While Austin Dillon’s pole-winning run understandably stole all the pre-Daytona 500 headlines on Sunday, he’s not the only rookie who will be chasing NASCAR’s largest one-day prize.
In fact, the rookie field for this year’s Daytona 500 is staggeringly deep, deeper than it’s been in years. Dillon, who drives for grandfather Richard Childress, leads a class of eight drivers who are officially contesting the NASCAR Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year title.
Dillon and former open-wheel sensation Kyle Larson of Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates are the early favorites to capture the season-long rookie battle, and both are expected to run well in the 500 on Sunday.
The six other ROTY candidates are Michael Annett, Justin Allgaier, Parker Kligerman, Cole Whitt, Alex Bowman and Ryan Truex. Brian Scott and Eric McClure aren’t running for the rookie title, but both are first-year Cup drivers entered in the Daytona 500.
All told, 10 of the 49 drivers entered in this year’s big race are rookies.
But it is highly unlikely all of them actually make the race.
Sunday’s qualifying locked in only 13 drivers: the front row of Dillon and Martin Truex Jr.; the next four fastest drivers — Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman and Brad Keselowski; and seven provisionals based on 2013 owner points and past champion’s status. Those seven are Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer and Tony Stewart.
So with 13 drivers locked in, that leaves 36 drivers to race for the final 30 Daytona 500 spots. The Budweiser Duel 150 qualifying races on Thursday night (FOX Sports 1, 7 p.m. ET) will set the final grid and determine who makes the big race.
It is highly unlikely that all 10 of the rookies will race their way into the Daytona 500. It is even less likely one of them will actually win the event, but anything can happen at a restrictor-plate race.
It was just three years when rookie Trevor Bayne scored one of the biggest upsets not only in NASCAR history but in all of sports history when he won the Daytona 500 in only his second Sprint Cup start, a start that came one day after his 20th birthday.
Bayne, who races part-time in the Sprint Cup Series and full-time in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, hasn’t won a Cup race since that historic triumph in 2011. But he won the big one and that’s what counts.
"Coming back to Daytona is special every year," Bayne said. "For me, when you drive into this place, it just feels different than any other racetrack, so you get used to it a little bit year after year. But then you watch the old races and you realize how big of a deal the Daytona 500 is, and just to be a part of it is really special to every driver."
As for team owner Childress, who is Dillon’s grandfather, winning the Daytona 500 pole was huge, but all it was was a good start.
"At the end of the day, we all know what we’re here to do, and that’s to go out and put on a great show for the fans and try to win the race," said Childress.
For his part, Dillon is trying to keep an eye on the big picture.
"It’s a long season," said the Daytona 500 pole-winner. "There’s a lot of ups and downs, and this is one of the top points, obviously, starting off like this, so you want to carry that momentum going forward. But for me, I just have to stay grounded and have fun."