Dale Earnhardt kneels beside car before the Dixie 500 race on November 4, 1979 at the Atlanta International Raceway in Hampton, Georgia.
Right now, the top two contenders for NASCAR Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year honors are Ricky Stenhouse Jr. of Roush Fenway Racing and his on-track rival/off-track girlfriend Danica Patrick of Stewart-Haas Racing.
At first blush, neither Stenhouse nor Patrick is exactly setting the NASCAR world on fire, at least not on track. Through 15 races, Stenhouse is 19th in points, without a single top-10 finish to his credit, and Patrick is 27th, having scored her only top 10 in the season-opening Daytona 500.
But the truth is, succeeding as a rookie in the Sprint Cup Series is a daunting task. Since 1970, only 11 drivers have finished in the top 10 in points in their rookie seasons. Here they are:
10. Walter Ballard, 10th, 1971 - At the age of 38, the Houston native took Rookie of the Year honors by running in 41 of 48 races in 1971. He scored three of his four career top-five finishes in his rookie season.
10. (tie) Terry Labonte, 10th, 1979 - Another Texan, Labonte was one of three rookies who finished in the top 10 in points in ‘79. For the season, he had two top-five and 13 top-10 finishes in a very deep rookie class.
9. Kevin Harvick, 9th,2001 - Among all the rookies, Harvick’s season was one of the most impressive, given that he had the unenviable task of succeeding the late Dale Earnhardt. Harvick won in his third race, narrowly edging Jeff Gordon.
8. Earl Ross, 8th, 1974 - Ross won the fall race at Martinsville driving for Junior Johnson, one of his five top-five finishes that season. But after 1974, he would compete in just two more Sprint Cup races, one each in 1975 and ‘76.
6. Dale Earnhardt, 7th,1979 - It took little time for Earnhardt to score his first career victory - he did it at Bristol in April of that year. He also earned four poles, 11 top fives and 17 top 10s. One year later, Earnhardt would win the first of his seven titles.
6. (tie), Jody Ridley, 7th,1980 – After making a total of 12 starts between 1973 and ’79, Ridley took ROTY honors in 1980 on the basis of two top fives and 18 top 10s. He would score his only race victory the following year.
4. (tie) Joe Millikan, 6th, 1979 - Want to win a bar bet? Ask someone who scored more points as a rookie in 1979 than both Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte. That would be Joe Millikan, in the only year he would run the entire schedule.
4. Ryan Newman, 6th,2002 – The Rocketman edged Jimmie Johnson for rookie honors in 2002, with one victory and 14 top-five finishes. Newman also became the second rookie to win the Sprint All-Star Star race.
3. Jimmie Johnson, 5th,2002 - Although he finished ahead of Newman in points, Newman was ’02 ROTY on the basis of more top fives and more top 10s. Despite the disappointment, Johnson went on to have a decent career.
2. Tony Stewart, 4th,1999 - Driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, the former IndyCar star stormed out of the gate with three victories and 12 top-five finishes in a sensational rookie season. Three years later, Stewart won the first of three Cup championships.
1. Denny Hamlin, 3rd, 2006 - The best NASCAR Sprint Cup rookie season since 1970, at least in terms of a point finish, belongs to Richmond-area native Hamlin. The highlight of his great rookie season was winning both Pocono races from the pole.