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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- In a season filled with so many accomplishments and record-breaking achievements, 2016 may not played out the same if it wasn't for the two early season races Cayden Lapcevich didn't win.
And in the end, it got a 16-year-old from Grinsby, Ontario, to the very place he hoped he could reach back when he was just a little kid visiting the race track.
"Walking through the pits with my grandpa, and see all the hard work they were putting into it," said Lapcevich. "I wanted to put an attempt at this and see what we'd accomplish."
The first sign of what was to come was the NASCAR Pinty's Series season opener at Ontario's Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. It marked Lapcevich's seventh career race -- having run six in 2015 and preserving his rookie status -- and third on the world-class oval. While Lapcevich's early success, which would carry over to his championship season, would come on ovals, the path to a championship in Canada's stock car national championship series always necessitates a certain amount of success on road courses.
While not often mentioned in the conversation of road-course aces, Cayden's father Jeff was sneakily good at CTMP. The elder Lapcevich, who retired at the end of 2015, finished on the podium in five of his last six starts at CTMP. More importantly, he completed all 608 laps over 12 career starts on the 2.459-mile, 10-turn course.
Cayden followed a similar formula. After starting 11th, he stayed on course and out of trouble, and cleared the first hurdle with a fourth-place finish after a wild green-white-checkered finish.
There was no talk, though, of a championship run. In fact, the team didn't plan to participate in the season's second race on the tight quarter-mile at Quebec's Autodrome Chaudiere.
Then the rain came.
The race at Chaudiere was washed out and pushed back to the end of June. Lapcevich made his next scheduled start at his home track of Sunset Speedway in Ontario. He recorded his first career pole and finished second to Alex Tagliani.
The second definining moment of this remarkable run came next at Chaudiere.
After picking up a late sponsor for the event, Lapcevich made the trip to Quebec and nearly pulled off an improbable victory. Instead, he settled for second-place in what many observers on hand called the best race in the series' 10-year history. Lapcevich and eventual winner Alex Labbe swapped the lead nine times in the last 21 laps, spending nearly the entire final portion side by side. Lapcevich's performance was impressive. Not only did he run multiple lines in an early-race battle for the lead against two-time series champion Andrew Ranger, he again impressively saved enough for the end and his duel with Labbe.
While he didn't get his first victory, Lapcevich walked off with two important takeaways: the knowledge that he was incredibly close to breaking through and getting that initial win, and the championship points lead.
The rest of the season rolled from there like a fairy tale.
Solid top-10 runs on the road courses at Montreal's Circuit ICAR and Toronto's Exhibition Place that kept him in the title hunt. The last-minute decision to go West, fixing their car between races in the hotel parking lot with borrowed help. The first win at Saskatoon's Wyant Group Raceway at the end of July, and subsequent wins at Riverside International Speedway in Nova Soctia and Quebec's Autodrome St-Eustache, which firmly locked up the championship trophy.
"Once you get that first win, they come easier because you know what to do now," said Lapcevich. "You know how to set yourself up, save the tires, save the brakes.
"That first one is just that race I'll never forget."
Three wins, two seconds and a third on the circuit's six ovals.
He still walked the razor-thin margin of having it all disappear.
"I knew if I wrecked a race car, I wouldn't be back the next week, because it just wasn't in the budget to fix it," said Lapcevich. "When dad came over the radio and told me that I did it, and it wasn't just a dream anymore," said Lapcevich, "it was so rewarding at the end of Kawartha to finally lift that trophy and call ourselves champions."
Becoming the youngest driver in NASCAR history to win a national series or touring series title, at 16 years, 10 months, 16 days. While it was a mark Todd Gilliland would break a month later with his NASCAR K&N Pro Series West championship, Lapcevich did a great deal of rewriting of the NASCAR Pinty's Series record book. Youngest pole winner. Youngest race winner. Youngest points leader. Youngest champion.
He even got a unique excuse from school to do post-season interviews in Charlotte; his fellow classmates at Ontario's South Lincoln High School were rewarded by getting to miss class for an assembly, where they got to watch Lapcevich ng one of them broadcast back to an assembly of his classmates .
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And, finally, accepting his championship trophy and NASCAR ring from Mike Helton, the executive chairman of NASCAR, on the stage at the Grand Ballroom in Charlotte during December's Grand Champions Touring Series Awards.
"We did not know if we'd be racing week to week," said Lapcevich in his acceptance speech. "I had my family supporting me, friends who had my back, and sponsors stepping up when we needed them. And here we are on stage. I don't know what will happen next year, but I didn't know what would happen this year."
Cayden Lapcevich is leading the new wave of young stars in the NASCAR Pinty's Series. Matthew Manor/NASCAR via Getty Images