Rookie honors don’t always ensure future success
By Rick Minter
Winning a NASCAR rookie of the year title hasn’t always been an indicator of future success in the sport, but sometimes it has.
The first rookie of the year for NASCAR’s top series was Blackie Pitt, back in 1954. He won on the strength of six top-10 finishes and an 11th-place spot in the final points standings, but he never achieved much success afterward.
Other rookie winners went on to become future champions, beginning in 1959, when Richard Petty, who went on to win seven titles, took rookie honors. David Pearson also was a rookie of the year, as were Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace, the late Dale Earnhardt and five others who later became series champions — Alan Kulwicki, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch.
From 2010 to 2012, the rookie titles went to Kevin Conway, Andy Lally and Stephen Leicht, drivers who, for the most part, haven’t drawn much attention around the Cup circuit in subsequent years.
But this year’s rookie of the year winners — across all three of NASCAR’s elite divisions — appear poised for future NASCAR stardom.
The Cup rookie title went to Erik Jones, who is set to take over the No. 20 Toyota at Joe Gibbs Racing next season after driving the No. 77 at Furniture Row Racing in 2017.
Jones took the title over Daniel Suarez, Ty Dillon, Corey LaJoie and Gray Gaulding after earning five top-five and 14 top-10 finishes, plus a pole at Bristol.
Jones said in a media session following the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway that he was proud of what he and his young team were able to accomplish,
“A rookie crew chief [Chris Gayle], a rookie driver, and we were able to have a strong season, compete for some wins along the way, and end up with rookie of the year,” he said. “That was one of our big goals was to get the rookie of the year, and it’s nice to close it out with that.”
Jones said he hopes he and Gayle can build on their 2017 season when they both move to the No. 20 next year.
“I’ve never worked in my career with a crew chief more than one year, so it’s kind of a new thing for me to have a year now where I’m going to be working with a guy for the second time and growing and building that relationship again,” he said. “I think firing off in Daytona and then to Atlanta, just knowing that we’ve worked together for a year and have those notes to go back on is going to be a big bonus.”
In the Xfinity Series, the rookie title went to William Byron, who also won the championship for his JR Motorsports team. He’s set to move to Hendrick Motorsports and drive the No. 24 in the Cup Series next year.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., who co-owns the Chevrolet that Byron drove to the titles, said Cup fans will like Byron once they see the kind of person he is.
“As he goes on to the Cup Series and he gets introduced to the fans and the industry more, it’s going to be fun to hear everybody else see what we already see,” Earnhardt said.
Chase Briscoe, who won the season-ending Truck Series race at Homestead for his first major NASCAR victory, also took rookie honors in trucks.
Like Byron, Briscoe is set to move up a notch on the NASCAR ladder and will share Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 60 Ford with Austin Cindric and Ty Masjeski in the Xfinity Series next year.
Brad Keselowski, who owned the truck that Briscoe drove this season, is bullish on the youngster.
“I feel that Chase is one of the best young talents — if not the best — in the sport that is not in the Cup Series, so it is not a surprise to me to see him win a race and make the playoffs in his rookie year,” Keselowski said.