Is 2016’s Rookie Class the Best in a Decade?

It’s inevitable.

The veteran drivers currently competing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the drivers we have grown to love over the last decade will move on just as generations of drivers before them have done.

Regardless of whether you’re a fan of NASCAR’s early days when Lee Petty and Herb Thomas battled back and forth for the lead, wins and titles or you watched with clinched breath as Richard Petty and David Pearson duked it out on the track or you savored the opportunity to watch Bill Elliott and Dale Earnhardt charge toward the finish line while blocking the other, there is one thing these legends all had in common.

Their time in the spotlight eventually came to an end.

In all of their cases,there were other drivers to carry the torch and hoist high the NASCAR banner long after Petty and Pearson’s epic battles had vanished. There was always another generation of drivers that was brash, exciting and just as talented as those who came before them.

There will always be another group of drivers waiting in the wings … waiting for their chance in the spotlight.

Today’s NASCAR fans aren’t immune to drivers retiring or leaving the sport. Jeff Gordon hung up his driving gloves at the end of 2015 (and has only temporarily slipped them back on to fill in for the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr.) and at the end of the 2016 season, Tony Stewart will bid farewell to his driving days in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

As a NASCAR fan, you can’t help but wonder how far behind Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and Greg Biffle are. All five of these drivers are 40 or older with several others quickly approaching 40.

I must clarify that I don’t think 40 is the age at which drivers are too old to drive; I’m only using 40 because it is often the age at which people start wondering how many years a driver may have left.

In order to keep NASCAR going strong and competitive, not only on a national stage but on an international front, the burden falls upon the shoulders of the younger drivers to carry that proverbial torch.

After glancing at this year’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year class it would appear as though the future of NASCAR is promising. For sure, the 2016 rookie class is probably one of the strongest groups, if not the most solid, in the last 10 years. A couple more classes like this year’s, and the sport is set for the next 10-15 years.

 

Don’t believe me … then let’s take a look at all of the rookie classes since 2007.

2016

When you have Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney headlining a five-driver rookie class, you know that class is special. Both are sons of former drivers and have shown a penchant for running and finishing near the front. Although they haven’t won a race through the first 22 races of their rookie campaigns, their time will come; however, fellow rookie Chris Buescher currently holds the banner as the only rookie in the class to hold a win in the premier series so far. Brian Scott and Jeffrey Earnhardt fill out the rest of the class … and in the case of the latter, having the last name “Earnhardt” doesn’t hurt. All five drivers have full-time rides for this season. I believe all five have staying power and will still be in the series years from now.

2015

Only a year removed from accepting the 2015 Sunoco Rookie of the Year award, Brett Moffitt is no longer competing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and he has only appeared in two NASCAR Camping World Truck Series events this season. His best finish during his rookie campaign came in his first start where he finished eighth. Two other rookie drivers from 2015 have only made a start or two so far this year. Jeb Burton has started both Pocono races, while Alex Kennedy competed at Watkins Glen. Matt DiBenedetto is the only driver from the 2015 rookie class with a full-time ride this season.

2014

There are a several drivers from the 2014 rookie class that have staying power and will be decent to very good drivers in the future. The six-driver class is led by Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon. Although neither driver has visited Victory Lane in a points-paying event yet, they’ve consistently finished in the top 10 this year and have been in contention to win several races. Justin Allgaier is a solid driver, but he’s no longer competing in NASCAR’s top series, having taken his talent to the NASCAR XFINITY Series. Cole Whitt and Michael Annett are running full-time schedules in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series; however,  Alex Bowman has one start this year in the top series, filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

2013

Although the 2013 rookie class was small with only three drivers, it includes a two-time NASCAR XFINITY Series champion in Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and one of the most recognizable names in NASCAR in Danica Patrick. Neither have been to Victory Lane yet, but are showing signs of improvement every season. The third driver from the class, Timmy Hill has made several starts this year in the NASCAR XFINITY and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, but has not appeared in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event yet. His most series starts in a season came during his rookie campaign when he started 19 races.

2012

Stephen Leicht hasn’t competed in an event in any of NASCAR’s three national touring series since his rookie campaign in 2012 when he made 15 starts in the premier series. This year he’s been plying his trade on the CARS Super Late Model Tour. Josh Wise, the only other rookie from the 2012 class, is still hanging around NASCAR’s top two series. This year he’s started 18 of the first 22 races in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and made seven appearances in NASCAR’s second series.

2011

Somewhat surprisingly, there was only one driver in the 2011 Sunoco Rookie of the Year class. That distinction belongs to Andy Lally. He competed in 30 races in 2011, but hasn’t started a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series since. Last year, he did make two starts in the NASCAR XFINITY Series, but this year he’s turned his focus to the Weathertech SportsCar Championship.

2010

After starting 28 races during his rookie campaign, Kevin Conway only made three more events in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, all coming in 2011. Since then, he has stayed away from NASCAR’s national series and some of the other larger series in motorsports. His fellow rookie, Terry Cook, only made three starts at NASCAR’s top level. Similar to Conway, Cook hasn’t competed since 2010 in any of NASCAR’s three national series.

2009

If you follow NASCAR today, you’re probably aware of what Joey Logano has accomplished since his rookie campaign when he won the Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award. That year, Logano won the first New Hampshire race and since then has added 14 more wins to his career total. Unfortunately, the other three drivers in his rookie class haven’t been able to stick around in the premier series. Dexter Bean competed in one race during the 2009 season, which turned out to be his only start in the series. Max Papis last appeared in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2013, when he made one start. Scott Speed’s last premier series race came during the 2013 season, in which he made 13 starts.

2008

The 2008 rookie class held a lot of promise with an influx of international stars from the IndyCar Series and CART. Dario Franchitti (Scotland) arrived in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2008 after a successful IndyCar career. However, after only 10 races, he decided to hang up his NASCAR hopes and return to IndyCar competition. He’s since retired from driving. Canadian Patrick Carpentier competed in a career-high 24 races during his rookie season after leaving CART behind. Since then, he hasn’t competed in more than six events a season in NASCAR’s premier series, most recently appearing in two races this season. Like Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr. was a past Indy 500 champion who decided to try his luck in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Unlike Franchitti, Hornish has stuck around. Although Hornish hasn’t appeared in any NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races in 2016, he raced full time in the series as recently as 2015. Regan Smith, who won the Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award in 2008, returned to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series full time in 2016 after spending the previous three seasons contending for the NASCAR XFINITY Series championship. The fifth member of the 2008 rookie class is Michael McDowell, who is still competing in the top series. After 200 starts, he’s still looking for his first win.

2007

Juan Pablo Montoya is another international star (Colombia) from another racing league (Formula One) who decided to try to find success in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Unlike Franchitti and Carpentier, Montoya was named Sunoco Rookie of the Year. He also won two events during his time in NASCAR’s premier series. However, after starting just two events in 2014, he hung up his NASCAR aspirations and headed to IndyCar. David Reutimann, winner of two races, last appeared in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event in 2014. The other three drivers from the 2007 rookie class (David Ragan, Paul Menard, AJ Allmendinger) are still competing on a full-time basis in the premier series. Ragan has two series wins, while Menard and Allmendinger have one apiece.

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