09 February 2014

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is poised for the strongest rookie class in years

(Getty Images)
Let's be honest, in recent years, the Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year crop have been pretty mediocre. Before the field rebounded last year with Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. edging out his girlfriend Danica Patrick for the award, the previous three winners of the award were Stephen Leicht (who was starting and parking much of the year and only started 15 races), Andy Lally (with a best finish of 19th), and Kevin Conway (who had one finish higher than 27th).

But this year's crop looks to be different. It's the largest rookie crop in several years with a strong eight entries. And the cream of the crop looks to be quite good when you break the class down.

Even with the deep field, there really are two serious contenders for the Rookie of the Year Award. The first guy that has gotten a lot of headlines simply for the number he is driving is Austin Dillon. Dillon will be driving the #3 Chevy for Richard Childress Racing, Childress being his grandfather. Now when was the last time the #3 was seen in Cup? The 2001 Daytona 500. That's why there has been so much talk about Dillon because of his number, which has been polarizing for some folks who did not want to see the number returned even as Childress has said that it's a family number and the Earnhardt family has given their blessing. I for one love the return of the #3 and I think it is a great thing for the sport.

Beyond that, Dillon is very well set up to tackle his rookie season. He takes over Kevin Harvick's ride, and Harvick won four races and finished third in points, has strong sponsorship backing in Dow Chemical and Cheerios, and comes in with both a truck title and a Nationwide title. The last rookie to have been that was Greg Biffle in 2003. Now even with a good ride and strong backing and good experience, competing in the Cup Series is a tall task and Dillon has not been amazing in his limited Cup action (although he had a chance to win the fall Talladega race). But this is an extremely talented driver with the pieces to be a competitor.

The other top tier rookie is Kyle Larson, who will drive the #41 Target Chevy for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. Unlike Dillon, Larson comes in with one full season in the Nationwide Series, a year after he won the K&N East Series. He is very raw and showed it last year, but he also showed a lot of speed and certainly a lot of talent. He had nine top fives, 17 top tens and competed for wins at Bristol and Homestead. He will show plenty of growing pains in 2014 but he's got a strong ride with good support. He may not be as consistent as Dillon may be, but since the rookie award counts in the top 17 finishes instead of the season as a whole, he could very well win the award.

The rest of the crop is a step down and not as strong of contenders as the previous two are. Justin Allgaier will be running in the newly-renamed HScott Motorsports #51, formerly Phoenix Racing, but while he has been a title contender in Nationwide over the last several years, this is in a way a new team and the previous team had never been much of a contender in Cup save for the plate tracks. But he does have sponsorship in long-time sponsor Brandt and has an excellent crew chief in Steve Addington.

Michael Annett will bring his Pilot/Circle J sponsorship to the Tommy Baldwin Racing #7, but TBR has never been competitive and is still a small team (although that sponsorship dough is nice) and while Annett was a solid driver in Nationwide, he was never much of a contender for wins (only 49 laps led since 2008).

BK Racing is going with a pair of rookies in their rides with Alex Bowman and Ryan Truex taking the reins. Both are very talented but also very raw. The 20-year-old Bowman comes in with only 36 Nationwide starts but did show some speed last year with a pair of poles and a pair of top fives for RAB Racing, a team that did not have a whole lot of sponsorship. He will be in the #23 sponsored by Dr. Pepper. Truex is known as Martin Truex, Jr.'s younger brother, but he does not come in with much more experience either with just 35 Nationwide starts along with three Cup and three truck starts. He will be in the #83 but does not have much sponsorship beyond a small deal with Borla Exhaust and the license agreement the team has with Burger King.

Swan Racing is another team that is fielding a pair of rookies as they will expand from one car to two to field Cole Whitt and Parker Kligerman. Whitt is a guy that has bounced around a couple Nationwide teams after once being seen as the next big thing when he signed with JR Motorsports but he has shown in his limited Nationwide work to be a talented racer even in mediocre equipment, as he was in in Nationwide last year. He will be in the #26. Kligerman was once thought to be the next Penske star before being pushed aside for Ryan Blaney but he is also a real talent that competed for the 2012 truck title and had some solid runs in Kyle Busch's Nationwide car last year.

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