Sophomore slump: Kyle Larson unexpectedly took a step back in 2015

Coming into the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, big expectations surrounded second-year driver Kyle Larson.

And rightfully so.

As a rookie in 2014, Larson surpassed expectations in ringing up 17 top-10 finishes including eight top fives highlighted by three runner-up results.

Although Larson failed to win a race in his first season, many observers believed the quick success of the young Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates driver had laid the groundwork for an even better 2015.

But that's not what happened.

Instead of improving, Larson actually took a step back this year in all but two statistical categories -- he led more laps (115, versus 53 in 2014) and qualified better (average starting position of 13.3, versus 15.6).

Larson recorded seven fewer top 10s and six fewer top fives than he did as a rookie, however, while finishing two positions further down in the standings (19th vs. 17th in 2014).

Further illuminating Larson's struggles was that teammate Jamie McMurray made the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, thanks to outstanding consistency over the course of the 26-race regular season.

Team officials announced just one day after the 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway that Chris Heroy, Larson's crew chief from both of his first two seasons, would be replaced in 2016 by Chad Johnston, Tony Stewart's crew chief from the past two seasons at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Johnston, who holds a mechanical engineering degree from Indiana State University, failed to win in two seasons with Stewart -- a three-time Sprint Cup Series champion -- but will be tasked with at the very least returning Larson to his 2014 form.