The 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season will mark the full-time debuts for both Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson. Each driver enters the series with quite a bit of excitement. Not since Joey Logano began his Sprint Cup career in late 2008 has there been this much buzz for a rookie competitor.
The fact that both young drivers ascend to the sport's top level at the same time makes it all the more exciting. After many years of uninteresting rookie battles, the sport finally has a new set of faces who can compete against each other and make the Rookie of the Year award relevant once more.
In 2014, whichever driver earns the award will truly have had to have earned it, as opposed to the recent winners.
Last season, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was the series' top first-year competitor. Though he was not the only driver competing under the rookie banner, very few people could have expected him to be challenged for the rookie title. With no disrespect meant to Danica Patrick, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that Stenhouse would be the sport's top rookie.
Prior to Stenhouse, the recent list of rookie of the year's reads as a who's who of NASCAR never-were's.
Kevin Conway, Andy Lally and Stephen Leicht won the award from 2010 through 2012.
Between the three of them, those drivers combined to score a total of two top-20 finishes in 73 starts during their rookie campaigns (Lally scored a 19th-place finish, while Conway had once finished 14th).
The three races that Conway ran in 2011 are the only NASCAR-sanctioned events that any of those three drivers have competed in since winning the Rookie of the Year.
It is fair to assume that whether Dillon or Larson wins the 2014 Rookie of the Year Award, he will not follow the recent trend of winning the honor and then disappearing from the sport altogether. Both of these competitors are signed on with top-flight teams and are stars in the making.
Their fight for top-rookie honors will be a throwback to the early part of the millennium, when it was common to see two future stars duke it out.
In 2000, Matt Kenseth nipped Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win the award, while one year later, Kevin Harvick edged out Kurt Busch for the honors.
Ryan Newman prevailed over future six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson in 2002, and in 2003, it was Jamie McMurray getting the best of his close friend, Greg Biffle.
Hopefully, the two prized rookies in 2014's class can go on to have the same amount of success as any of the dueling duos of the early 2000s.
Dillon enters the Sprint Cup Series much the same way Stenhouse did one year ago. He is the defending Nationwide Series champion and a two-time winner at that level of competition. In 77 career starts, he has posted 53 top-10 finishes.
Larson begins his Sprint Cup career with far less NASCAR experience than Dillon. The 2013 season was his only season in Nationwide competition. He also failed to win but ended the year eighth in the standings. He posted four runner-up finishes during the year, including the season's final race at Homestead.
The Dillon-Larson battle in 2014 is the first of what we can only hope is many head-to-head competitions between the two. Entering the Sprint Cup Series together will forever link the two drivers, and now they will both be compared to each other.
With the 2014 rookie of the year battle, we also get a glimpse into the future. Dillon and Larson are both soon-to-be winners in the sport, and with the immense talent that each owns, they will likely be competing with one another for championships for years to come.
This season's rookie battle is more than just a one-year competition. Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson are both poised for greatness in their Sprint Cup careers, and hopefully this is just chapter one in a long and storied NASCAR rivalry.
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