DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Say hello to the new guys in NASCAR.
Don’t worry if you can’t remember them all just yet, because they’re coming in one booming wave.
They already made a splash at Daytona – and they’re in it to win big over the long haul.
Austin Dillon holds the top spot for the Daytona 500.
Kyle Larson wants to finish as the top rookie in NASCAR.
The two preseason favorites for rookie of the year have to hold off a crowded field of six other drivers – a whopping number for NASCAR – eligible for the award. The new faces have squeezed veteran stalwarts like Jeff Burton and Mark Martin out of rides, leaving open the possibility that Sunday’s Daytona 500 could be viewed down the road as one that swept in a new era in NASCAR.
“I don’t think there has been a rookie of the year battle in quite a while like this one,” Larson said.
Larson and Dillon are the lynchpins of a class that include Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett, Alex Bowman, Ryan Truex, Parker Kligerman and Cole Whitt.
“Austin Dillon’s got to be the favorite for that with everything he has accomplished,” Larson said. “If I could beat him I think that would say a lot about myself and our team.”
The 21-year-old Larson has been touted as racing’s next big shining star for the last few years. Larson ran four races last season as a warm-up for his move to Chip Ganassi Racing to drive the No. 42 Chevrolet. Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon are among the NASCAR champions that have been wowed by the natural speed, talent and versatility flashed by Larson. Gordon once said, “he makes me look like nothing,” at his age.
His A-list fan club has only boosted his profile.
“It’s definitely helped me get me to where I’m at right now,” Larson said. “Having guys that everybody looks up to talk about me, I definitely pay attention to it, or have. I try not to pay too much attention to it because I don’t want to add any much pressure to myself or even let me get cocky or anything like that.”
Larson won a low-level NASCAR developmental series championship in 2012, the first time he raced in stock cars. He finished eighth in the standings with nine top-fives in his first full season in the Nationwide Series.
Larson, whose mother is Japanese and father is of Native American descent, is just one of the prospects set to take over as today’s crop of 40-something Cup drivers inch closer toward retirement.
Martin, who went 0 for 29 in “The Great American Race,” has no races scheduled for this season and consults for Stewart-Haas Racing. Burton parted ways with Richard Childress Racing and joined NBC Sports. Gordon even said he’d consider retirement if he could win a fifth championship.
Burton’s busiest ride these days is the one that flies him to Connecticut for TV work. Unlike Martin, Burton has been around at Speedweeks.
“It was a little awkward when I first got here and rolled into the racetrack and knew I wasn’t going to drive,” Burton said. “But I’m happy. I like my new role. I’ve embraced what I’m doing.”
NASCAR’s rookie classes have produced few stars the last several years. Future Cup champions, and Daytona 500 and Brickyard winners Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman and Jamie McMurray each won the award in the late 1990s-early 2000s.
Some lean seasons followed. Juan Pablo Montoya, Kevin Conway, Andy Lally and Stephen Leicht were among the recent underwhelming winners no longer with full-time rides in NASCAR. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., last year’s top rookie, is known as much for dating Danica Patrick.
Kligerman, who drives for Swan Racing, said it’s an easy call for teams to ditch the aging veterans and groom the next generation of stars.
“Would you take the guy on the way out who’s going to produce the same as this guy, or get the guy that has a ton of upside,” Kligerman asked. “Any business owner would say you want the upside. On the sponsorship side, there is an idea in our sport that having young faces and young attitudes and trendy attitudes can help drive an organization to another level.”
Those are the kind of attitudes found at Swan Racing.
Kligerman and Whitt might have the first rookie rivalry that spills into driver’s introductions at Bristol. Which Swan Racing rookie walks out to 50 Cent’s “In da Club” at the track that allows drivers to pick their own theme songs?
“Always been a fan,” the 23-year old Kligerman said of the rapper, who has branding for his SMS Audio line on both of Swan Racing’s cars. “Bristol? Definitely. Maybe Cole and I will both do it. We’ll have to talk about it.”
With sponsorship issues and pressure to show early they belong, it’s not an easy road for rookies in NASCAR. Truex failed to qualify for the Daytona 500 and NASCAR history is littered with “can’t miss” prospects who missed.
Joey Logano was called “Sliced Bread,” as in, greatest thing since, when he was just a teen and replaced Stewart at Joe Gibbs Racing. He’s had a nice career, though hardly one that’s matched the lofty expectations of a future champion.
Dillon, a champion in the Truck and Nationwide Series, made a splash at Daytona when he drove the famed No. 3 to the pole for Sunday’s race. He’s the fifth rookie on the pole, joining Loy Allen Jr. (1994), Mike Skinner (1997), Jimmie Johnson (2002) and Patrick (2013).
“This is one of the top points, starting off like this, so you want to carry that momentum going forward,” Dillon said. “But for me, I just have to stay grounded and have fun.”
The jury will be out for years on which rookie can truly emerge as the next championship contender.
“In a year from now, we’ll know if it changes the guard,” Kligerman said. “Next year, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, they’ll fight for the championship. There will be no difference. Those guys are still here. They’re still at the top of the sport.
“In a year, two years, three years, the kids that stick around from this rookie class, they’ll be the ones that change the guard and change the sport.”
Spoken like a true veteran.