Will 2014 produce the first
rookie chaser in 8 years?
Photo by Ben Palmer/TheRacingExperts.com
Austin Dillon currently sits 12th in points heading into Darlington. He and Kyle Larson are the only rookies inside the top-25 in points.
In all other major sports, it’s very rare for teams to rely on rookies to carry their team into the playoffs. It’s usually a tall task to ask and expect from an athlete in their first year. But with this new playoff format in NASCAR in 2014, it’s more likely for a rookie to make the chase, and not only make it, but contend for a championship.
When Denny Hamlin entered the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at the end of the 2005 season, it was clear that Hamlin was going to be more than just an ordinary rookie. Once his rookie season did start, he went on to win the Budweiser Shootout his first time out, and place his name among championship contenders in the 2006 season. He didn’t disappoint either; Hamlin made the chase, and swept Pocono and ended up finishing third in the series standings.
Since 2006, Sprint Cup rookies have been a disappointment.
Juan Pablo Montoya
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
That’s the list of rookies of the year since Hamlin. Among them there are 7 wins and none of them made the chase in their rookie season. Also, only two of those seven are still in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Hamlin has only missed the chase once and has 23 wins in his career. With the field of rookies since Hamlin, it was refreshing to see eight rookies entered in Daytona, who are all running the full season. Among the eight, there are two that are the front runners for the rookie of the year title, and possibly for chase appearances as well.
Those two drivers need no introduction. The first is Austin Dillon, grandson of team owner, Richard Childress. The second guy is the driver who is taking the NASCAR world by storm, Kyle Larson.
Now that the season has started, and we’re well into it, the question is being asked whether or not NASCAR will have its first rookie chaser in since Hamlin himself back in 2006.
Larson and Dillon are the two front running rookies, and both have had up and down years. But which one has a better chance of making the chase?
After starting off strong in the Daytona 500, by sitting on the pole, and finishing 9th, Dillon has seemed to cool off as of late and his hype has dwindled some over the past few weeks. While Dillon’s hype is dwindling, a Nationwide win, and three top-10 finishes in his last 4 Cup races, have propelled Larson to stardom, and have made people think that he’s the front runner in this.
In NASCAR, when judging talent, you’ve got to take many things into consideration. One major fact that needs to be looked at is the car they’re driving. Larson drives for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. Chip Ganassi’s team won with Jamie McMurray last season at Talladega. Prior to that, they hadn’t had a win since 2010 with Juan Pablo Montoya.
Ganassi’s team has shown improvement over the last few seasons, but there are still some concerns for me with saying that Larson and Dillon are locks to make this Chase.
One of those concerns is the team. There’s no question Larson has the talent to be a chase contender. But Ganassi’s team is still on the rebound and isn’t a championship winning team at this point. Larson is making the team look better than they are, but I’m not sure that the team can win on a consistent basis. The same goes for Austin Dillon. Richard Childress Racing is not even the second best team in its own manufacturer, and Dillon isn’t as polished as Larson.
Another concern of mine is Team Penske. Team Penske has two cars, and both of them have wins. Which means, no more lagging back, and they will be going for wins. My guess is that Penske will be the first team to “double up.” What I mean is that Joey Logano or Brad Keselowski will be the first drivers to win multiple races. They’re going to go for wins because now that they each have a win, they really have nothing to lose. That will hamper Larson and Dillon’s effort to make the chase for sure.
And the final thing that concerns me, especially Larson is just inexperience. Kyle’s adventure at Martinsville two weeks is something that made me really concerned. He actually said that he “hates” the place. And he ended up finishing 27th. This is concerning for me because I feel a chaser should be able to at least have a respectful finish at Martinsville. Dillon’s inexperience is something that concerns me as well. I mean to say that Dillon is going to win in the next 19 could be a tall order, especially when 3 out of the 4 Hendrick Motorsports car still haven’t been to victory lane yet.
Eventually drivers will double up on wins, and once they do that will limit the number of drivers to make the chase. Even though the field has expanded to 16, I think Larson and Dillon will have to rely on consistency to make the chase. If there are twelve winners this season, which means the next four chase spots will come from the next four highest drivers in points without a win. The odds are stacked against Larson and Dillon for a win the rest of the year, not necessarily because of their talent, but because of the lack of speed that their cars have some weeks.
In order to be winners in NASCAR nowadays, you have to have a car that can win consistently on a weekly basis, like Hamlin had in 2006. That is true at every track except the road courses and superspeedways, and the superspeedways are crap chutes. The only way I believe that Larson and Dillon can win the remainder of the season is at Talladega or one of the road course races, even with how strong Larson is on intermediates, Ganassi’s team just isn’t ready to win with a rookie driver yet. Ryan Newman will win at RCR before Dillon does in 2014, and with the way they’re running, I’m not sure if Newman will even win and be in.
This crop of rookies in 2014 is better than anything we’ve seen in that seven years, it still doesn’t mean we’re going to see a chase contender out of this group this season. But that doesn’t mean this group isn’t talented. After all, Jeff Gordon didn’t win in his rookie year. All other sports don’t rely on rookies to make the playoffs but the 3 and 42 teams have no other choice but to hope that their rookie drivers can get to victory lane in 2014.