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Meet NASCAR's 2014 Rookie Class: The best in over a decade

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The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series enjoys a bevy of rookie talent into its ranks in 2014. Led by Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson, the eight-driver crop is already drawing comparisons to the 2002 field which featured Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman, as well as the 1993 star-studded class headlined by champions Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte. Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese introduces you to this season's eight rookie drivers.

1. AUSTIN DILLON

No. 3 Dow Chevrolet SS; Richard Childress Racing; Crew Chief: Gil Martin
Dillon is the odds-on favorite to win Rookie of the Year honors in Sprint Cup — and rightfully so. The 23-year-old drives a car that, with Kevin Harvick, won four races last year and finished third in points. Gil Martin returns as crew chief and Dillon’s grandfather is the team owner, so there’s no question as to a pecking order.

Of course, there is also that matter of the return of one of the most iconic numbers in motorsports, as the stylized “3” makes its return to the Cup Series after a 13-year hiatus. There has been much fanfare — and some aversion — to bringing the number back, as the legend of Dale Earnhardt looms large, but in all fairness to Dillon he’s been running it for the majority of his racing career. He’ll carry on a tradition of winning associated with the number and is already off to a fast start, putting the black, red and white Dow Chevrolet on the pole for the Daytona 500.

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2. KYLE LARSON

No. 42 Target Chevrolet SS; Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates; Crew Chief: Chris Heroy
When Tony Stewart points to you as one of the next great drivers of a generation, you’re on the right track. Kyle Larson takes over the No. 42 vacated by Juan Pablo Montoya to the relief of jet dryer drivers everywhere. While Montoya might never live that moment down, Larson experienced his own brush with immortality — and mortality — after nearly parking his car in the Daytona grandstand in last season’s Nationwide race.

The 21-year-old shook it off though, bouncing back to challenge all-time Nationwide wins leader Kyle Busch for the win at Bristol later in the season. And he impressed during preseason testing at Charlotte, winning the informal “race” during testing of new spoiler and body configurations. Chip Ganassi Racing has struggled in recent years on downforce tracks, so this performance was promising — if only in a test environment. Dillon is still the odds on favorite for Rookie of the Year, but Larson will be a household name within a year or two. Bank on it.

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3. PARKER KLIGERMAN

No. 30 Lean 1/Nutrition 53 Toyota Camry; Swann Racing; Crew Chief: Steven Lane
While most of the preseason rookie hype has focused on Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson (rightfully so), there is a third member of the class that could be dubbed a diamond in the rough; one that will prove to be a winner in the Cup ranks within the next three years: Parker Kligerman.

In 2014, the 23-year-old joins Swann Racing — a startup team that performed admirably last season. Not content to start-and-park, the No. 30 group completed upwards of 95 percent of laps competed in 2013.

Kligerman was aligned with Team Penske via Brad Keselowski Racing for the first few years of his career before landing at Red Horse Racing in the Truck Series late in 2012. He racked up six top 5s in the last 11 races that year, including a win at Talladega. Last year, Kligerman finished ninth in the Nationwide standings with the now-defunct wing of Kyle Busch Motorsports. If there’s a driver that would fit in the long-rumored fourth car at Joe Gibbs Racing, well Coach, look no further.


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4. JUSTIN ALLGAIER

No. 51 Brandt Chevrolet SS; HScott Motorsports; Crew Chief: Steve Addington
When Kurt Busch came to Phoenix Racing’s No. 51 two years ago in a last-ditch effort to revive his career, he helped showcase the potential of this team. And when James Finch sold the outfit to Harry Scott, it was a natural transition to bring along Scott’s Nationwide Series driver Justin Allgaier with him. This is how it used to be done way back when, as a team would move up from the Busch Series and into Winston Cup.

Armed with Hendrick horsepower and crew chief Steve Addington, this team could surprise a few this year. Allgaier is a rookie by Cup standards, but has been a consistent and reliable competitor in Nationwide for over five years, where he’s recorded three wins and five finishes of sixth or better in the point standings.

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5. COLE WHITT

No. 26 Lean 1/Nutrition 53/Speed Stick GEAR Toyota Camry; Swann Racing; Crew Chief: Randy Cox
Many drivers are remembered for some of their less-than-glamorous moments. For Cole Whitt, that would be turning then-teammate Danica Patrick at Daytona in a 2012 Nationwide race. He finished seventh in points that year but was released at season’s end. He spent the 2013 season with TriStar Motorsports and make a handful of starts with Swann Racing.

Whitt is in a similar position as Kligerman. A 22-year-old, Whitt was on the fast-track, aligned with a top team only to be passed over for someone else. Not a likely threat to win in Cup, his M.O. will be to prove that he belongs. The experience and exposure will come in handy down the road.

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6. RYAN TRUEX

No. 83 Borla Exhaust Toyota Camry; BK Racing; Crew Chief: Dale Ferguson
Ryan Truex replaces David Reutimann in the No. 83 Camry for BK Racing in his ROY bid. The team that rose from the ashes of Red Bull Racing has been consistent, if not earth shattering, since.

Truex has yet to win in the Truck or Nationwide series, so expecting victory in Cup is a major stretch at this point. However, Truex scored back-to-back titles in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East (2009, ’10). He also won a Nationwide pole — and nearly the race — at Dover last year while driving Joe Gibbs’ No. 20 car.

Toyota let one Truex get away following the fall-out from the MWR incident at Richmond last year — it’d be wise to allow this one to mature for a while.


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7. MICHAEL ANNETT

No. 7 Pilot-Flying J. Chevrolet SS; Tommy Baldwin Racing; Crew Chief: Kevin “Bono” Manion
Michael Annett may best be known for the awful hit he took last year at Daytona in the Nationwide race in which he broke his sternum and was sidelined for several months.

Driving for Tommy Baldwin Racing this year, he brings Pilot-Flying J sponsorship and has longtime Cup crew chief Kevin "Bono" Manion steering the ship. Manion has a pair of Nationwide titles with Martin Truex Jr. as well as Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 wins with Jamie McMurray. TBR’s alliance with Richard Childress Racing means some haul-ass motors, particularly at the plate tracks.

Baldwin has slowly but surely built a competent team the past few years, even nearly stealing a Daytona 500 win in 2012. Speaking of the 500, Baldwin won the event as a crew chief for Ward Burton in 2002, and his No. 7 cars now have plenty of yellow, black and red markings to conjure up a lot of warm memories.


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8. ALEX BOWMAN

No. 23 Dr. Pepper/Burger King Toyota Camry; BK Racing; Crew Chief: Dave Winston
As the youngest of the rookie contenders at 20 years of age, Alex Bowman may not be a household name, but his future is bright. Bowman has already proven himself in the ARCA ranks where he won four races in 2012 in what were Gen 4 Cup cars. He finished an impressive third amidst the destruction at Daytona in the Nationwide race last February and scored two poles and six top 10s throughout the year, placing 11th in the standings despite missing a race.

He will team with Ryan Truex at BK Racing this year in the re-numbered 23 Toyota. A very young driver with an impressive resume, Bowman will not have the horses or experience to challenge Dillon, Larson, et al, for ROY honors, but he rounds out the most potential-laden rookie class in over a decade.

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