HUNTERSVILLE – The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ landscape continues to change.
The sport’s rookie of the year battle, which had fallen on hard times in recent years, will be one of the most hotly contested in nearly a decade. Eight drivers – the most since 2006 – will vie for the title of top newcomer in 2014.
Austin Dillon (Richard Childress Racing) and Kyle Larson (Chip Ganassi Racing) headline the class and are in top-flight cars. The other six, however, are also Nationwide Series call-ups with successful resumés: Cole Whitt and Parker Kligerman (Swan Racing), Alex Bowman and Ryan Truex (BK Racing), Justin Allgaier (Phoenix Racing) and Michael Annett (Tommy Baldwin Racing).
It was only a matter of time before a group of drivers made the move from Nationwide competition to Sprint Cup. Age, while not a barometer of lower driving skill, is still a concern when the stars get older.
Three of the top 10 drivers in points last year – Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and Greg Biffle – are at least 41 years old. Three-time champion Tony Stewart is 42. Others are near their 40th birthdays. Defending champion Jimmie Johnson is 38. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 39, and Kevin Harvick is 38.
Dillon, at 23, and Larson, 21, are among the sport’s top young talents, but several are expected to follow them into Sprint Cup stardom in the coming years. Nationwide Series rookies Chase Elliott (JR Motorsports) and Dylan Kwasniewski (Turner Scott Motorsports) are just 18, but each has the potential to be in Sprint Cup by 2016.
So does 20-year-old Joe Gibbs Racing development driver Darrell Wallace Jr.
Annett said the sport’s top stars have a stronghold on the best rides, as they should, but the bumper crop of rookies should make this season even more interesting than expected.
“Some of the other rookies are guys who have raced against me (in the Nationwide Series), so there’s that respect,” Annett said.
Wallace said in an interview last year that the key for the sport’s young drivers is to progress at a solid pace and not force themselves into tough positions before they’re ready.
Still, no rookie in the foreseeable future will have as high a set of expectations on him as Dillon.
The eldest grandson of Richard Childress will drive the No. 3 Chevy made famous by Dale Earnhardt Sr., a number that hasn’t been used in Sprint Cup since Earnhardt’s death in 2001.
Dillon was fastest in a preseason test session at Daytona International Speedway, which only served to call more attention to the defending Nationwide Series champion.
Dillon, who won the Camping World Truck Series title in 2011, said last month at a Charlotte Motor Speedway press conference that he’s excited to be in a competitive rookie class, driving a car with a famous number on the side.
“It’s a huge responsibility," Dillon said. "Everybody knows who made this number famous. We feel like bringing it back with my grandfather and RCR … it’s going to be special. We’ve put in a lot of hard work and effort at the shop and we’re prepared for everything that’s to come."