Between on-track success and off-track prosperity, Sunoco Rookie of the Year in a great place RELATED: Play NASCAR Fantasy Live " Sign up for RaceView today In putting together one of the most dramatic and impressive Sprint Cup Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year seasons in recent memory, 22-year old Kyle Larson recognizes there are plenty of options for defining moments and highlight reels. For some, it will be his last lap tangle with Ryan Newman in the next to last race of the season, which set the championship contender field. Needing one more position on track, Newman pulled his Chevy alongside Larson's and sent the rookie into the wall derailing an 18th top-10 run, while the veteran Newman crossed the finish line in precisely the place he needed to advance to the Chase Championship Round. "I didn't know 100 percent if he needed that spot that I was in,'' Larson said between practices at Homestead-Miami Speedway last weekend. "I got loose off (Turn) 2 and they said he had a run and I thought well, he might try something crazy, so I left him a lane and I don't know if I should have done that and he was able to get to me and hit me. "Anybody would have been upset, but I got over it pretty quick because I knew what was at stake. That was a very important spot for him to get." What Larson himself considers his defining moment may surprise. It's not the blazing runner-up finish at Auto Club Speedway in his native California in March -- only five races into the schedule. And it's not even his runner-up showings in New Hampshire and Kansas during the Chase. "The best feeling I had this year was probably when I finished fourth at Watkins Glen, (New York)," Larson said, taking a moment to mentally rewind and really think through the question. "I didn't grow up racing on road courses and I struggled really bad the whole practice and qualifying that weekend. So then to end up fourth, which was way, way better than I thought I was going to be -- I was super pumped up about that." The fact that Larson had so many good performances in the No. 42 Target Chevrolet to choose from is not lost on the young talent. Neither is the fact that few picked him to win the 2014 Sunoco Rookie of the Year title before the season started. The Elk Grove, California native didn't come from a racing pedigree, nor had he won a NASCAR development series title. Larson earned his seat showing natural talent and the can't-miss potential that have made him one of NASCAR's biggest young stars in only one full season in the Cup ranks. Like his racing heroes Gordon and Tony Stewart , he came up through the open-wheel ranks of sprint cars and midgets. Team owner Chip Ganassi signed the NASCAR Drive for Diversity grad and Larson realized this was his big opportunity to make it in stock cars. He delivered with two pole positions, three runner-up finishes among his eight top-five showings and his 17 top-10s was more than eight of the 16 Chase drivers. "Really to start the year everyone thought I was going to fail,'' Larson said. "At least three-quarters of the people sitting in the media center probably did. Then I think they realized after the first handful of races that our team was capable of running well and the bar got raised and raised more throughout the year. "My expectations going into the start of the season were top-15 every week would be great and that quickly turned into wanting top-10s every week and lately top-fives and wins are the goal." And he's not the only one who expects great things of the No. 42 team. And expects them soon. The opinion shifting began early and earnestly. The bar has only risen. "I feel we could win every week,'' Larson said with a big grin. "I think (teammate) Jamie (McMurray) feels the same way, all our guys feel that way and Chip definitely feels that way, so his expectations are a lot higher. "That's good though. It's nice coming to the race track every week and knowing your car is going to be fast. In years past, this team maybe hasn't felt like that every week, but now they're in a good spot and I'm definitely glad I got in here when I did." Larson continued, "The best thing to happen to me is being with a really good team that's excited to have a new driver. "I think we're capable enough with more experience and good tracks at the beginning of the year that I'd like to get a win early in the season and know you're going to be in the Chase. … and then you don't have to stress out every other race." Before he suits back up, however, Larson's amazing year will get even better. He and longtime girlfriend Katelyn Sweet are expecting their first child in late December, a son they will name Owen Miyata -- the middle name a nod to Larson's Japanese roots. Miyata is Larson's mom Janet's maiden name and giving it to Owen ensures it will carry on in the family. "As much as I've had a blast racing, I can't wait for the offseason for all the exciting things coming, the baby, the new house -- we just finally stayed in it one night this week,'' Larson said, clearly enjoying the anticipation. Moving in is exciting. Just ask @Katelyn_Sweet pic.twitter.com/DUnX6SaeON — Kyle Larson (@KyleLarsonRacin) November 19, 2014 "There's been a ton that's happened and it's all been great stuff. I've had great years results-wise, but the baby, the house, first year in Cup probably never been a year as exciting as this.'' 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Sprint Cup rookie will run tripleheader at Homestead RELATED: Play NASCAR Fantasy Live " Sign up for RaceView today Ryan Newman said he did what he had to do to pass Kyle Larson in the fourth turn on the final lap at Phoenix International Raceway to advance to the Championship Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. And, according to Larson , there appears to be no hard feelings. Through a team spokesperson Larson said, " Coming to the finish, there was a lot of cars racing really hard. I knew the 31 was right around me, and knew he needed to gain some spots to keep from getting eliminated from the Chase. It's a little upsetting he pushed me up to the wall, but I completely understand the situation he was in, and can't fault him for being aggressive there. I think a lot of drivers out here would have done something similar if they were in that position." Newman's 11th-place finish was enough to get him to the Championship Round of four drivers, while Larson finished 13th. The Richard Childress Racing driver said afterward of the final-lap move, "I kept it as clean, to me, as I possibly could." Newman needed one position to advance and was trailing Larson and Marcos Ambrose . In the final turn, Newman dived inside Larson and contact sent the rookie out of the racing groove, up the track and into the wall. "He did the same thing to me in a truck race for about $9,000 to win," Newman said. "To me, there's a Sprint Cup championship on the line. I kept it as clean as I could." As an interesting sidenote, in January of 2013 Larson shared this Throwback Thursday picture of himself and Newman. #ThrowbackThursday with @RyanNewman39 pic.twitter.com/owBdk4Nl — Kyle Larson (@KyleLarsonRacin) January 25, 2013 Larson will keep busy this weekend, as he will participate in the Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series season finales in addition to the Sprint Cup finale. Turner Scott Motorsports announced that Larson will drive the No. 42 truck at Homestead with sponsorship from ParkerStore. The company will also be on board as a primary and associate sponsor for Larson in several 2015 XFINITY Series races. ParkerStore was a partner of Larson's when he was racing midget cars in California. "I am really excited to be reuniting with ParkerStore," Larson said. "To be able to team up again with a sponsor from back in my midget racing days is really cool. I think we'll make a great team. I'm really looking forward to working with them on and off of the race track. I feel like I have some unfinished business at Homestead in the Truck Series, so I can't wait to get there and see what we can do." Proud to have my first partner @ParkerStore back with me. Too bad this old firesuit doesn't still fit. pic.twitter.com/234rmsGVn5 — Kyle Larson (@KyleLarsonRacin) November 10, 2014 Here is the @ParkerStore truck I will be racing Friday night @HomesteadMiami . Let's get back to work! pic.twitter.com/Tt4qpKySUi — Kyle Larson (@KyleLarsonRacin) November 10, 2014 MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView FULL SERIES COVERAGE • Latest news • Standings • Schedule
Panel of experts debates the hot topics in NASCAR 1. Now that the season has been completed, what do you think? What stands out about 2014? Alan Cavanna: The Chase and everything surrounding the Chase. It worked out better than expected and I think it's sent the sport in a good direction. Kenny Bruce: It's definitely a long list, some good and some not-so-good. Dale Earnhardt Jr . winning the Daytona 500 , Aric Almirola and AJ Allmendinger winning for the first time and making the Chase, the excitement of the new format and the intensity that it generated. You had must-win situations for Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick , and they came through. The whole situation surrounding Tony Stewart late in the season will be memorable for all the wrong reasons, unfortunately. But it's become a part of what the '14 season was all about. Zack Albert: So many storylines to choose from and not just with the new-look Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Five guys -- and there for a while, a sixth -- rose to fantastic heights: Kevin Harvick , Brad Keselowski , Joey Logano , Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr . all either enjoyed resurgences or breakout years. The sixth slight nod goes to Jimmie Johnson , who was hot as a firecracker heading into the summer, but wasn't quite up to his usual Chase standards. Cavanna: As a storyteller, I loved the emergence of Brad K. as the "black hat" to some. The only way to really earn that is through great performances. Fans love having someone to hate, and Brad gave them plenty of wins to hate on. Bruce: The more you think about it, the more things slide back into focus, Zack. The Johnson hot streak you mentioned, the post-race altercations at Charlotte and Texas that Alan alluded to. And we haven't even touched Nationwide or Trucks, which had incredible moments as well. A rookie wins the NNS title? The first back-to-back champ in the Truck Series? Albert: I distinctly remember sitting in the Atlanta Motor Speedway media center watching Ryan Blaney and German Quiroga duke it out on the final lap of the trucks' visit to Canadian Tire Motorsport Park . The whole room stopped what they were doing to watch. Between that and the whole aura of Eldora for the second straight year, many great Truck Series memories. Cavanna: I really believe people will be talking about this first Chase, and first championship race, for a long, long time. To have three contenders with three laps to go still racing for a title was unreal. Bruce: Safe to say the season gave us plenty to talk about. But you're probably correct Alan. When it was all over, the new format and the final race seemed to stand above the rest. Albert: Very true. It all played out with a great finish and all four drivers putting in a championship-worthy performance. And whether you love the new Chase or are one of its critics, the bottom line is: Was the racing good? At Homestead and many other tracks week-in and week-out, the answer was yes. Bruce: Now the question is how do they top that, Zack? Albert: Always room for an encore, methinks. 2. Kevin Harvick semi-joked that the Chase format could shorten his career because of the intensity it generated. OK, maybe or maybe not. But will the format adversely impact opportunities for a team to win multiple titles? Will we see more guys in the hunt or domination by those who figure out the best approach? Expect Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus to be better in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup next year, now that they have one year of experience under the format. Cavanna: It's so hard to say because we're dealing with such a small sample size. We all made predictions before knowing how this Chase would work, and we were generally all wrong. Bruce: Generally? How about specifically, Alan? I think I had four different winners in four different Chase brackets and "might" have picked Harvick in one of them. Cavanna: In the end, the most dominant car won. But we also saw how it all came down to one race, and really the final pit stop. That could easily swing a championship, and prevent repeat titles. Albert: The degree of difficulty certainly went up in 2014. But you also have to have the common denominator of performance, year over year, to form a dynasty. Does Harvick have a repeat in him? Absolutely, but some of the new format's nuances can make it tough sledding. It will be interesting to see how teams learn from this first go-round and what the strategies will be for the next Chase episode. Bruce: Listening to post-race comments, Zack, I think you're right. We didn't know what to expect and neither did the teams. I imagine they're already determining what they could have or should have done differently for next year. Albert: Let's hope they can enjoy a little bit of offseason down time before they start number crunching on Chase scenarios. Cavanna: With one Chase to study, I can easily see the No. 48 team planning its strategy for next year. I think teams will take a different approach to ensuring their spot in the final four. Bruce: As far as whether the format favors someone dominating in terms of winning titles, I doubt it. With the elimination races in place, we saw what can happen to even those that were perceived to be the "best" teams. Still, anyone not figuring on Harvick being an early-season favorite should turn in his or her hard card. Cavanna: Once teams "figure it out," I think we could see some teams get good at it. Bruce: Given the format, do we see more "Mark Martin" scenarios? Great drivers who never win a title? Cavanna: That's very possible, Kenny. I feel like every year we'll have a driver who has a Logano-like year, but then just miss it in Homestead. Albert: Not to mention making room for an underdog, a la Newman, in the Championship 4. Bruce: I guess it's a glass half-full or half-empty scenario. Maybe more guys having great seasons that don't win a title, or perhaps the opportunity for more drivers to win it. Albert: Alan's still waiting on his opportunity in a third Penske car. Talk about your Chase bracket buster … Cavanna: My pit crew is stellar! Put me in the race, Captain! 3. OK, we know how 2014 shook out. What’s the outlook for 2015? And by the way, the Daytona 500 is less than 100 days away. Our experts think Kyle Larson makes the postseason next year -- and he may even be a title contender. Albert: Wow. Let me dust off my dart set and start throwing. Bruce: Daytona's rising. That much we know. As for anything else? Lawn Darts, Zack. Go big or go home. Cavanna: The emergence of Kyle Larson will be fun to watch. As long as his team continues to improve, I think he's a lock for the Chase, and a deep run. Albert: A very safe bet that he'll visit Victory Lane on the Sprint Cup side in 2015, probably more than once. Bruce: At least he still has his crew chief, which is more than his teammate can say. Cavanna: I also think some drivers will look at Larson's 2014 season and be even more motivated to get that win. Remember, if Larson had just one regular-season win, it could've been him taking a title in Homestead. No driver will want to be saying "what if" after having a great Chase but not being in it. Bruce: Actually, I think the crew chief movement will play a bigger role in '15. A lot of guys on the box seem to be on the move -- McMurray and Earnhardt Jr. will have new guys in place, we're still waiting to see what unfolds over at Joe Gibbs Racing. Kahne and Kenny Francis are no longer together. Maybe the season-opening question should be, can change top the tried-and-true? Cavanna: Kenseth switched teams and won seven races (in '13); Harvick switched and won a championship. What's next for Carl Edwards ? Albert: Plenty of movement, even though this silly season seems to be sprinkled with less hilarity. I'll be very interested to see if Team Penske can keep it up after a banner season, and how Hendrick Motorsports regroups after going 0-for-4 on title-eligible drivers at Homestead last weekend. Will also be watching to see if Chase Elliott takes those first steps into Sprint Cup, as hinted. Cavanna: We haven't even mentioned the 2015 rules package. The no-ride height made for a big change this season. Next year will be another adjustment, hopefully for the better. Bruce: If that's the case, Alan, then we should probably play close attention to next month's anticipated test at Charlotte. I seem to recall one team being ahead of everyone at that point a year ago ... and look where they ended up. Albert: Who knew that simulated races in December would mean so much? Cavanna: I'm filling out my Chase bracket based on next month's test. 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At first race, Penn State student got great view of NASCAR action Students are encouraged to work as active media members at the race track and ultimately tell the story of their unique experience at a NASCAR event. Following each immersion, one student will have the chance to see their work published on NASCAR.com. Melissa Conrad, a senior at Pennsylvania State University, attended the race weekend in Avondale, Arizona, and filed this story. I grew up watching and playing all sports, from field hockey to tennis to cross country and everything in between. I traveled up and down the East Coast watching my brother play summer league baseball and competing in AAU basketball tournaments myself. I watched NFL games every Sunday with my dad. I pined over Olympic figure skating and gymnastics with my mom, the one non-sports-oriented person in my family. I chose to attend Penn State University for the well-respected education I would receive from the College of Communications and the athletic involvement opportunities that would present themselves at such a high-profile institution. Now, as a senior having completed a multitude of internships in the industry, I thought I had accomplished a diverse, well-rounded background in sports knowledge. That is, until Nov. 7 when I arrived at Phoenix International Raceway to experience NASCAR. Before arriving in Phoenix to participate in an exclusive student immersion program for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and NASCAR Nationwide Series races, NASCAR was defined as such: The sport of which I have almost no knowledge or opinion. My definition today? The best-kept sports secret of my generation. Per my own observation, it seems that the buzz for NASCAR exists mostly within an older-than-college crowd. However, my experience in Phoenix is proof to why the buzz needs to spread (and will). As soon as we landed at the airport, we were immediately whisked away to the track. Tom Bryant, director of communicators for Touring and Weekly racing, met us at the track entrance to get us set up with credentials that would allow us access to people and areas that thousands of others would beg for during the weekend. I can genuinely say that the scene we walked into was unlike any other sports scene I’ve been a part of, from Penn State’s Beaver Stadium filled to capacity to Gaelic football playoffs in Ireland. It was an organized chaos of pit crews handling hundreds of tools and parts, passionate fans looking on and waiting for autographs, media members fighting for interviews and cars zooming by in tight lanes to enter the raceway for practice or qualifying rounds. Friday consisted of meeting the on-site NASCAR Competition Communications team from top to bottom, who welcomed us as if we were one of their own. The group was not only quick to offer any and all background information on the sport, but was also just as interested to hear our stories -- where we were from, what our majors were, what brought us here and so on. We looked on in amazement as the final practice round for the NASCAR Nationwide Series took place, followed by NASCAR Camping World Truck Series qualifying. I never realized that NASCAR isn't just the race itself; it’s the compilation of qualifying and practice rounds that are just as crucial. The sun went down and it was time for NASCAR under the lights at Phoenix International Raceway . There was one problem though: a power outage in the region. Half of the race track was completely darkened beside the Arizona desert mountains, and the main attraction of the day (not to mention, my first ever NASCAR race) was delayed by an hour. When the lights turned on and the race did get going, a crash occurred before some of the trucks even reached the start/finish line, thus rendering 18 ensuing caution laps. Everyone in the press box made a point to stop by the Penn State students' chairs and whisper: "Don't worry, it's not usually like this." However, what they didn't realize is that you never forget your first experience with a particular sport. Power outages and cautions laps or not, NASCAR was beginning to make sense to me. Saturday was another full day of practice rounds, qualifying, media interviews, press conferences and most notably a 100 mph, adrenaline-spiking pace car trip around the track. The NASCAR Nationwide Series race was set for 2 p.m. that afternoon. We had the amazing opportunity to sit atop Kyle Larson 's pit box, an experience I'm sure would be envied by many NASCAR loyalists. I almost felt guilty taking such an incredible viewing spot for the race, having had no previous knowledge of a sport in which millions live and breathe. Watching the @NASCAR_NNS race at @PhoenixRaceway from @KyleLarsonRacin 's pit box. pic.twitter.com/AvFJIGbSr3 — Melissa Conrad (@melissaconradPR) November 8, 2014 What an experience it was to see the race from that vantage point. Listening to the radio, watching Larson's team go to work in less than eight seconds each pit stop and being that close to the track was a sports moment I will never forget. I learned in those three hours that you do not need to fully understand a sport to truly grasp its intensity. The beauty of sports is just that. If you have a passion for competition, it doesn't matter whether it's a ball bouncing on a court, a puck skimming across the ice, a glove making a catch, or a high-speed car revving its engine. All sports matter. I arrived at the Phoenix International Raceway as a NASCAR doubter and left as a believer. Text goes here MORE: READ: Latest Chase news PLAY: Monitor your Chase Grid Game picks WATCH: Latest NASCAR video FOLLOW LIVE: Get RaceView
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