NASCAR history is about to be made (although it could be argued that it's made every day!) For the first time in the three year history of the Chase for the Nextel Cup, a rookie will find himself in the hunt for the big trophy and even bigger check that comes with it. This hardly comes as a surprise; with two wins this season and a string of Top 10 finishes, Denny Hamlin has earned his spot among the sport's elite.
As Hamlin’s steady finishes continue, the young driver may already find himself not just part of the sport’s elite this year, but set a season of records that will put him among its all-time best. Should Hamlin remain in the Top 10 in points – and it's very unlikely he’ll fall out with one race to go before he’s “locked in” because of the Chase – he will join just twelve other rookies who were able to accomplish the same feat by season’s end. Who else has done it, you ask? Well, let’s investigate…
In 1958, Shorty Rollins was Rookie of the Year. Rollins posted a win, 12 Top 5s, and an impressive 22 Top 10 finishes in 29 starts on the circuit. The win, earned at State Line Speedway in Busti, NY, turned out to be the only victory of Rollins’ three year career. Despite six DNFs that year, Rollins managed to finish 4th in the championship standings as a rookie, a mere 4108 points behind champion Lee Petty. And we thought the points races were getting boring when the Chase was implementedâ€¦
Moving ahead, Dick Hutcherson had an impressive season in 1965, winning nine races and finishing second in the standings to Ned Jarrett. But Hutcherson was not the Rookie of the Year. Despite only four previous Cup starts, Hutcherson was ineligible for the award because he had won the IMCA championship the previous year – an automatic disqualification in those days. ROTY winner Sam McQuagg lagged far behind Hutchinson, finishing 24th in points with just two Top 5 finishes to his credit, but got the award anyways. It was the first of two seasons in which the Rookie of the Year winner would finish in the Top 10 but behind another rookie in points.
The next rookies to end the year in the Top 10 were James Hylton in 1966 and Walter Ballard in 1971. Hylton didn't win a race, but posted 20 Top 5s and 32 Top 10s in 41 races, a feat good enough to place him second in the standings to Richard Petty. Hylton hasn't yet retired from the driver's seat, either, competing in a Busch Series race earlier this year at age 71. Ballard, meanwhile, posted 11 Top 10 finishes in a family-owned car to finish tenth in the 1971 standings. He went on to post 176 career starts in the series, but never won a Cup race.
As the series cut down to a more manageable 31 races per year following the 1971 season, Earl Ross became the first “Modern Era” rookie to post a Top 10 points finish. In 1974, he captured his only career win at Martinsville, ROTY honors, and an eighth place spot in the season standings. The only Canadian to win at NASCAR’s top level, 1974 ended up being the only full season on the circuit Ross would ever drive.
In 1979, not just one rookie made the Top 10 – two did, for the first time in series history. Dale Earnhardt led the rookie parade, finishing seventh in points on the first of 76 career wins, eleven Top 5s, and seventeen Top 10s. Earnhardt would go on to win the Winston Cup championship the next year and six more times after that in his storied career.
The other rookie finishing behind him was no slouch, either. Terry Labonte took home 10th place money that year with thirteen Top 10 finishes. He didn't get his first win, but five years later, Labonte won the first of two Cup titles. He also holds records for the longest stretch (12 years) between championships, and as the first of the only siblings ever to win Cup titles.
Jody Ridley was the 1980 Rookie of the Year, finishing seventh in the standings. He didn't win, but his 18 Top 10s were enough to earn him the honors. Ridley went on to win at Dover the next year, and made 140 starts in his Cup career.
After those back-to-back strong performances, it looked like rookies were finally hitting their stride in Cup. Turns out it would be nineteen years before another rookie gave a speech at the season ending banquet. In 1999, Tony Stewart set a new standard for Cup rookies with his three wins and 21 Top 10 finishes in 34 starts. Like Hutcherson, Stewart was a champion in other series (including the USAC Triple crown and IRL championships) but the rookie rules now made Stewart eligible for ROTY honors, and he took full advantage. Since then, Stewart has followed up his rookie campaign with two series championships, in 2002 and 2005. His accomplishments as a rookie have set the new standard for everyone else, changing expectations and causing owners to expect drivers to perform right out of the box.
Kevin Harvick wasn't even supposed to be a Rookie of the Year candidate in 2001; he was supposed to make a handful of starts for owner Richard Childress and run for rookie honors the following year. Then, the unthinkable happened – Dale Earnhardt was killed in the season-opening Daytona 500, and Harvick's future became his present as he was called on to pilot Earnhardt's car – with a new number 29 on the door – for the remainder of the season. Harvick quickly rose to the challenge, with his win at Atlanta in just his third start ranking as one of the most emotional and popular wins in NASCAR history. Harvick went on to take rookie honors as well as the Busch Series championship that year, winning a second Cup race at Chicago and finishing ninth in the Cup point standings despite missing the Daytona 500.
2002 was a strange year for the two rookies making headlines. One finished fifth in points, and the other finished sixth and won ROTY honors. One won three times, and the other's 14 Top 5s ranked second among all drivers in the series. Jimmie Johnson became the first rookie ever to lead the point standings when he took first place for a couple of weeks in the Fall, and Ryan Newman earned some attention of his own by winning six poles, tops in Winston Cup that season. Johnson's four poles were good for a tie for second in that category; Newman was the one who trailed Johnson in the win column, although he did win one points-paying race. Their rookie campaigns, ending with Newman edging out Johnson for ROTY, are regarded as among the finest ever in NASCAR.
So, as you can see, Denny Hamlin is in some special company. His rookie season already ranks among the best ever. Should Hamlin continue his winning ways, his speech at the banquet will be one of the few ever spoken by a first-year driver, and become a groundbreaking first for the Chase era.
Most importantly, whatever else Hamlin does in his career, he'll already have this special place among the sport’s elite. And THAT’s history.
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