The kids are all right: Larson and Dillon lead impressive rookie class
MAY 15, 2014 1:00p ET
NASCAR is touting the 2014 Sprint Cup Series rookie class as its largest since 1994, when a young Virginian named Jeff Burton bested a field of 10 Rookie of the Year candidates, including Burton's brother Ward, Joe Nemechek, Jeremy Mayfield and John Andretti.
After three or four relatively fallow years, the 2014 Sprint Cup ROTY class consists of whopping seven drivers -- Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett, Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon, Kyle Larson, Ryan Truex and Cole Whitt.
How significant is this influx of new talent?
It's huge, especially in context.
If you look at the ROTY contenders from 2008-12, only Joey Logano, Josh Wise and Michael McDowell are full-time Sprint Cup drivers today. And of the 15 ROTY candidates since 2008, only Logano has won more than one Sprint Cup race and only Logano and Regan Smith have won at all in NASCAR's top division.
So an infusion of youth and talent is certainly a welcome addition to the series.
Realistically, though, with just under one-third of the season in the books, the battle for ROTY honors is already down to just two drivers, Larson and Dillon, who are 13th and 14th, respectively in the Sprint Cup standings. Right now, they are the last two drivers in position to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, although that certainly could change in the final 15 races of the regular season.
No disrespect to the others, but Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, the team Larson drives for, and Richard Childress Racing, the squad owned by Dillon's grandfather, are the only two teams right now that are fielding rookies in cars capable of winning.
Allgaier, Annett, Bowman, Truex and Whitt all have talent and a lot of upside potential. And all of them drive for smaller, lower-budget teams, which is a big reason they are each ranked somewhere between 29th and 38th in points. Could one or more of them develop into a frontline driver at this level? Absolutely. It just isn't likely to happen this season.
Larson and Dillon, on the other hand, are at a much higher level already, mostly because they are with first-rate race teams. Both have already had some eye-opening runs this season: Dillon won the pole for the season-opening Daytona 500 in the return of the No. 3 that Dale Earnhardt made famous, and Larson finished second to Kyle Busch at Auto Club Speedway and fifth at Texas Motor Speedway.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Dillon and Larson are among the favorites to win Friday night's 40-lap Sprint Showdown at Charlotte Motor Speedway and advance to Saturday night's Sprint All-Star Race, where the winner takes home a cool $1 million.
Nineteen drivers are locked into the all-star event, with three more to get in: The top-two finishers in the Showdown and a driver voted in by the fans will transfer to the big race. Realistically, Danica Patrick figures to be close to a lock in the Sprint fan vote, unless the Dogecoin community pushes Josh Wise over the top.
Despite their early successes, both drivers see room for improvement in their respective searches for Victory Lane.
"For me, I want to as a team get better getting the car handling right to start the races," said Larson. "In practice, you'll run out there by yourself a lot of the times. You'll get a good feeling for your car and then you get into the race, and you start mid-pack in a lot of dirty air behind cars and your car handles way different. And you're off and you spend 150 laps trying to fix it. If we can just start the races better, I think we'll run up in the top 10 even more so than we do and if everything goes right, could probably get a win."
The numbers for Larson reinforce his point. Aside from winning a pole at Richmond, he's had only one other top-five start and six starts outside the top 15.
Dillon has been consistent this year, but the RCR cars as a whole are just a bit off the pace of the fastest cars this year, the Team Penske Fords and the Chevrolets of Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing.
Three times in 11 races so far this year, Dillon has finished 11th; three more times, he's finished either 15th or 16th -- good results, but not what he wants.
"We just need to get that speed back," said Dillon. "That's what our biggest effort right now is, to gain some speed back and try to run consistently up front."
Asked how his season has gone so far, Dillon was blunt.
"It's a solid season right now," he said. "I'm not happy with it, truthfully. I'd like to be running toward the front more often. I'd like to be in the top 10, top five, trading times with the leaders."
Friday night, Dillon, Larson and most of the rest of the rookies will get their shot at glory in the Sprint Showdown.
It ought to be a grand stage for one of them to step up and make a statement. The question now is, who will step up?