"Rookie of the Year”. Its a term that can portend future success—or flash in the pan. Sometimes its a fierce battle between several talented drivers—sometimes a walk-over by a single person. So looking back, how have the overall careers of Nascar Cup’s various Rookies of the Year stacked up against each other?
That’s where I come in!
While a “Rookie of the Year” award has been given out in Nascar Cup since 1954, its only since 1974 that some sort of points system was implemented—prior to this it was merely agreed upon by “the media”. So we’re going to only count ROTY award winners from 1974 onward. Also, the previous three Rookies of the Year (Erik Jones, Chase Elliott, and Brett Moffitt) are not going to be considered since their careers are so young. Drivers will only be judged on what they did in the Cup Series, with added weight toward “major” races and season championships.
Now, on with the rankings!
(*—active in Cup; win totals through Chicago 2018)
1. Dale Earnhardt (1979)—76 Cup wins, 7 Cup championships. Dale Earnhardt Sr. never had anything easy coming up, and his rookie year was no exception, as he had to beat out future stars Terry Labonte and Harry Gant for the ROTY honors. The following year the future “Intimidator” would go on to win the first of his record-tying seven Cup Series championships and would wind up as arguably the greatest driver in Nascar history.
2. Jeff Gordon (1993)—93 Cup wins, 4 championships.
After beating out future Cup Series champion Bobby Labonte for Rookie of the Year honors, Gordon would go on to post his first-ever Cup win the following year. While his career is filled with accomplishments—three Daytona 500 wins, five Brickyard 400 wins, six Southern 500 wins, and three World 600 wins, just to list the “majors”—arguably his biggest impact has been off the track, helping Nascar to transition from a regional Southern sport into a national phenomenon.
3. Tony Stewart (1999)—49 Cup wins, 3 championships. Coming into Nascar with plenty of sprint car and Indy Racing League experience, “Smoke” posted a trio of late-season wins in his rookie campaign, running away with the ROTY award in the process. That season served as a launching pad for one of the most-successful racing careers of the modern era, one that Stewart would punctuate with three Cup Series championships.
4. Rusty Wallace (1984)—55 Cup wins, 1 Cup championship. After an auspicious start to his Cup career with a runner-up finish at Atlanta in 1980, Wallace won the Rookie of the Year award in his first full-season in 1984. Soon after Wallace would sign with Raymond Beadle’s race team, winning the 1989 Cup championship, then signing with Roger Penske (who, ironically, served as his car owner for his first race) in 1991. Still winning races late into his career, Wallace retired as one of the most-successful drivers of the modern-era.
5. *Kyle Busch (2005)—47 Cup wins, 1 championship. Though controversial for his brash persona and domination of Nascar’s lower series, you can’t say that Rowdy’s career has ever been boring. Busch won two Cup races in his rookie campaign for Hendrick Motorsports, winning the ROTY award easily over closest competitor Travis Kvapil. Since then he has gone on to win at every level of Nascar at almost every track, capping things off with the 2015 Cup Series championship for Joe Gibbs Racing.
6. *Kevin Harvick (2001)—42 Cup wins, 1 championship. Harvick was originally planned to make his ROTY run in 2002, but the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the 2001 Daytona 500 forced his promotion to the Cup Series a year early. Harvick had a sparkling rookie year, winning twice and beating out future Cup champion Kurt Busch for the award (despite missing a race). Since then Harvick has gone on to a fantastic career, winning numerous major races and the 2014 Cup Series championship.
7. *Matt Kenseth (2000)—39 Cup wins, 1 championship. Kenseth entered full-time Cup competition in one of the biggest Rookie of the Year battles in memory, beating out Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the 2000 award. Kenseth would go on to become a star in the Cup Series, posting wins for Roush Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing, reaching the sports’ pinnacle in 2003 with a series championship. He recently returned to now-RoushFenway Racing for a part-time schedule.
8. Alan Kulwicki (1986)—5 Cup wins, 1 Cup championship. Despite having to switch to running his own equipment mid-year and missing six races, Kulwicki was still named Rookie of the Year over the full-season efforts of future Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip. The fiercely-independent Kulwicki would pull off one of the major upsets in Nascar history by winning the 1992 Cup championship as an owner-driver, only to perish in a plane crash the following year.
9. Davey Allison (1987)—19 Cup wins. Davey Allison’s rookie season was the stuff of legend, winning twice and starting on the front row in the prestigious Daytona 500. Allison would go on to win such “majors” as the Daytona 500, World 600, two All-Star races, and nearly captured the 1992 series championship. Tragically his career was cut short in a helicopter crash in 1993.
10. *Denny Hamlin (2006)—31 Cup wins. Starting out as a substitute for the fired Jason Leffler the previous year, Denny’s Cup career started out like wildfire, winning the Rookie of the Year award on the back of a season sweep at Pocono and a record-high third-place championship points finish. Hamlin has gone on to win a number of “majors” and post a number of close championship finishes, arguably becoming the greatest driver in Cup to not win a season championship.
Next Week: Positions 11-20