Over the past few years, one of the biggest criticisms has been the lack of fresh faces in Nascar. Very few exciting prospects have moved up from the lower ranks of the sport, as older, more established drivers have held tight to their Sprint Cup rides. There hasn’t been more than one contender for Rookie of the Year honors since the year 2008, when winner Regan Smith squared off against highly lauded drivers such as Patrick Carpentier and Michael McDowell. If you want a real battle for Rookie of the Year, you’re going to have to go all the way back to 2006, when Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, and Martin Truex Jr., duked it out for top honors. However, this year is shaping up to be unusually competitive, as young prospects Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon will be moving up to quality rides in the Sprint Cup series, while Parker Kilgerman, who finished 9th in the Nationwide points race will be joining fellow newcomer Cole Whitt at the small-time operation Swan Racing. Michael Annett, who placed 5th in the 2012 Nationwide points standings, will also be moving up, driving for Tommy Baldwin Racing. In this article, we rank each rookie and analyze their chances of success in the 2014 season.
Why are so many drivers moving up this year? Well, a lot of veterans are giving up their seats. Find out more here.
1. Austin Dillon
Austin Dillon at Road America (From Wikipedia)
One of the most highly touted prospects in the sport, Richard Childress’s grandson is a force to be reckoned with. Dillon won the Nationwide Series Championship in 2013 after finishing 2nd in 2012. He also won the Truck Series Championship in 2011. In 2014, he will drive the iconic #3 car for Richard Childress Racing. Along with fellow rookie Kyle Larson, Dillon will be a serious contender for the rookie of the year award. He performed admirably in the 2013 Sprint Cup series, placing as high as 11th while running a part-time schedule. Austin Dillon will look to replicate and improve on those results during his freshman campaign.
2. Kyle Larson
Kyle Larson may be one of Nascar’s most exciting rookies in recent memory. A Japanese American out of Sacramento, Larson lit up the world of dirt racing as a teenager and then transitioned to stock cars, where he became the Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year in 2013. Although he did not win a race in a season dominated by Sprint Cup regulars, Larson recorded 17 top 10’s including 9 top five finishes and a pair of 2nd place results. In 2014, Larson will be moving up to the Sprint Cup series, replacing Juan Pablo Montoya, who will be moving to Indy Cars. Many have expressed concern over Larson’s quick rise to the Sprint Cup series, arguing that he needed more time to prepare in the sport’s lower ranks. Kyle will look to silence those doubters and prove himself and a legitimate racer during the 2014 season.
3. Parker Kligerman
Larson and Austin Dillon are the two most talented rookies in the class of 2014, but Parker Kligerman has the skill to give either one a run for their money. Kligerman drove his first full Nationwide Series campaign in 2013, recording 12 top 10 finishes. He ended up 9th in the points standings overall, only 2 points behind Kyle Larson. He lost his ride at the end of the 2013 season, when team owner Kyle Busch shut his Nationwide operation down due to a lack of funds. He made two starts for first year team Swan Racing in the Sprint Cup series, finishing a respectable 18th at Texas Motor Speedway. Kligerman will compete full-time in the 2014 Sprint Cup series, racing for Swan as they expand their organization to a two car team. This young driver has the talent to compete at Nascar’s highest level–although his equipment might hold him back, look for him to make a run at 2nd place in the rookie of the year standings.
4. Cole Whitt
To fill their second car, Swan Racing, which is fielding Parker Kligerman, will also be bringing up Cole Whitt to the Sprint Cup series. Whitt has proved himself as a capable driver in the Nationwide Series–he finished 7th in the 2012 standings while driving for Dale Earnhardt Jr’s Nationwide team, and posted 4 top tens in the 2013 campaign while driving for underfunded TriStar Motorsports. While not as heralded as some of the other rookies, Cole Whitt does have talent. Although he will probably never reach the top echelons of the sport, Whitt will look to establish himself as a solid driver during the 2014 season.
5. Michael Annett
Last and in all probability least, we have Michael Annett. An Iowa native who was once a strong ice hockey prospect, Annett has been racing in Nascar’s Nationwide Series since 2008. He’s ranked last on this list mainly because of the awful equipment he’s been saddled with. In 2014, Annett will be piloting the #7 Chevrolet for Tommy Baldwin Racing, a team which could be counted on to be near the end of the grid in every single race of the 2013 season. Still, the team is improving, and Annett is bringing along something every small organization needs–sponsorship. Michael Annett has the potential to surprise–he finished 5th in the 2012 Nationwide campaign while driving for Richard Petty Motorsports. Even though he’s saddled with some pretty poor equipment, don’t count him out just yet.