It’s been a few good years since there has been a legitimate battle for the NASCAR Sprint Cup’s Rookie of the Year award, an award that used to precede the start of something special for the drivers who won it. Looking back twenty years ago, it was guys like Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, and Tony Stewart winning the award. Even in the early 2000’s, Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin took home Rookie of the Year. These are all guys who have gone on to win multiple races and championships in their Sprint Cup careers.
Unfortunately, the last few years have seen the award not truly been earned by great drivers. With all due respect to these guys, Regan Smith, Joey Logano, Kevin Conway and Andy Lally have been the last four winners of the award and they haven’t produced much yet, only three wins between them. In fact, Conway and Lally aren’t even in the Sprint Cup Series any longer.
I know the value of this award has been watered down a bit these last four years due to lack of sponsorship dollars. This prevents teams from bringing up younger drivers into Sprint Cup because sponsors don’t want to take a risk on someone who is unproven. But I, for one, would love to see this award be won by a strong, up-and-coming driver in the near future and there are some great candidates who’ll be in Sprint Cup action very soon.
Darrell Wallace Jr., Ryan Blaney, Brett Moffitt, and Chase Elliott are all cutting their teeth in the smaller divisions of racing, most notably, all four have competed in the K&N Pro Series East this season. Wallace, Blaney, and Moffitt have also participated in at least one NASCAR Nationwide Series race this season, which isn’t too crazy as many young drivers participate in Nationwide competition every year. However, it’s the results that they have already produced in such a short period of time that have been eye catching and are leading many to believe that these four could be part of NASCAR’s next great youth movement.
Wallace Jr., 18 years old and out of Concord, NC, appears to be well on his way to full-time Nationwide competition within the next year or so, if not by next season. Wallace has been competing in the K&N Pro Series East since 2010 originally for Revolution Racing before becoming a developmental driver with Joe Gibbs Racing, a powerhouse in the Sprint Cup Series. To date, Wallace has accrued 6 K&N wins and has a best finish of 2nd in points in 2011. Now with Joe Gibbs full-time, Wallace got his first taste of Nationwide Racing in the 2012 season.
Wallace’s Nationwide debut came at Iowa back in May of this year and he wasted no time impressing, qualifying 8th for the race and finishing 9th. He backed that up in Iowa again in August, qualifying on the outside pole, leading roughly the first 30 laps of the race, and winding up in 7th at the finish. So far he’s 2-for-2 in Nationwide top-10’s and he may be in a couple more Nationwide races before year’s end.
Then there’s Ryan Blaney, the 18 year old son of NASCAR Sprint Cup veteran Dave Blaney, who might be slightly ahead of the curve for now compared to the other guys mentioned in this article. It’s a bit interesting too, because he’s the only one of the four who doesn’t have a K&N victory, but that doesn’t take away from what he’s accomplished and where he’s going. Blaney debuted in the Nationwide Series this season at Richmond in a car owned by Tommy Baldwin Racing, the same team his dad drives for in the Sprint Cup Series. Blaney, like Wallace, also wasted no time in putting his name on the map, qualifying eighth and finishing seventh at Richmond in April. Since then, Blaney also earned another top-10 in the August Iowa race, but most notably, it was in a different car.
Blaney was tabbed to drive select Nationwide races for Penske Racing, another legendary car owner in the Sprint Cup Series, over the summer and that role has since expanded. Along with running select Nationwide races for Penske throughout the rest of the 2012 season, Blaney will also finish out the majority of the Truck Series schedule for Brad Keselowski Racing. Keselowski is, of course, a rising star for Penske on the Cup side. Many opportunities await Blaney in the near future as he’s set himself up with a great team.
Brett Moffitt has been on the K&N Pro Series East longer than any of the other four in this article and it’s beginning to pay off for him. Moffitt has been in the K&N Series since 2009 and currently drives for Hattori Racing Enterprises. The 20 year old has racked up 9 wins and 7 poles with a best points finish of 2nd. Moffitt got his Nationwide break this year at Iowa in the August race and mirrored Wallace and Blaney in the sense that he too got a top-10, finishing 9th in his first career start with RAB Racing. Moffitt also has his foot in the door with Michael Waltrip Racing as a test driver.
Last, but not least, there’s Chase Elliott, the 16 year old son of NASCAR champion Bill Elliott. Chase currently drives in the K&N Pro Series East for his dad’s team and won his first K&N race this season at Iowa, beating out Ryan Blaney who finished second. Elliott has won numerous small series racing events of fame all across the country, such as the Winchester 400 in Winchester, IN and the Snowball Derby in Pensacola, FL. He has already been tabbed as a development driver for arguably NASCAR’s most dominant team, Hendrick Motorsports. Heck, rumors even have him as the driver who will replace four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon, but that’s way too early to tell.
These four drivers have already shown they have what it takes to be successful in NASCAR’s higher divisions and I seriously hope all four of these guys get their shot at the big time, the Sprint Cup Series, within the next five years. Once they do get there, it’ll be one heck of a battle for that Rookie of the Year award and eventually, the Sprint Cup championship.
*All stats acquired from NASCAR.com and the NASCAR Hometracks website.
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