Race Weekend Central

Friday Faceoff: Who’s the Top NASCAR Rookie For 2017?

Carl Edwards pulled off a move that shocked the racing community, announcing he’ll step away from NASCAR competition full-time.  If Edwards has really hung ’em up for good, what is his legacy in the sport?  Is he a future Hall of Famer?

Amy Henderson, Senior Editor: I think he goes down as one of the most aggressive drivers of his era, gracious with the media and fans, a solid competitor with a career to be proud of.  Hall of Fame?  I say no — when I think Hall of Fame, I think the best of the best of the best in the sport’s almost 70-year history. Edwards falls short of that mark.  When I think of the top drivers ever to climb behind the wheel, honestly, he doesn’t come to mind.  One of the strongest in recent years, sure… but I tend to think the Hall bar is a little low anyway, so he’ll probably get in.

Zach Catanzareti, Staff Writer: There’s no doubt Carl Edwards would make the Hall of Fame ballot shortly following eligibility. The lack of a championship has proven not to be a be-all, end-all with the HoF. Fireball Roberts, Mark Martin, Wendell Scott and others got through because of the unique fingerprint they left on the sport. The level of respect and gratitude we’ve seen since Tuesday morning – in my opinion, equal or more heartwarming than that given to Tony Stewart or Jeff Gordon – has been incredible and I believe he will have no problem getting into the HoF.

Joseph Wolkin, Assistant Editor: Edwards will go down in history as one of the most aggressive drivers on the racetrack. The determination to succeed, aligned with his underdog story of perseverance is remarkable considering his humble beginnings. But off the racetrack, more importantly, he is one of the most genuine people in the garage. Edwards might be the only driver who stops for every fan and manages to take extra time to get to know media personalities. Is he a Hall of Famer? Probably. But it would have been interesting to see what could have happened if he stuck around full-time a few more years.

Phil Allaway, Newsletter Editor: Edwards’ legacy is similar to Mark Martin’s. He’ll be known as the guy that did a lot in the sport, but never won the big one. He doesn’t have a Cup championship, didn’t win the Daytona 500, and is missing other major victories from his resume. However, he eviscerated the Nationwide/XFINITY fields for years, winning a title there. Edwards will be remembered just as strongly for his personality (backflips included). He’s borderline for the Hall of Fame, but I predict he’ll get in eventually.

Is Carl Edwards a future Hall of Famer? Our staff experts are leaning towards yes. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

Dustin Albino, Staff Writer: Carl Edwards was a hard-nosed racer. In the public eye, he always did things his way. The Missouri native will be remembered for his backflips, sure, but also his consistency. Three times, he went into Homestead with a shot at the championship; yes, he came up short in all three but few get that many opportunities. Though I’m not convinced that he is done, at this point his Hall of Fame status is questionable. If Edwards gets in, I feel like it’s going to be several years because of all the champions that deserve to go in ahead of him.

BOWLES: Edwards Closes His NASCAR Chapter With Humility, Class

Daniel Suarez will now join Erik Jones and Ty Dillon as Rookie of the Year candidates in 2017.  Which driver has the edge going into the season?

Henderson: I think Jones and Suarez outclass Dillon as drivers, for sure.  But all three have question marks heading into 2017. Jones has a brand-new team, driving for an organization that’s never had two cars. Suarez has the best equipment yet was promoted maybe a year too soon (I really think everyone would have been better served with a veteran in the seat of the No. 19 for a year; Suarez is seriously talented but lacks seasoning). Dillon, while armed with potential is running for a single-car team who didn’t run well last year. In short, there are no guarantees.

Catanzareti: Both my head and gut have pointed to Jones since his 2017 announcement last August. Since his Truck debut in 2013, I just have not been able to keep my eyes off him. Good thing, too, since he’s now a Truck champion and did pretty darn well in XFINITY the past couple years. Unlike Suarez, Jones has that precious taste of Cup pressure in his mouth. Though the cars have changed a bunch since 2015, Jones has an idea of what it takes to succeed here. By comparison, the mental weight of joining the elite racing series in the country could be diabolical for Suarez.

I just don’t see the transition being a problem for Jones, along with his new No. 77 Toyota. Even if Martin Truex, Jr. was half as fast in 2016, I still would feel fairly confident of the team’s ability to handle a second car with a rookie driver. I say Jones performs better in ’17 than Chase Elliott did in ’16.

Wolkin: I really believe that Jones will excel with Furniture Row Racing. The situation is as solid as it gets, and working with Truex will be a big benefactor. However, I see Suarez taking his time to adapt given his situation and how late the deal came together. As for Dillon, he struggled a bit in the XFINITY Series; I can see the same happening in Cup.

Allaway: Likely Suarez. He has the best team behind him and brings a bunch of momentum into the No. 19. Jones is with a startup team while Germain Racing is a midpack outfit. While I don’t think Dillon will be a bottom feeder, he won’t be at quite the level of Jones or Suarez.

Albino: I have always believed in Jones and his talent behind the wheel. I think he and Suarez will battle for Cup Series championships in the years to come. However, I give the edge to Suarez in their rookie season. In his two full years in the XFINITY Series, Suarez made it clear that he is consistent and brings the car home in one piece. He has Dave Rogers leading the way, plus one of the best pit crews in the garage while Jones is on a startup team. I’m not so sure what to expect from Dillon in 2017; no matter what, don’t expect him to eclipse Suarez.

Kevin Harvick announced he’ll be part of the broadcast team for a handful of XFINITY races this year. Several Cup drivers have tried their hands in the booth in recent years as well. Which drivers would you like to see try it out?

Catanzareti: There are a few who I’ve heard on MRN in the last couple years. The first would be AJ Allmendinger. He seems to have that style, a certain charm which would add an entertaining touch to the broadcast. He has done great work on NASCAR Race Hub and is one of the best ball-busters you’ll find. Another one is Regan Smith. He’s been informative on Race Hub as well and has also been a valuable addition to MRN here and there. Smith also has a lot of character from his NASCAR career struggling with rides, winning despite those struggles, losing major opportunities, and so on. You can’t fake that stuff.

Wolkin: Anyone in the garage. They all bring a unique perspective based upon their experiences. It would be great to see Jimmie Johnson’s take, though.

Allaway: Honestly, most everyone that I would like to see press their luck in the booth has already done it. If Tony Stewart were still active, he’d be the pick. However, he’s not. As a result, drivers like Kasey Kahne and Matt DiBenedetto would make the cut here. Maybe Johnson could surprise a few chaps with some mic skills.

Albino: A lot of the top-tier drivers have been a part of the broadcast team in recent years, but why not give some of the underdogs a chance? If you listen to MRN, they always have a Cup Series driver from a lower-budget team broadcasting the XFINITY Series and they do great! I would like to see guys like Landon Cassill, David Ragan and DiBenedetto get a shot because I think they would do well. The three of them are among the nicest guys in the garage and, if given the opportunity, could shine behind the mic.

Henderson: I agree with Dustin that Cassill has definite potential.  I’ve enjoyed seeing just about everyone in the booth who has taken the time—they’ve all brought something different. Smith, an underdog and Casey Mears have both done TV and done well.  The seven-time champ Johnson would be interesting as an analyst, and I also think someone like Brendan Gaughan would be a lot of fun.

Several of the smaller Cup teams made changes in the offseason — some acquired charters, some changed drivers, one added a second car and two teams merged.  Which small team will show the most improvement in 2017?

Wolkin: Definitely Leavine Family Racing. The team has its alliance with RCR, plus Michael McDowell is coming off his best season. Crew chief Todd Parrott can’t hurt, either.

Allaway: Hard to say. My guess is probably Go FAS Racing. They’ve finally obtained some better equipment to replace their existing stock. The team has been racing some of the oldest cars in the series since Bill Jenkins acquired the No. 26 from Roush Fenway Racing at the end of 2009. DiBenedetto is an upgrade in the seat, but just having better stuff helps more.

Albino: I feel like Leavine Family Racing ended on such a positive note at Homestead that it will carry into 2017. Throughout last season, McDowell was among the most improved drivers from start to finish. He had a career-high in top-20 finishes and, at Homestead, picked up his first career top-10 result on a non-restrictor plate track. With Parrott atop the pit box, this team has the potential to improve even further.

Leavine Family Racing thrived at the end of 2016 and should keep that momentum going this season despite the loss of primary sponsor Thrivent Financial. (Photo: Mike Neff)

Henderson: I think Leavine Family has an edge as well as they did very well last year and McDowell showed hints of what he can do behind the wheel.  It will be interesting to see what JTG Daugherty does with a second team— Chris Buescher is a talented wheelman as well.  Also, Germain Racing stands to make some gains as Pop-Pop is probably going to throw the kitchen sink their way to help Ty Dillon succeed.

Catanzareti: I must go with Leavine Family Racing and McDowell. They’re the small team to watch in 2017, as they made that tough step last year from 25th on average to hitting the top 15 in the last half of the season more than once every four races. Another step up the ladder would spell weekly top 10s and I believe 2017 will be the year they make some noise. If they had a less-experienced driver, I would maybe hold off until 2018, but McDowell has seen it all and is ready to join the top guns.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Bill W

Amy,your answer about Carl does not surprise me . You have always disliked Carl based on some of your previous comments about him.


Will Suarez be able to get past the gates in The Wall into the States? Reverend Gibbs will have to do a lot of penance to get him past those pearly gates.


Stupid comment, ignorance will eat you up.


If Carl Edwards is Hall of Fame material (as half this panel seems to believe), then I’m in the next group that gets inducted after him. NASCAR is not alone in this (see: Craig Biggio), but when did the Hall of Fame become a step above a participation award?

Tim S.

Edwards could be honored by the Hall of Fame the same way that many drivers are, in changing car displays and memorabilia showcases. Mention his unique victory celebration. Highlight the tenth anniversary of his duel with Stewart in 2021. But induction? Nah.


Jones is going to get a win and Suarez will have good runs here and there I predict. As for Dillon, although he isn’t racing under the RCR banner, the panel said his equipment is going to be mid pack. Not a chance. He ll have what the other 3 RCR cars have every week.


I agree with Amy that Carl isn’t Hall of Fame material. No 500, no Brickyard, no Championship, 28 wins is amazing but not worthy.

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