ups and a third-place finish.
Larson is just getting started yet has already gained the respect of his peers, including four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon. In the Chase-opening race in Chicago, Larson led in the late stages of the race and ultimately finished third despite driving a backup car and dropping to 25th early. Gordon sought out Larson on pit road to offer his praise to the rookie, who grew up a huge fan of Gordon’s.
It hasn’t taken long for Larson to prove that he is the real deal in the world of NASCAR. And it might not take much longer before he is holding a trophy to add to that Rookie of the Year.