Race Weekend Central

NASCAR 2014 Season Preview: The Rookie of the Year Battle

New playoff system. New qualifying procedure. New attitude. As NASCAR heads towards Daytona in 2014, all around the sport are focused on the positive, looking for the perfect season to recapture a nation currently preoccupied with other sports, along with the Olympics in Sochi.

Can they do it? As Speedweeks dawn, both NASCAR’s Sprint Unlimited and the 56th Daytona 500 usher in a long list of questions along with them, the answers to which could define the sport for not just this year but the next NASCAR television contract. That means it’s time to get the blood pumping and start 2014 analysis, bringing Frontstretch back to your list of daily internet favorites. This week, we’ll get you thinking each day on one of five big questions facing stock car racing; as we try and find the answers, staff members you know and love will come at you with our usual blend of facts, opinion, and a little sense of humor.

Today’s Season Preview Topic: The Sprint Cup Series is going to have the deepest rookie class it has seen in years in 2014. However, most of these youngsters will be racing for teams who are a step or two behind the top teams in terms of funding and equipment. Will talent and enthusiasm make an impact for their race teams, or will these rising stars fade as 2014 goes on?

Tony Lumbis, Marketing Manager: Michael Annett is one of the most intriguing “underdog” Rookie of the Year candidates. It’s not because of his talent, as he turned in only very modest numbers in the Nationwide Series, but because of the team he is driving for. Tommy Baldwin has been slow and steady in building his organization, which — believe it or not — is going into its sixth year of existence. Baldwin’s sustainable business model has now allowed him to attract sponsorship dollars as well as talent on top of the pit box with Kevin “Bono” Manion. I actually expect this team to start out slowly but get better as the year goes on.

Justin Allgaier is another potential upset story. His Nationwide credentials are a bit better than those of Annett, plus HScott Motorsports certainly pulled off some surprises as the underfunded Phoenix Racing team. Talent on top of the pit box there (Steve Addington) and deeper pockets in 2014 could also propel the No. 51 team into the mix of contenders quite a few times as well.

Unfortunately, the odds are stacked quite high against Cole Whitt, Parker Kligerman, Alex Bowman and Ryan Truex. Their teams, Swan Racing and BK Racing, are quite a few steps behind TBR and HSM. Choosing to field a pair of rookies could prove to be costly for both.

Matt Stallknecht, Senior Writer/Editor: In all honesty, the equipment disparity amongst the rookies is not going to be quite as large as everyone is assuming it will be. Yes, Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson obviously are at an advantage equipment-wise, and I have little doubt that they will routinely outrun the other competitors. But the others will not be as far off as some would have you believe.

Justin Allgaier’s No. 51 HScott Motorsports team is one with lots of financial upside, and the equipment the team has will be decent right off the bat. Many assume HSM is a Front Row Motorsports-type organization, when in reality its resources and backing more closely mirror something in the range of JTG-Daugherty Racing or of Richard Petty Motorsports. Swan Racing is similar in this regard. New owner Brandon Davis has pumped untold amounts of cash into that operation with the intention of being a regularly competitive team. The finances are there and the resources are forthcoming.

If one combines these factors with the sheer hunger of a generation of new drivers who have not been afforded the same kinds of silver-spoon opportunities of their predecessors, I think you have a recipe for a surprising level of competitiveness out of guys like HSM’s Allgaier and Swan Racing’s Parker Kligerman/Cole Whitt combo. The small teams are starting to catch up, bit-by-bit, and they are being led by a new generation of drivers that has a collective chip on their shoulder. This rookie battle will ultimately be a lot deeper and more compelling than some would have you think.

Amy Henderson: There are some very talented youngsters joining the Cup ranks this year, but the fact is, a small team is so limited in resources that even a great driver isn’t enough to turn things around overnight. Don’t look at Furniture Row Racing as an example, because their giant step forward coincided with a technical alliance, paired with an elite team. Even Kurt Busch, a Cup champion, couldn’t have made a turnaround happen on his own. Can new blood put a spark in a team? Absolutely. But fans need to look at the team’s standing among their peers and how it stacks up against a year ago — not versus top organizations.

For one group, though, the ingredients are there, and that’s Chip Ganassi Racing. While much of the rookie focus has been on Austin Dillon, because of the No. 3 car and his top-tier ride, Kyle Larson could well be the Rookie of the Year when all is said and done. That’s even if Ganassi’s team is a step below Richard Childress Racing, because he is likely the more talented driver. Ganassi’s equipment can contend, and Jamie McMurray had a win in 2013, so it’s not like this one is an underfunded, lower-level team. With Larson in the seat vacated by Juan Pablo Montoya, it’s possible that CGR could see some significant gains in 2014.

Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer/Editor: The top two rookie candidates are clearly the ones who are going to be around for some time. Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson will succeed and decide the Rookie of the Year title between themselves, simply because they are with top teams who are building their organizations and betting the farm on them succeeding. Of these two, give the nod to Dillon, simply because RCR is light years ahead of Ganassi.

That being said, the one rookie driver who I think holds the most promise and that I would love to see get a serious full-time ride with a top team is Parker Kligerman. I believe Penske made a mistake parting ways with him, as evidenced by his rebound with Red Horse Racing in the Truck Series in 2012. His performance last season in Nationwide, driving to a ninth-place finish in the point standings for Kyle Busch Motorsports was impressive. Kligerman will run for the title, as a longshot candidate along with teammate Cole Whitt for Swan Racing.

S.D. Grady, Senior Writer: The rookie story will be all about Larson and Dillon, with Dillon the one likely to bring home Rookie of the Year honors. The rest of the field will do what rookies do; they’ll have their moments of brilliance but will probably be looking for rides in Nationwide next year. Larson may have the talent for a long career at the Cup level, but he’s not starting with a team able to park him in Victory Lane on a consistent basis. RCR, on the other hand, has all the goods in place to shoot Childress’ grandson straight to the headlines.

Phil Allaway, Newsletter Editor: It’s unclear how most of the rookie drivers will perform this season. It’s fairly apparent that Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson have the best equipment of the eight rookies, and those two should do very well. Beyond them, it’s really unclear. Annett will likely struggle in the No. 7, but he won’t have to worry about funding. Allgaier has what amounts to full sponsorship with various agriculture-based groups, but underperformed in the time he had in the No. 51 car last year.

The BK Racing rooks (Alex Bowman and Ryan Truex) are coming to a program that has more outside backing than in the past. They should do a little better than Travis Kvapil and David Reutimann were able to accomplish. Finally, we have the Swan Racing duo of Cole Whitt and Parker Kligerman. Kligerman got the ride by impressing everyone with two sneaky great runs towards the end of last season. Kligerman overshadowed Whitt, who drove many more races in the No. 30. That is likely why Kligerman got the No. 30 and is quite likely to get into the race, while Whitt is looking at having to qualify his way into the Daytona 500 through his Duel.

The rookies will make their mark on the season. Dillon and Larson are the only ones that could possibly contend for victories, but the others will have moments in the sun. The weakest of the bunch are Annett and probably Whitt. Unfortunately, we won’t hear all that much out of those two.

Summer Bedgood, Senior Editor: I don’t think any of them will be very impressive in 2014, but over time they will continue to get better. Take Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, for instance. Neither of them were very impressive in the beginning stages of their Sprint Cup Series careers, but got better and better over time. I believe it will be the same way for much of the 2014 rookie class, especially as some of the current crop of veterans begin to retire.

Brad Morgan, Senior Writer: It is hard to suggest that the most raved over rookie crop in years could be a flop, but history would agree. Drivers for smaller teams have a hard enough time as it is; adding rookies into the mix of low-funded operations means that many of these new challengers look destined to fail before the Great American Race even begins. While Austin Dillon appears the safest bet, Kyle Larson and Co. could have far more trouble making an immediate impact. Yes, even the prodigious Larson, who is driving for an organization in Chip Ganassi Racing that created a bust in prospect Reed Sorenson and watched Juan Pablo Montoya gradually lose any resemblance of a Chase-worthy driver. The others seem even less capable of a creating a lasting impact on the 2014 season. Barring a restrictor plate surprise or Kurt Busch-type performance over the long haul, the remainder of this class is setup to underachieve.

Justin Tucker, Newsletter Contributor: This is the best rookie class since 2002 with Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman. Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson figure to be the front runners for Rookie of the Year, but I really believe all eight rookies will elevate their teams to new levels in 2014. Yes, there will still be growing pains and learning curves — as there is with every rookie and rookie class — but we saw a glimpse last year of how impressive they will be this year. Just look at Austin Dillon’s run last year at Talladega, followed by Parker Kligerman at Texas and Kyle Larson at Homestead.

Jeff Meyer: Without doing an in-depth analysis of each one, this is one of the questions that has no answer at the present time. It will be good to have some competition for Rookie of the Year for once, but no one knows how things will transpire. We will all just have to wait and see. I know, not a popular answer for the “I want everything NOW” crowd but hey, suck it up, buttercup! You can’t always get what you want!

Kevin Rutherford: The rookie class is incredibly deep, and that’s something that should excite every fan out there, unless you’re holding on to old guys who are merely going to be taking spots for young guns down the line — if they aren’t already.

Make no mistake, though — the rookie title race comes down to two drivers and two drivers only. Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson will be the frontrunners, given their rides with top teams and their proven results in the past. Beyond Dillon and Larson, the six other competitors will do nothing more than gain valuable experience, given sponsorship holds up and/or their respective teams remain patient throughout the duration of 2014. BK Racing, HScott Motorsports, Tommy Baldwin Racing and Swan Racing are a bit behind the curve. Let’s not kid ourselves in terms of expectations for their maiden seasons.

Mike Neff: There will be three or four rookies who will potentially work their way to the front as the season progresses. The drivers in subpar equipment will not. The sad state of the sport is that the car matters more than the driver, so the teams will limit the potential success of the rookie drivers.

Mike Mehedin, Power Rankings Writer: There hasn’t been a decent rookie since Kasey Kahne won Rookie of the Year honors in 2004. I will say that I hope they step up and bring strong finishes to their second-tier teams. We all know the sport needs more diversity in their drivers to run strong, week in and week out. Regretfully, history does not bode well for these young drivers. All we can do is cross our fingers and hope that they run strong.

Brett Poirier, Senior Writer: I don’t blame Swan Racing and BK Racing in particular for taking this route this season. BK Racing, especially wrecked a lot of race cars with veteran drivers and weren’t seeing results. If you’re going to wreck them anyway, why not put a young driver in with enormous potential? I think they made the right move, but neither of the teams I just mentioned are cracking the top 25 in points. The most pressure is on Kyle Larson, who much like in Nationwide is being put in middle-of-the-pack equipment. He had no wins in Nationwide; Sprint Cup will probably go the same way for a while.

Jeff Wolfe, Fantasy Writer: Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson are certainly the two favorites for Rookie of the Year honors. I think they will not only bring enthusiasm, but have a chance to run in the top 15 with some regularity. Dillon and Larson should have the equipment to compete and I would expect them and many of the other rookies to actually improve as the season goes along. If one of them can win a race or not is hard to say. They certainly have the talent, but it will be just a matter of gaining some experience and knowing when to be patient and when to go for it.

So the 2014 ROTY certainly will shape up to be a battle between Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson, with Annett and Allgaier standing an outside shot, then everyone else.

Mark Howell, Senior Writer: The 2014 rookie battle will be waged amongst the usual chaos that is the fight for the Sprint Cup Series title. This year’s class might be deep and very talented, but those teams will wrestle amongst themselves for ROTY honors. It’ll be a dogfight for the trophy as long as the teams can stay afloat financially, but these drivers will likely be little more than white noise within the larger “win-or-walk” slugfest that will be this year’s march to Homestead.

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