The Budweiser Speedweeks leading up to the Daytona 500 looked promising for drivers in their first full season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Austin Dillon brought the No. 3 back into the spotlight by claiming the pole, and led a group of six Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders throughout the 43 car field beginning Sunday afternoon.
Unfortunately, that promise turned into disaster when Kyle Larson hit the wall only a few laps in, and less than 20 laps later was the cause for the first caution. Then Michael Annett spun on pit road during a round of green flag pit stops. And Alex Bowman was caught speeding on pit road. Brian Scott, in his first Daytona 500, was in the middle of a three-wide battle that triggered the first multicar wreck. Justin Allgaier, Cole Whitt, and Parker Kligerman all had impressive runs, but their nights ended after being caught up in late-race wrecks.
Dillon finished the highest of the rookies, evading damage en route to an eighth place finish. Ironically, he was the one who initiated some of the wrecks as the race reached its conclusion. He fought a loose car in the turns and made contact with teammate Ryan Newman, which were two separate incidents that culminated in the end of contention for many competitors.
Despite these results, they are not an indication that the remainder of the season is one poised for a number of altercations among these drivers, or that a vast amount of improvement is necessary. These rookie contenders have proven that they deserve to be at this level.
Kyle Larson is part of the up and comers. Is he ready to supplant some of the regular big guns?
This rookie class is reminiscent to 1994, a season where a deluge of rookies followed a few seasons where there was a lull in the quantity of new talent. Rookie Loy Allen Jr. won the pole for the Daytona 500 that year, but he was also the highest finisher among first-year drivers back in 22nd. In fact, only three of the eight full-time contenders qualified for the Daytona 500 that year.
Fast forward to the remainder of the 1994 season when those drivers combined for five top-five finishes, 12 top-tens, and three poles. Five of those drivers went on to win NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events later in their career.
There is no reason why this rookie class doesn’t have the potential to deliver as much if not more than that particular group.
Dillon already has two Nationwide championships under him, and has proven that he can handle new situations quickly. Allgaier’s versatility dates back to his championship ARCA career where he won on short tracks, a dirt track, a superspeedway, a road course, and a layout in between at Pocono. Annett, Bowman, and Kligerman have all shown that they can win at the ARCA level on multiple occasions as well. Whitt achieved numerous wins in USAC competition. Ryan Truex missed the field at Daytona, but won two straight NASCAR K&N Pro East Series titles. Kyle Larson has won in almost anything he has climbed into.
This year’s changes to the Chase illustrate the importance of winning. Each of these drivers has proven that they can get the job done at or near a national level and they have all earned a chance.
The names in Cup have remained stagnant for the last few years, often reducing interest among some fans. This year is a breath of fresh air and is an amazing opportunity to catapult the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series toward the future.
Despite the end result at Daytona, there are still 35 more opportunities for these young guns to achieve greatness.
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