At Daytona International Speedway, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage is split into two sections. The plum positioning — garage stalls closer to restrooms and track entry and exit — are given out based on last year’s final point standings. A quick lap around what DIS dubs the “Sprint Fan Zone” will point out the obvious: It segregates the haves and the have-nots in NASCAR’s money-making division at a time in the sport where the delineation between the two has never been greater.
Contrary to past years, though, is the unusual pep in the steps of some of the back-marker race teams. Gone are the grizzled veterans, famous for showing up rather than showing out, to pilot cars that don’t have realistic chances of cracking the top 20 every Sunday. In are young, hungry combatants — “rookies,” which has become an underutilized word in recent seasons — eager to the grab the reins of machines that drivers on their last legs took for granted. That little extra zip emanating from the crew members working in the have-not section of the garage is a visible sign of renewed passion. Finally, they have something about which to hope.
The coterie of rookies from 2007 to 2012 was an underwhelming crop. Brad Keselowski emerged to become champion. Joey Logano is just now exhibiting the traits of an intuitive racer. Ricky Stenhouse locked down a high-profile ride and is still chipping away at earning the designation of “legitimate Cup Series driver.” But that’s it. Past “Rookies of the Year” include Kevin Conway, Andy Lally and Stephen Leicht, a hapless bunch when it comes to stock car driving, none of which retained rides past their rookie seasons.
The young driver landscape shifted in the fall of 2013. Kyle Larson (left) received a promotion to a Target-sponsored Chip Ganassi Racing car, a vehicle ubiquitous across all forms of auto racing. Austin Dillon takes the wheel of his grandfather’s primary team and — you might have heard — is sporting a number that invokes memories of the sport’s most polarizing driver ever. Smaller organizations such as BK Racing, Tommy Baldwin Racing, HScott Motorsports and Swan Racing elected to not plunk down six-figure salaries for career replacement-level drivers and instead have attempted to unearth their own stars. As a result, Parker Kligerman, Justin Allgaier, Cole Whitt, Alex Bowman, Ryan Truex and Michael Annett all have Cup rides.
Because the NASCAR season begins at Daytona, everyone’s rookie year starts with the sport’s most prestigious event. This eight-deep group of rookies take significant steps in their careers this Sunday. One rookie, Dillon, made headlines when he put a black No. 3 on the pole in the first Cup Series race for the car number since Dale Earnhardt perished in the No. 3 in Turn 4 of the 2001 Daytona 500. Unlike his seven colleagues in cars branded with yellow stripes that signify their rookie status, this isn’t Dillon’s (left) first 500. He finished 31st last year after scoring a third-place result in his Budweiser Duel qualifying race.
Rookies in the past have used the Daytona 500 as an announcement of their arrival to the big leagues of auto racing, something that each rookie this season would be tickled to emulate.
• Dale Earnhardt’s first Daytona 500, in 1979, was a foreshadowing of sorts. He led 10 laps in a car owned by engineer Will Cronkrite en route to an eighth-place finish. He finished fourth in his qualifying race, an event in which he would go on to win 12 times.
• In a car owned by Harry Ranier, rookie Davey Allison qualified on the front row for 1987’s Daytona 500 after failing to make the race twice in the two years prior. He went on to finish sixth in his qualifying race — he never finished lower than eighth in his six Duel races beyond that season — and finished 27th in the 500. He went on to finish second in the 500 (behind father Bobby Allison) in 1988 and win the whole shebang in 1992.
• In 1993, rookie Jeff Gordon scored a win in his qualifying race and went on to finish fifth in the 500. He is now a three-time winner of the 500 and a five-time Duel race winner.
• Gordon knocked Tony Stewart (right) off of the pole in Daytona 500 qualifying in 1999. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver would battle for the win (against Dale Earnhardt) in his Duel race (he finished sixth) and for the lead during the 500, but ultimately finish 28th. He rebounded well for the remainder of the season: The three wins he scored that year remains a rookie record.
• Scott Wimmer benefited from crew chief Frank Stoddard’s two-tire gambit at the end of the 2004 Daytona, finishing third behind Earnhardt Jr. and Stewart. Unfortunately for Wimmer, the result was the best finish of a Cup Series career than spanned 111 races.
• Trevor Bayne became the first rookie to win the Daytona 500, when, in 2011, he brought Wood Brothers Racing to victory lane. To date, his triumph in the two-car tandem draft show is his only top-5 finish in the Cup Series.
• Loy Allen (1994), Mike Skinner (1997) and Jimmie Johnson (2002) won the pole in their first Daytona 500 attempts. Of the three, Skinner’s 12th-place finish in a Lowe’s-sponsored Richard Childress Racing car was the best performance. Ironically, Johnson would go on to make the Lowe’s-sponsored car a site famous among fans and feared among competitors.
• Sometimes a bad first Daytona 500 isn’t indicative of future success: Richard Petty and his Petty Enterprises race team finished 57th out of 59 cars in their initial 500 start. Petty went on to win the event a record seven times.