CHARLOTTE — For the first time in recent memory, NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series rookie class might qualify as an actual class.
Lately, they have been more like lonely meetings.
Tight budgets and lack of sponsorship, particularly since the onset of the recession in 2008, have greatly reduced driver development programs and vastly reduced the opportunities in NASCAR’s biggest series for up-and-coming drivers.
Last season, two-time Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. beat out Danica Patrick for rookie of the year.
In some seasons prior to 2013, as few one or two drivers registered for the rookie program and many didn’t even run full schedules.
The 2014 season, however, appears to be shaping up as a bonanza for new drivers.
At least five drivers with four organizations are confirmed to join the Cup series rookie program and there still remains the possibility of one or two more before the season officially gets underway with the Feb. 23 Daytona 500.
Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson likely are to grab the most attention in the class, at least during the early going.
Dillon, the grandson of longtime NASCAR owner Richard Childress, has Truck and Nationwide series championships and will join the Cup series this season driving the iconic No. 3, made famous by the late Dale Earnhardt.
Dillon, 23, has made 13 Cup starts, 11 during 2013 but has yet to register a top-10 finish.
“It wouldn’t surprise to see him win a race, but we’re not setting that as a top priority goal,” Childress said. “He wants to race for rookie of the year. There is some really good competition in that this year – the best it’s been in several years.”
If top competition is what Dillon wants, Larson should be able to provide it.
The 2013 rookie of the year in the Nationwide series added a Truck series win as well. He also won the 2012 K&N Pro Series East championship and is an accomplished open-wheel driver.
“Usually I don't set a goal as to win the rookie of the year when it’s my first year, but definitely with the competition between all the rookies, it will probably be one of my main goals,” Larson said.
“The competition is just that good.”
Michael Annett missed eight Nationwide races in 2013 after breaking his sternum in the season-opening race at Daytona. After a strong 2012 at Richard Petty Motorsports, he appeared well on his way to making great strides in the sport.
Annett, 27, has moved to Tommy Baldwin Racing and the Cup series and said he is ready for the next step.
“Driving in the Cup series has been my goal ever since I started racing,” Annett said. “To start this next chapter with Tommy, who is one of the main reasons I made the move to North Carolina in the first place, makes this extra special.”
The most recent rookie class additions came to light when Swan Racing announced its lineup for will be a two-car Cup operation. Car numbers and crew chiefs have yet to be formally announced, but upstarts Parker Kligerman, 23, and Cole Whitt, 22, will drive for the organization.
“When we launched Swan Racing we pledged to race hard every lap of every race,” team owner Brandon Davis said. “That's what we have done and what we will continue to do. We learned a lot this (past) year and now is the time to plan for the future by adding more resources to be more competitive.”
Nationwide Series regulars Justin Allgaier and Alex Bowman also could end up with Cup rides before the season gets underway.