Kevin Rutherford · Thursday May 17, 2012
Looking down the list of Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year award winners from 1999-2009, one largely sees a formidable crop of drivers that includes two eventual Sprint Cup champions. Even more notable is the list of drivers who declared for but did not win the award — names like Johnson, Biffle, Earnhardt, Busch to name a few.
But since 2009, the once-prestigious award has produced little competition, if at all. In 2010, Kevin Conway ran virtually unopposed after Terry Cook’s full-season deal fell through. Last season was more of the same, with Andy Lally winning over Brian Keselowski and T.J. Bell, both of whom did not even make the minimum seven races in order to be eligible. A year later, barring a late challenger, it appears Front Row Motorsports’ Josh Wise will secure the award, despite having start-and-parked for much of the season. Timmy Hill, his former competition and the defending Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year, has returned to the second-tier series after less-than-stellar results.
In the past, the Rookie of the Year award in NASCAR’s top series was hotly contested by soon-to-be and never-was drivers alike. Many years, at least two drivers might be in contention the entire season, with some years finding even more competitors in the hunt. Though 2006 itself was a runaway victory by Denny Hamlin for the award, a total of six different drivers had well-funded rides throughout the season, including Hamlin and J.J. Yeley for Joe Gibbs Racing, Clint Bowyer for Richard Childress Racing, Martin Truex, Jr. for Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Reed Sorenson and David Stremme driving for Chip Ganassi Racing.
Since Joey Logano won the award driving for Gibbs in 2009, the subsequent competitors have driven for largely underfunded teams — including Conway and Wise for Front Row Motorsports and Lally for now-defunct TRG Motorsports.
Plenty of theories can be brought up as to why the rookie classes have shown severe decline in recent years, but all often points back to the lack of sponsorship dollars for younger drivers and the lessened presence of open rides for these drivers in general. Sponsors don’t seem to be as willing to take a chance on a rookie as they used to be, deciding instead to op for a veteran with a considerable edge in terms of experience.
Prior to 2012 especially, there also seemed to be less drivers that lay in waiting in the lower series, groomed by some of the top-tier teams for eventual consideration in the Cup series. Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. come to mind more recently, but even with a Daytona 500 victory for Bayne, and a Nationwide Series title for Stenhouse, Jr., both have been plagued with sponsorship woes, which has impacted their ability to field Cup rides consistently.
But there appears to be a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Danica Patrick will likely run full-time in the series in 2013 for Stewart-Haas Racing, bringing along a big sponsor and even bigger exposure for the sport. Even if she runs contested for the award, she’ll be the most visible rookie since Logano.
Though it’s unclear whether or not anyone would challenge Patrick for the award in 2013, there are other possibilities approaching. Read on to find out some of the up-and-comers most likely to make a splash in the premiere series in the next few years, if not in 2013.
-The Dillon Brothers
Probably the surest bets for eventual stardom in NASCAR, the brothers Dillon have backing both in sponsorship and in influential figures — in their case, grandfather Richard Childress. Neither have been rushed in their ascent, either. Austin only just started a full campaign in the Nationwide Series after two full seasons in the Camping World Truck Series, and younger brother Ty is just beginning his rookie season in the trucks. Austin, in addition to already having a Truck championship under his belt, has notched five top-fives and seven top-10 finishes through nine races in the Nationwide series, and will reportedly see action in Cup at least once later this year. Given their current trajectory, it isn’t far-fetched to envision Austin in Cup by 2014 (possibly replacing one Jeff Burton?), with Ty following in 2016.
Contrary to what might be expected by most, Bayne is still eligible for the Rookie of the Year award. Why? He has yet to declare for Sprint Cup points for a full season, meaning that his 18-race run in 2011 did not count against his eligibility, nor will his schedule in the series in 2012. If sponsorship could be found for the former Daytona 500 winner, he’d probably already be in the series full-time, or would at least be fending for the Nationwide Series championship. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but if Bayne can finally find full backing, perhaps we could see him in Cup regularly by 2014 — or earlier, if the Wood Brothers decide to return to full-time status.
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
The defending Nationwide Series champ (who could potentially make it a two-peat, if he can keep his current lead as of May 16) could be Danica’s competition in 2013, if his Roush Fenway Racing team can find sponsorship. It simply doesn’t seem likely that a young driver with a championship in the next highest series already would stay there much longer, and Stenhouse has already ran two races in Cup, with possibilities for more in 2012 in the No. 6. Again, it’s really just a question of financial backing, though the fact that a champion in the series can’t find it for a full season is troubling for sure. If Stenhouse can secure funds, he’s golden. If not, he could be nothing more than another talent wasted, unless he moves to another team.
Buescher is yet another driver whose progress has been kept contained since his arrival on the NASCAR scene. Though he made his debut in the Nationwide Series in 2008 at age 18, he has never run more than 15 races in a season there. Since 2009, he’s been attempting to run the entire Camping World Truck schedule, nearly winning the series championship in 2011 despite failing to qualify for the season’s second race. In 2012 already, he has earned his first Nationwide and Truck wins, and figures to be a factor in both series for the rest of the year. He’s still only 22, and is getting better with each season, meaning his time in Cup could finally be nearing. He’ll just have to find a ride — current team Turner Motorsports does not field a full-time entry in Cup.
He’s still largely unproven, but if Whitt can impress enough in his first season in JR Motorsports’ Nationwide No. 88, he should have more of a case than he already has. In fact, Whitt would probably already be on the fast track to Cup had one of his earliest champions, Red Bull Racing, not folded after the 2011 season. He’s currently parking Turn One Racing’s No. 74 in the series, but like Bayne will retain his eligibility regardless of what he does for the team through the rest of the season. Whitt scored 11 top-10 finishes for the team’s Truck operation in 2011, itself less funded than most of its competitors. So if he can rattle off some good finishes again this year in Nationwide — maybe a win or two — then he might end up somewhere in the top-tier series for good.
Other possibilities worth keeping an eye on: Brian Scott, Parker Kligerman, Ryan Truex, Justin Allgaier, Brad Sweet, Nelson Piquet, Jr., Joey Coulter, Darrell Wallace, Jr. and Ryan Blaney.
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