Stewart, Johnson among drivers with strong first season in NASCAR’s premier series
As has proven the case in recent seasons, rookie classes at NASCAR’s highest level can be cyclical. Year upon year can turn out freshmen drivers who will go on to vie for races and championships, and year upon year can debut competitors who eventually fade away. But if the lineup of first-year drivers for 2014 is any indication, that cycle is again nearing a crest.
One season after Danica Patrick and two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. moved up to the sport’s highest level, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series welcomes a rookie class that shapes up as one of its best in years. Austin Dillon is bringing back the No. 3 car for Richard Childress Racing, while Kyle Larson is moving into Chip Ganassi’s No. 42. Parker Kligerman and Cole Whitt move up for Swan Racing, Michael Annett moves to Tommy Baldwin’s car, and Justin Allgaier will be driving for Phoenix Racing.
It’s a deep, promising class, one with the potential of producing the kind of rookie season that makes everyone take notice. And it harkens back to the glory days of NASCAR rookie seasons, that era in the early- to mid-2000s when first-year drivers won with regularly, and permanently altered expectations for those breaking into the circuit. Perhaps Larson, Dillon, or someone else can become the first Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate to win a Sprint Cup race since Joey Logano in 2009.
For the time being, though, here are top 10 rookie campaigns at NASCAR’s highest level.
10. Kasey Kahne, 2004
The former sprint-car star out of Washington State didn’t win a race his rookie season, and he didn’t qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. What he did do, though, was awe everyone, particularly on an afternoon in Rockingham, N.C., where he battled reigning champion Matt Kenseth wheel-to-wheel in a riveting finish on the old Sand Hills track. Kahne finished second that day, but the message was clear — the kid had arrived. He ran second again the next week at Las Vegas, and went on to accumulate 13 top-five finishes, a handful of poles, and narrowly miss that inaugural playoff thanks in part to Jeremy Mayfield’s miracle at Richmond. By the end of that season, though, it was evident that car owner Ray Evernham had unearthed a gem.
9. Shorty Rollins, 1958
Who won the first stock-car race on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway? It wasn’t Lee Petty — it was a Texan named Shorty Rollins, who claimed a convertible race on the big track two days before the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959. Rollins earned NASCAR’s second official Rookie of the Year award the previous season, after winning his first and only premier-series race at State Line Speedway in Busti, N.Y. The field that day was less than star-studded — in addition to Shorty, it included drivers named Clyde, Jug, Bud, and Squirt — but Rollins notched top-10s in 22 of his 29 starts that season, and placed fourth in final points in an era where full-time campaigns were rare. It was the highest finish for any rookie to date, and Rollins’ mark stood as a record for eight years.
8. Ryan Newman, 2002
The driver they’d soon call "Rocket Man" didn’t take long to launch. After prepping for NASCAR’s top level with an "ABC" schedule — a little ARCA, then-Busch Series, and Cup — for Penske Racing, Newman burst out of the gate quickly as a rookie and was second in points three weeks into the 2002 campaign. He won just once that year, but set modern-era rookie records for poles (six), top-fives (14) and top-10s (22), and placed sixth in final points. It all laid the groundwork for his breakout sophomore season, when Newman won eight times and claimed 11 pole positions. And Newman can claim to be one of the few people who has beaten Jimmie Johnson — indeed, it was the Indiana native who was awarded top rookie honors in the same season the future six-time champion made his debut.
7. James Hylton, 1966
The pride of Inman, S.C., is still racing — he started 21 ARCA events last year despite turning 79 in August. Hylton may be viewed by many these days as something of an ageless novelty, but back in 1966 he was among the best rookies NASCAR had ever seen. The highest any rookie driver has ever finished in the points is second, a mark Hylton claimed in 1968 when he finished 1,950 points behind champion David Pearson. Hylton didn’t win that season — he won just twice in his career, and the first one didn’t come until 1970 — and he was a fierce independent, which likely hurt his chances against bigger teams with better funding. But the proud Palmetto State resident finished third or better in the standings seven times, the first of those coming in his rookie year.
6. Dale Earnhardt, 1979
He may not have been in a black No. 3 car — back then, he drove Rod Osterlund’s blue and yellow No. 2 — but he was an Intimidator from the very beginning. Earnhardt finished eighth in the Daytona 500 as a rookie, scored his first career victory six weeks later at Bristol, and averaged just over a 10th-place finish in an amazingly consistent freshman campaign at NASCAR’s top level. He saved his best for last, swiping a handful of poles over the second half of the season and finishing with five straight top-10s that lifted him to seventh in final points. Despite missing four races with a broken collarbone, he earned top rookie honors in a strong class that also included Harry Gant and Terry Labonte. It all set the table for the following season, when Earnhardt broke through to win the first of his seven titles.
5. Davey Allison, 1987
In an era when young drivers simply didn’t get many chances in great cars — they usually had to prove themselves in inferior equipment first — Allison was an exception. He was fast from the start, when he became the first rookie ever to sit on the front row for the Daytona 500, in a car that didn’t yet have sponsorship. Later at Talladega, where his dad Bobby’s car would go airborne and usher in the restrictor-plate era, Davey became the first rookie to win a race since Ron Bouchard six years earlier. Two weeks later he prevailed at Dover, and became the first rookie to win twice. Allison didn’t race the full season because of funding issues on his Ranier-Lundy race team, but his spectacular rookie year raised the bar, and cracked open the door for other young drivers like Jeff Gordon to kick it down later on.
4. Denny Hamlin, 2006
Looking to bring stability to a No. 11 team that had struggled to get off the ground, Joe Gibbs Racing hired a little-known former late model ace who got his shot by shaking down equipment for the organization’s diversity program. By the end of his first season, though, everyone would know Hamlin. The first and still only rookie driver to make the Chase, Hamlin swept Pocono in 2006 to anchor perhaps the most unexpected great rookie campaign in recent memory. Thirty-first in points after the Daytona 500, Hamlin gradually climbed the standings to easily make the playoff, and stood second with seven weeks left in the season. He wound up third, the best points finish by any first-year driver since Hylton had been runner-up four decades earlier.
3. Kevin Harvick, 2001
Many rookies have won races, and a few have secured high points finishes, but none did it under the adverse circumstances Harvick faced. Expecting to run the full Nationwide Series schedule, he was rushed up to the Sprint Cup tour immediately following Earnhardt’s fatal crash in the Daytona 500. And Harvick did nothing less than shine under tremendous duress, scoring a triumph two weeks later at Atlanta that brought grown men to tears. He added another victory at Chicagoland, and finished eighth in points. Even more than his on-track achievements, he brought needed stability to a team that was reeling in the wake of the Intimidator’s death. There were plenty of things for Richard Childress to worry about in those days, but the man behind the wheel wasn’t one of them.
2. Jimmie Johnson, 2002
Strangely enough, the Rookie of the Year title is one of the few Sprint Cup honors the six-time champion hasn’t won. That prize in 2002 went to Newman, whose consistent finishes swayed voters who had the final say on the award. Meanwhile, some guy who spelled his first name the wrong way won three times (to Newman’s one), becoming only the second freshman driver to reach that mark. One week after his third victory, he finished 10th at Kansas to become the first rookie ever to lead the points. With four races remaining, he was second, 82 points off the lead. Stewart won that title, and Newman won the rookie award. Johnson finished fifth, but served notice that he was capable of winning much, much more.
1. Tony Stewart, 1999
In fairness, the "Rushville Rocket" was far from your ordinary rookie driver. By the time Stewart broke into NASCAR’s top circuit, he was 28, and had already won an IndyCar championship and the U.S. Auto Club triple crown. Still, no one expected him to rewrite the rookie record book — but that’s just what he did, thriving under crew chief Greg Zipadelli and displaying a late-season surge that would become his trademark. He started slow, but found his footing by summertime, and then won three of the season’s final 10 races — boy, does that sound familiar — to finish off the best rookie season ever.
Stewart’s three victories — at Richmond, Phoenix and Homestead — broke Allison’s record of two wins from 1987. The mark still stands, although Johnson knotted it in 2002. His fourth-place finish in points was, at the time, the highest by a freshman driver since Hylton’s runner-up appearance in 1966.
Aided by Gordon’s rise, Stewart’s debut fully ushered in the golden age of rookies at NASCAR’s highest level — Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kenseth would follow the next year, then Harvick and Kurt Busch, then Johnson and Newman, then Jamie McMurray and Greg Biffle and Kahne. Car owners, once wary of turning championship-caliber equipment over to young drivers, suddenly had no qualms about doing just that. All it took was a little "Smoke" in their eyes.