Being named the NASCAR Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year used to mean something. All-time greats like Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon all earned the title during their careers. The title has fallen on hard times recently, passing between part-timers and also-rans, but a potential showdown between Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson next year could help restore prestige to the Rookie of the Year Award.
Richard Childress Racing's announcement earlier this week that Ty Dillon would take over the No. 3 Chevrolet in the Nationwide Series all but confirmed his older brother Austin's move to Sprint Cup. Meanwhile, Bob Pockrass of the Sporting News speculated that Kyle Larson could be in line to replace Juan Pablo Montoya at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.
If it happens, it will be the kind of rookie battle fans have not seen since Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex battled in 2006.
Dillon and Larson are both proven winners in the sport's lower ranks. Dillon is a former champion in the Camping World Truck Series and is in the middle of the fight for this year's Nationwide Series title. Larson was a standout in sprint cars before winning last year's K&N East Series championship. He earned his first Truck Series win earlier this year and has been a consistent presence in the top 10 during his rookie Nationwide campaign.
Together, the two drivers will make the Rookie of the Year Award matter again.
The last three years have been disappointing at best with regard to the winner of the award. Kevin Conway "earned" the honor in 2010, despite missing eight races and finishing with an average finish 32.6, according to Racing-Reference.info. Andy Lally took the crown in 2011 with an average finish of 30.8.
Last year was even worse. Stephen Leicht was given the title of Rookie of the Year despite competing in only 15 of 36 races, finishing just five and ending the season 41st in Sprint Cup points.
None of them have ever recorded a top-10 finish in the Sprint Cup Series, and of the three, only Conway got to make an encore appearance, making three starts in 2011, where he completed a total of four laps.
Though neither Danica Patrick nor Ricky Stenhouse Jr. have looked particularly impressive, this year's battle for rookie supremacy at least involves two full-time competitors who have a future in the sport.
But next year's potential showdown would be even better.
Dillon has already shown he can run at the front of the Sprint Cup field, recording finishes of 11th and 14th in the two Cup races at Michigan. Larson has been quick to adapt at every level, earning 13 top-10 finishes in 23 Nationwide starts this year, including a 12-race stretch where he finished 14th or higher in every race.
The consistency they have shown will translate well as they transition to Sprint Cup.
Return to Winning
Both Dillon and Larson would be stepping into cars capable of running at the front and challenging for victories.
The last rookie contender to win in the Sprint Cup Series was Joey Logano, who won at New Hampshire in 2009 (Brad Keselowski won that same year, but he had not declared himself a candidate for ROTY honors). No rookie driver has come close since.
In contrast, from 1999 to 2008, 10 Rookie of the Year contenders earned at least one win in their first Sprint Cup season, the most successful stretch in NASCAR history according to statistics compiled by Jayski.com.
It would not be surprising to see one or both of next year's first-timers find Victory Lane given that both are driving for proven teams with winning pedigrees.
A True Duel
The most memorable Rookie of the Year battles were between two or more top-tier drivers. Dale Earnhardt beat Terry Labonte and Harry Gant in 1979, Davey Allison edged Dale Jarrett in 1987 and Jeff Gordon bested Bobby Labonte in 1993.
But the new millennium brought some of the best battles of all-time. Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. both earned victories during their 2000 Rookie of the Year battle, with Kenseth coming out ahead. Kevin Harvick earned the title the next year, beating out Kurt Busch.
Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman put on a show for the ages in 2002, with Newman earning the nod despite Johnson's three wins and fifth-place finish in the final points.
For the award to truly matter again, the driver who earns the title of Rookie of the Year needs a foil, a rival to battle on a week-to-week basis. Each of the drivers mentioned above was forever compared to his fellow rookie classmates.
More than anything else, Dillon and Larson are two evenly matched drivers who will be battling not just next year, but for years to come in the Sprint Cup Series.
Given their natural talents behind the wheel, the consistency they've both shown and the high level of their teams, Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson are poised for the first great Rookie of the Year battle in years. It's a battle that will bring prestige and honor back to the once-coveted award.