Clash of the newbies: Dillon, Larson poised for dogfight
It isn’t exactly Jon Jones vs. Alex Gustafsson squaring off in the octagon — not yet, anyway — but on paper, the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year battle is shaping up to be a great fight.
In one corner, you have 21-year-old Kyle Larson, driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Chevrolet. Larson won rookie of the year honors and the series championship in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East in 2012 and took the rookie title in the NASCAR Nationwide Series last year. Despite his young age, Larson has an extensive racing resume, with more than 200 race victories, including numerous triumphs in USAC Silver Crown, sprint car and Midget races.
In the other corner is Austin Dillon, who already owns rookie titles and series championships in both the NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, all earned driving for his grandfather, Richard Childress. Not only will Dillon run for Sprint Cup ROTY honors this year, he’s bringing back the No. 3 to NASCAR’s top division for the first time since the death of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona in 2001.
A whopping six other drivers — Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett, Alex Bowman, Parker Kligerman, Ryan Truex and Cole Whitt — make this by far the deepest Sprint Cup rookie class in years, and likely the most talented, as well.
Larson and Dillon are the clear favorites of the eight rookie contenders, though, in part because of what each of them already has accomplished, and in part because they, frankly, drive for teams with more resources and experience than the other six.
Both drivers are looking forward to getting the battle underway.
"I’m definitely confident," said Larson during Tuesday morning’s first stop on the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway. "I feel like last year in the Nationwide Series we were fast every week. Hopefully, I can turn that over to the Cup series. … I just want to be consistent and competitive each week."
Larson said he’s ready to go head-to-head with Dillon for the rookie championship.
"It’s going to be a blast racing with Austin all year long for that title," Larson said. "He’s accomplished a ton in his NASCAR career already with his truck championship and the Nationwide championship. If I could beat him in that battle, I think it would say a lot about myself and the team. It’s going to be tough — he’s a great stock-car driver, a great competitor."
For his part, Dillon, too, is looking forward to the challenge. And he very much wants to complete the rookie of the year sweep.
"I think it’s very important," Dillon said. "I’ve won it in the Truck Series, I’ve won it in the Nationwide Series and in the East Series. And this year is definitely going to be the toughest, probably, moving to the Cup Series. Not only that, the competition is stout for rookie of the year this year. Kyle Larson, Cole Whitt, Parker Kligerman, and there’s a few others in there."
That said, Dillon believes he’s up to the task and very much wants another ROTY title.
"It’s definitely a pride thing," Dillon said. "I want to finish it off. That’s our main goal. That and knocking down one (race) victory. Anything beyond that would be a stellar first year."
Dillon’s RCR teammate, Ryan Newman, thinks Dillon is more than ready for the challenge at hand.
"Austin Dillon has won a Truck championship and a Nationwide championship," said Newman. "I did my first Cup start in Phoenix after manybe 15 Nationwide starts and winning a couple of ARCA races (but) never winning a Truck or Nationwide race. So, I’m pretty sure he’s ready."