For the fourth week in a row, there’s a new face on the entry list in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
First there was Ty Dillon, younger brother of Austin, grandson of Richard Childress and competitor in the Nationwide Series, whose debut had been anticipated for months – if not years – at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Then there was Clay Rogers, a veteran of the country’s short tracks who attempted his debut with Beard Racing, a startup in the series itself. (The team, No. 75 failed to qualify at Richmond International Raceway). Joey Gase then followed suit at Chicagoland Speedway, jumping up in the sport for a one-off with FAS Lane Racing in the midst of his first full-time NASCAR season with Jimmy Means’ Nationwide team.
Those looking for a continued stream of new blood in the series have certainly had their fill over the last three weeks, but the overall results may not be as encouraging unless one’s of the camp that just making it onto the track and finishing the race is an accomplishment – and, to be fair, that’s not off base. But for anyone looking for instant gratification, the previous three weeks have been fairly middling. Rogers’ DNQ is flanked by an average finish of 31st from the other two rookies. Dillon was the best, managing a 25th, two laps down. Gase, meanwhile, finishing 37th last week, 10 laps off the pace.
And now, in comes Corey LaJoie. The son of former Nationwide (then Busch) champ Randy LaJoie looks to make his first start in the Cup Series on Sunday with Randy Humphrey Racing’s part-time No. 77 – and looks to be locked in, given the 43-car field as of Wednesday night.
It’s exciting to see yet another new driver out for the fourth week in a row (not to mention the sprinkles on top in Mike Wallace‘s apparent return to make what would be his first series start since 2009), but the luster may be wearing off for some. There are new faces coming in, but are they contributing? Will they contribute at all? Should we care?
That question might actually be most prevalent with LaJoie. Where Gase was at least a fairly frequent competitor at many of the tracks, having 69 starts to his name in the Nationwide Series, LaJoie has two. Yep, two starts total – and all this since becoming a development driver for Richard Petty Motorsports.
But LaJoie – other than the obvious name link – has something going for him. He has some results backing him, a top 10 in the Truck Series this season, a five-win year in the K&N Pro Series East in 2012 and a three-wins-in-five-races statline in the ARCA Racing Series among them. A thumbs up from a team owned by the King of NASCAR isn’t so bad, either.
There’s also the other important side to consider: whether it’s someone with a boatload of honors coming in or not, Gase, Dillon and others aren’t alone in having middling to disappointing first races. LaJoie, similarly, should not be discouraged if the same happens to him.
In 2014 alone, eight drivers have made their Sprint Cup Series debut. Some of these – Dillon and Ryan Blaney among them – are considered the cream of the crop, young guns who will be the future of the sport and one day contend for championships. Average finish among them in their first race is 29th. The best finish is 22nd, scored by Brett Moffitt at Dover earlier in the season.
How about 2013? That season, 12 drivers took to the track for their first series start at some point in the year, some of whom are full-timers on the circuit now. Average of 33.1, best by Parker Kligerman, who earned a ride this year as a rookie but fell flat after Swan Racing folded. That season saw the first look at 2014 rookie phenom Kyle Larson. His first start found him 37th.
Quick, drivers making the Chase in 2014’s first start, go!
The 16 in the Chase this year have debuts in the Sprint Cup Series ranging from 1992 to 2008. Average finish? 27.1. That includes two top 10s – a sixth from Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards‘ 10th – plus five finishes of 40th or worse, something not even any of the debuting drivers this year have done (those distinctions go to AJ Allmendinger, Aric Almirola, Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne, by the way). A good chunk of the rest are still in the 30s range.
That should certainly be heartening for the crop of youngsters who made it out for the first time this year, plus those that will, like LaJoie and, potentially, Rogers. We’re actually quite lucky to have had such a sudden stream of new talent come into a series that’s historically known for being a bit exclusive compared to the overall standings lists of the Nationwide and Camping World Truck series.
Bearing that in mind, watching drivers like LaJoie jump on in should provide an added bonus to any of the next few races, perhaps becoming a respite for those of you disillusioned with the Chase and what it means for NASCAR.
Instead, keep an eye on the drivers who may one day be in the Chase!