Thursday, September 26, 2013

Checkered Past: Rookie of the Year Battles of the Past, Present and Future

This year’s Rookie of the Year battle is one of the most high-profile contests in many years, thanks to the off-track status of top contenders Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Danica Patrick. But can you name the last three Sprint Cup Rookies of the Year? Don’t be upset or surprised if you can’t – none of them are competing in the Cup Series on a regular basis these days.

Kevin Conway (2010), Andy Lally (2011) and Stephen Leicht (2012) were the last three rookie award winners. Conway hasn’t competed in NASCAR since 2011, Lally returned to sports car racing in 2012, and Leicht has yet to compete in 2013.

Richard Petty
Credit: NASCAR via Getty Images/Rainier Ehrhart
Going back to the early days of NASCAR, it’s sometimes shocking who was and who wasn’t named Rookie of the Year: Hall of Famers Richard Petty (1959) and David Pearson (1960) were, but 2012 inductee Cale Yarborough was not – he lost to Thomas Cox in 1962. Darrell Waltrip lost the award to Lennie Pond in 1973, and Neil Bonnett and Bill Elliott lost the 1976 award to Skip Manning. The 1979 winner, Dale Earnhardt Sr., had tough competition in his class from Terry Labonte and Harry Gant, and the 1993 class included winner Jeff Gordon and contenders from three famous racing families: Bobby Labonte, Kenny Wallace and Todd Bodine.

Jeff Gordon
Credit: Getty Images/Jeff Zelevansky
Seven of this year’s Chase contenders are former Rookies of the Year: Gordon (1993), Matt Kenseth (2000), Kevin Harvick (2001), Ryan Newman (2002), Kasey Kahne (2004), Kyle Busch (2005) and Joey Logano (2009). That’s right: the most successful driver in the last 10 years, Jimmie Johnson, was not a Rookie of the Year – he finished second to Newman in 2002.

A few of the recent ROTY classes have produced multiple stars. 2003’s rookie class included winner Jamie McMurray as well as Greg Biffle, Casey Mears and Tony Raines, and the 2004 class included Kahne, Brendan Gaughan, Brian Vickers and Scott Riggs.

The classes of 2006, 2007 and 2008 gave us 14 stars currently competing in the Cup or Nationwide Series on a regular basis. 2006 winner Denny Hamlin had competition from Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Reed Sorenson, J.J. Yeley and David Stremme, and while 2007 winner Juan Pablo Montoya beat out David Ragan, Paul Menard, David Reutimann and A.J. Allmendinger for the honors. The 2008 winner, Regan Smith, sees a couple of his chief competitors from that season quite often in the Nationwide Series: Sam Hornish Jr. and Michael McDowell. Road course ringers Patrick Carpentier and Jacques Villeneuve were also part of that class.

As high-profile as this year’s ROTY battle is, next year’s might be even higher-profile: Kyle Larson makes his debut for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, while 2011 Truck Series champ Austin Dillon makes the jump to the big league with Richard Childress Racing.

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