Dec 12, 2013, 12:30 PM EDT
NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Rookie-of-the-Year award has been through a rough few years before 2013, when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick contended for the title. The previous three winners from 2010 to 2012 – Kevin Conway, Andy Lally and Stephen Leicht – were all stuck with subpar equipment and were basically the only drivers entered for the award. All three are no longer in NASCAR, although Lally is back in his natural habitat of sports car racing with the Magnus Racing team, and has promptly resumed kicking the field’s rear end there.
The above copy serves as a preface because in 2014, the quality of NASCAR’s rookie class in Sprint Cup will far exceed anything it’s been for the last five years. It marks the beginning of a new wave of youngsters officially stepping up to Cup, where they can begin the process of sinking or swimming. If it’s the latter, they’ll begin to ruffle the feathers of the establishment.
Austin Dillon, 23, of course, was always projected to come into Cup with Richard Childress Racing and would have to be considered the early favorite for ROTY honors. But Kyle Larson, 21, will learn and develop over the course of his first season with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. RCR utilizes Earnhardt Childress Racing engines, while EGR uses Hendrick-built engines. These two drivers will probably exchange races where they’re top freshman in the field.
Swan Racing’s young tigers will seek to overachieve. Parker Kligerman, 23, is a star-in-waiting, and a very engaging personality on social media. Cole Whitt was in Red Bull’s driver development program a few years ago, and was very highly touted at the time before entering NASCAR’s career wilderness just in the last two years. But Whitt is still only 22, and more experienced than you realize in both Cup and Nationwide level machinery. If Swan’s cars take that next step to consistent top-20 or top-25 finishes, then these two enter the ROTY discussion.
Less likely to win it of the five confirmed thus far is Michael Annett, 27, who perpetually struggled in Nationwide save for a career year in 2012. Annett, who’s never made a Cup start, will likely find the road a bit rocky with Tommy Baldwin Racing. If TBR adds a veteran teammate in its second car, that will aid his development progress.
Unconfirmed as yet but likely to take the reins of the former Phoenix Racing, now Turner Scott Motorsports Chevrolet, is Justin Allgaier, 27. Allgaier has been a dependable finisher in Nationwide over the last few years and is a former Penske Racing prodigy, so he has the talent needed to achieve results. Whether he’ll have the equipment remains to be seen, but TSM will likely be in or better than the Swan range at first estimate.
The last rookie class with more than two full-time entrants took the green in 2008. But most then have faded from Cup, proving how hard it is to have staying power. Regan Smith won over Sam Hornish Jr., but both are now fighting for rides in the Nationwide ranks. Meanwhile open-wheel converts Dario Franchitti, Jacques Villeneuve and Patrick Carpentier – all icons in that discipline – struggled mightily in NASCAR and failed to stick.
In fact only Michael McDowell, who drove for Michael Waltrip Racing that year, has a full-time confirmed ride for 2014, and even that’s with the fledgling Leavine Family Racing operation. Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose also participated in their first Cup seasons in 2008, but did not declare for ROTY.
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