Look, not every year will fans see a rookie battle as good as the one Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman put on in 2002. That season, they were little-known racers taking over big-time rides, with only two Busch Series wins between them. Johnson, at that point, was best known for hitting the turn one wall at Watkins Glen and Newman for winning the Coke 600 pole in 2001 before crashing in the first 10 laps.
Fourteen years later, what a difference for the two.
Johnson owns six Cup championships and 77 wins. Newman has 17 wins of his own and 51 poles. They still have a few years of racing left to add to those numbers, but as their careers wind down it is an interesting question to ask if any of the recent rookie battles can produce two superstar drivers.
If you didn’t watch the Sprint Showdown this past weekend, you missed one great show by Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott. The two raced hard for the win, with Larson prevailing after a Darlington-2003 type of finish. A week before that, the two battled it out for second at Dover and looked like they might steal the win from Matt Kenseth.
Larson was a part of the 2014 rookie class, and along with Austin Dillon, who has also proven himself a strong contender in the Cup Series.
Elliott is a part of this year’s crop of rookies, and along with Ryan Blaney, would be in the Chase if the postseason began today.
Four rising drivers, two great rookie classes. When history has its say, which pairing will have the better numbers?
With all due respect to Elliott and Blaney, history will show Dillon and Larson as the more accomplished rookie class.
For starters, let’s take a look at their road to Cup stardom. Dillon has already earned two championships – one in both the Camping World Truck Series and another in the XFINITY Series – and eight wins between the two series before moving to Cup. Larson went from dirt-track racing to asphalt racing in 2012, won the K&N Pro Series East championship, and moved to Cup just two years later. He only had a single CWTS win before making the switch.
Larson gave notice, however, in his first year of Cup racing, finishing in the top 5 on eight occasions and the top 10 on 17. He scored three second-place finishes ,and while he didn’t win showed that he belonged on the circuit. A sophomore slump – which even the best drivers experience – slowed his production in 2015, but he’s rebounded this season, already tying his top-5 count of last year and knocking on the door of wins at Dover and the All-Star Race, where he was leading until the final couple of laps.
That he’s putting up these numbers with Chip Ganassi Racing, a team with only 11 wins to its credit and only one since 2013, is outstanding. And therein lies the rub, that both Larson and Dillon are running for teams that are, at the time being, mid-level teams at best. Both are outperforming their equipment, in particular Dillon, who already has career-best numbers through 12 races of 2016 than he had in 36 races the previous two seasons.
Contrast this to Elliott and Blaney, both of whom are running in cars either prepared by a mega-team (Elliott) or supported by a mega-team (Blaney). Both of those drivers came out swinging, but just looking at 12 races does not mean one can get an accurate view of a career. Elliott and Blaney will both do great things, as will Larson and Dillon – the question is, can they make the right career moves to enable them to do so? Both CGR and Richard Childress Racing are experiencing an uptick in performance this year, and as the future nears and the charter system settles in, both teams can expect even more gains as financial stability increases.
Remember that even Hendrick Motorsports started somewhere small and that even the best super team can fall from the upper echelon. The ebb and flow of NASCAR competition can do nothing but help Larson and Dillon as their teams either get better or stagnate enough to see the drivers leave for greener pastures. For Elliott and Blaney, they are already at the top. Moving elsewhere would largely be a step backwards, and if in the future such a step needs to be made, teams will have not only those two to choose from but “underdog” stars such as Dillon and Larson. It’ll be up to the teams at that point to decide whom to pick.
The big winners, of course, throughout the next 20 years as these four battle will be the fans. With so much of the star power today on the older side, it’s important to see that the young guns are finally having their go in the spotlight.
But when it really comes down to it, Larson and Dillon have the upper hand.
This one didn’t take me too long to figure out. It has to be Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott. Right now in the 2016 Sprint Cup Series season, we’re getting a load of notable on-track performances from these two young men – both who have quite a weight on their shoulders.
Sitting seventh and 15th in points, they recently were the talk of the town following a stellar Sprint Showdown on Saturday. If Blaney hadn’t endured a restart violation, it could have been him and Elliott rubbing fenders for the transfer spot.
Unlike Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson from 2014, the current dramatic duo have successful Sprint Cup fathers by their side. In Chase’s case, it’s a Hall of Famer in Bill Elliott.
It’s consistently one of the headlines that extends through NASCAR nation any time somebody has an ounce of family prestige behind them: Do you feel any pressure to succeed? What have you learned from your father? Oh, your dad won here back in 1985, what would it mean if you… you understand.
Additionally, both drivers find some added strain from the numbers they’re piloting. Sure, Austin Dillon had the No. 3 for the first time since Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001. After that announcement, the amount of upset folks would be enough to tip over the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
However, in Elliott’s case, the healing time was much more short for NASCAR nation as Jeff Gordon’s career ended a mere three months before Elliott would drive the No. 24 on the high banks of Daytona. Being six years younger than Dillon, Elliott would also have a championship-less prior season in XFINITY – a situation that clearly affected Elliott’s self-image.
For Blaney, who can argue the level of tension that No. 21 Ford must bring to the fella behind the wheel. If you know Blaney, you’ll understand why having a calm, mild head in such heated grounds will only pay dividends in the years to come.
Pile on the fact it’s the first full-time season for the Wood Brothers this decade, and Blaney has a lot to live up to.
How these two have put much of that talk to the side in such a small amount of time is uncanny. There has seemed to be a small amount of a learning curve in their swings this year as they both eye the Chase which begins in 10 races.
Following some number crunching, Elliott, with a 12.9 average finish through 12 races, exceeds both Larson and Dillon in that category. Additionally, the 20-year-old has twice the amount of top 5s that Larson had in 2014 along with 32 laps out front, where Larson and Dillon combined for only one lap led.
My final point would be the rules package this year and how it’s clearly intensified the competition on the racetrack. The fact that both rookies have shown solid consistency through 12 of the most memorable races in recent years is shocking in itself.
It’s a tough sell to think otherwise.
About the author
Sean returns as a ringer in 2017, contributing once a month because he (gasp!) is living it up in the big city without internet. While he's not consuming race news on the Twitter app and reddit he's writing a ton of short stories and paying the bills by working in marketing.
A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.