Last year's rookie class across the top 3 series was the best in a while.
Joey Logano became the youngest race winner and ROTY in Cup Series history by beating former Formula 1 driver Scott Speed. Although not eligible for ROTY, Marcos Ambrose and Brad Keselowski were great in their first years in Cup with Marcos finishing 18th in the standings and Keselowski getting his first career Cup win in a part time effort.
Justin Allgaier followed up his 2008 ARCA championship by winning ROTY honors in Nationwide over former Truck Series alumni Brendan Gaughan, Michael Annett, former Cup driver Michael McDowell, Scott Lagasse Jr. and John Wes Townley. Allgaier finished 6th in the driver standings, Gaughan 9th and Annett 10th.
In Trucks it was former Cup and Nationwide driver Johnny Sauter who ended up dominating the ROTY battle in the 2nd half of the season and ending up 6th in the driver standings with his first career Truck win and two poles. Unfortunately Sauter's ROTY award showed how busted the system is by allowing an experienced driver at NASCAR's top tier to even be eligible as a rookie in the 3rd tier series. The real rookies were Tayler Malsam in 12th in the standings with 10 top tens, James Buescher in 14th and Ricky Carmichael in 22nd in a partial season.
This year's ROTY battles in the Trucks and Nationwide should be even better with a lot of good young drivers making the next step. But Cup is another matter entirely...
(The following drivers are all the ones I know of that are legit, there could be some that I didn't include and more that will find rides between now and Daytona, so if there's anyone else then they can be added in the comments section)
Truck Series Rookie Class:
Austin Dillon - The 19 year old grandson of Richard Childress will be competing in a #3 truck owned by RCR and sponsored by Bass Pro Shops. He won a race and finished 2nd in the East Series standings as a rookie in 2008 and even finished 4th in just his 2nd career Nationwide start that year. This past season he ran a handful of races across the Trucks, East and West Series and ARCA. In an RCR developmental program sporting the likes of Tim George Jr. in ARCA and John Wes Townley in Nationwide, Austin is the one bright spot and should be a front runner for ROTY.
Justin Lofton - The 2009 ARCA champion will be driving the #7 Red Horse Racing Toyota Tundra this season. He has 7 ARCA wins in 41 career starts, 6 of which were this past season when he barely edged out Penske developmental driver Parker Kligerman for the championship. He ran the West Series in 2006 and 2007, finishing 11th and 16th in the standings respectively, and finished 16th in his Nationwide debut this past year at Michigan for CJM Racing. RHR has finished in the top 5 in the owners standings two of the past four seasons and should make Lofton a contender for wins and ROTY.
Nelson Piquet Jr. - A year ago this was about as unlikely as Schumacher coming out of retirement... um but yeah it looks like the 24 year old son of 3 time F1 world champion Nelson Piquet will be in a 3rd truck for Red Horse Racing. He was a runner-up in the 2006 GP2 championship to Lewis Hamilton and moved up to F1 with Renault in 2008 where he scored 1 podium, a runner-up finish at Hockenheim that fell in his lap due to lucky pit strategy, and 19 points to finish 12th in the standings. But 2009 was a disaster where he failed to score any points before he was replaced mid-season and then Crashgate blew up. Despite his F1 struggles he's still got talent but it'll be overshadowed by his inexperience which'll leave him falling short of Dillon and his teammate Lofton in the ROTY battle.
Others - Jennifer Jo Cobb could be competing for ROTY if she can bring together a team; she bought the #10 Truck from Circle Bar Racing and is looking for sponsorship so she can run the whole season. The 37 year old has run a handful of Truck, Nationwide and ARCA races since 2002. In 2004 she had 3 top tens in just 3 starts in ARCA. ARCA driver Jeremy Petty might also run for ROTY with a new start-up team.
Nationwide Rookie Class:
Colin Braun - The 21 year old Roush developmental driver will be driving the #16 RFR Ford with Conway Freight sponsoring half the season. Colin started out in sports cars where he became the youngest driver to ever compete in the DP class in Grand Am at the age of 17, became the youngest winner in series history at the age of and the youngest driver to ever stand on the podium at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a runner-up finish in his class at the age of 18. He moved to the Truck Series in 2008 where he won ROTY and then got his first career win and finished 5th in the standings in 2009. He also has two poles and a runner-up finish in 7 career Nationwide starts. He'll be one of the favorites to win at the road courses and is probably the favorite to win ROTY.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. - Another Roush developmental driver, the 22 year old will be driving the #6 RFR with CitiFinancial sponsoring half the season. He was a contender for the ARCA championship back in 2008 but he infamously wrecked fellow contender Scott Speed in the last race and Speed's retaliation cost him the championship. He made 7 starts in Nationwide in 2009 in preparation for 2010 where he had two top tens, a best finish of 5th and 5 finishes of 22nd or worse. Although that ARCA incident left a bad taste in everybody's mouth, he'll be up there with his teammate Braun for ROTY.
James Buescher - This one's become a question mark since it's looking like Miccosukee will be leaving the sport and will leave James Finch's team without sponsorship. If the 19 year old does compete with Phoenix Racing his odds of winning ROTY will be even less than before. He competed in the Truck Series in 2009 for Circle Bar Racing as a rookie, finishing 14th in the standings with 1 top five and 3 top tens. He also has 3 ARCA wins in just 18 starts since 2007. He's got the talent and should finish top 10 in points but the different in the quality of equipment compared to Roush was bad enough with a fully sponsored team.
Brian Scott - The 22 year old will be driving for Braun Racing in the #11 AccuDoc Solutions Toyota Camry. He enjoyed a big breakout season in 2009 in the Truck Series, getting his first career win and finishing 7th in the standings. He also ran 7 Nationwide races between CJM and Braun Racing with a best finish of 14th. Braun Racing is by far the best of the true NNS teams and has competed for wins on numerous occasions with the 32 team running Cup drivers and the 38 running Jason Leffler full time. Even the 10 team has been competitive when it's not S&Ping but with the expansion to 4 teams it'll be interesting to see how well Scott runs. He could be anywhere from mediocre to good but I'd like to lean towards good, especially if the 11 team gets better treatment.
Danica Patrick - She'll be running 10+ races in Nationwide for JRM and while she could be an eligible rookie it won't be enough races to actually have a chance; top 17 finishes count for points so that's the bare minimum to even have a chance. Her inexperience in stock cars would make her fall short even if she were running the full season.
Others - who could become a contender for ROTY the same way he became a contender for the ARCA championship is Parker Kligerman who will be running the first 5 races of the season for Smith-Ganassi Racing in the #42. The 19 year old Penske developmental driver finished runner-up to Lofton in ARCA in 2009 but won a series-high 9 races despite the fact he was only supposed to drive the first 7 or so races of the season before his performance forced Cunningham Motorsports to run him the whole season. It's unclear if the #42 team will be running the whole season and whether they'll get other drivers but there's a chance he could do well enough to get himself a full season. If not then he'll be the clear favorite for ROTY in Nationwide in 2011.
Other possible rookies are EGR development driver Jeffrey Earnhardt, the son of Kerry and grandson of Dale, whom EGR wants to try and run in Nationwide for the full season, former Rusty Wallace Inc. development driver Chase Austin with a family team.
Cup Rookie Class:
I saved the worst for last with this.
Kevin Conway - 32 years old, he'll be driving the #37 Extenze Ford for Front Row Motorsports full time in 2010 and will be locked into the first 5 races. Conway has 25 Nationwide races, 1 Truck race, 2 West Series races and 2 ARCA races to his credit since 2002. He drove some NNS races for JGR back in 2007 but his best finish was only 21st in 7 starts in equipment that JGR development driver Brad Coleman drove to 3 top fives and 5 top tens in 17 starts. The only thing noteworthy about Conway is his sponsor, Extenze, which helped him get his Cup ride. He hasn't shown anything in lower series to suggest he's even good enough for Nationwide, let alone Cup but he's here and he'll probably be your 2010 ROTY.
Terry Cook - 42 year old, he's used to be noted for being a Truck Series lifer with 6 wins in 314 starts over 14 seasons. His best season was 2002 when he won 4 races and finished 8th in the standings and has finished top 10 on 5 occasions. But last year he was infamous for driving for the worst example of a S&P team, Phil Parsons' team, in Nationwide. He started 20 races but parked in every single one of them, his best finish in 20 starts being 37th. Now he'll be driving full time in Cup in 2010 in the #46 for a new Cup team formed by Nationwide owner Dusty Whitney and competing for ROTY. They bought some of RPM's old Dodges and intend to run the whole season but will likely be a S&P effort. Terry Cook is a decent driver and would easily beat Conway in equal equipment, but if this is a S&P effort then he won't stand a chance.
Others - The only hope for a legit ROTY contender right now is Erik Darnell. The former Roush development driver was a standout in the Truck Series, collecting two wins in 3 seasons and finishing 4th in the standings in 2008. He drove a partial Nationwide schedule for Roush in the 6 car, collecting a handful of top tens and running well enough to compete for a couple wins. He also drove 7 races late in the season for HoF/Yates racing but struggled in his first outings in the COT. Unfortunately the full inn at Roush in Nationwide combined with the 5th RFR Cup team being dropped and Yates merging with RPM has left Darnell without a ride. But his best chance of landing a Cup ride could be with Latitude 43 Motorsports, a new team formed by Vermont businessman Bill Jenkins who bought the Roush #26's owners points and will be getting some support from Roush. Boris Said was rumored as a driver for the team but that's been denied so Darnell would seem like the natural choice with his Roush connections and some experience in the COT. With the help from Roush Darnell would be the clear runaway winner of ROTY, but only if he gets the ride.
Trucks will be interesting with Dillon and Lofton battling it out for ROTY while Piquet Jr. learns how to race stock cars. Dillon and Lofton are both talented and have good equipment so a win and top 10 in points for either driver is a good possibility. My money's on Lofton, RHR is more established and he's raced at more of the tracks on the schedule than Dillon thanks to ARCA.
Nationwide will be awesome in terms of the ROTY battle; Braun and Stenhouse will not only be battling for ROTY but a chance to replace David Ragan in Cup in 2011 while Brian Scott could be a big wild card. I thought James Buescher would be lucky to even finish the year given Finch's penchance to fire drivers but now he might not even start the season thanks to a potential lack of sponsorship. It'll be interesting to see how Danica Patrick adapts to stock cars and I'll be hoping that Kligerman does well enough to earn himself a full season or at least enough races to contend for ROTY. I'll pick Braun to come out on top, it'll be close between him and Stenhouse but I think Braun is a hell of a talent and will make it to Cup eventually.
Cup is simple: If Darnell gets the #26 ride, then he'll win ROTY and will be worthy of it. If not, then Conway and you should ignore Cup ROTY entirely.
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