The 10 Best Sprint Cup Rookie Seasons in NASCAR History

Joseph Shelton@@JosephShelton88Contributor IIIMay 23, 2013

The 10 Best Sprint Cup Rookie Seasons in NASCAR History

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    In recent years the list of Raybestos Rookie of the Year winners has been rather stale. In 2012 the award went to Stephen Leicht, while in 2011 it was veteran road racer Andy Lally who took home the honors. In 2010 Kevin Conway was the, err, "shining example" in the rookie class.

    With the exception of Lally, who currently campaigns a Porsche in the Grand-Am Continental Tire Racing Series, and of 2009 RotY winner Joey Logano, nobody really knows much about our top rookie winners.

    But it hasn't always been that way. Remember when Tony Stewart turned the NASCAR world on its head in 1999? What about Kevin Harvick in 2001? 

    Every once in a while we get a rookie who gleefully walks it to the veterans of the sport and turns heads along the way. On more than one occasion, those rookies have even contended for the championship at one point or another.

    The following is a list of the best rookie seasons in Sprint Cup history. The only criteria needed to even make this list is to have had a great rookie season and to have given the old guard plenty of headaches.

10. Kasey Kahne (2004)

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    When the 2004 season started, Kasey Kahne was only known as the rookie who replaced Bill Elliott in the No. 9 Evernham Motorsports Dodge. With a 41st-place showing in the Daytona 500, Kahne didn't even so much as cause a stir.

    With the series out of Rockingham the next weekend, Kahne caused quite the storm when he finished second to defending Cup champion Matt Kenseth in a photo-finish. Everyone was surprised, even Kahne: 

    “I was doing all I could,” Kahne said. “I could get little runs on him at times but it was real hard. I knew that my only spot to pass him was down here (in turn four) so we did what we could and just about got him. I didn’t know if I won or not. I wasn’t sure until I got on the front stretch and they said I ran second. For a second I thought Matt was going to win and then I kind of got a burst of speed and pulled a bit lower.”

    Kahne would repeat his performance the next week when he earned his first pole at Las Vegas and would run second to Kenseth. It was official.

    This kid was serious.

    Although he would have to wait until his sophomore season to earn a Cup win, Kahne would gain 13 top-5s and 14 top-10s during his rookie campaign. He was also a solid qualifier with four poles throughout the season. 

    However, he would have a string of dismal finishes and missed becoming the first rookie to make the Chase for the Cup after being punted out of the way (spin happens at 1:14) at Richmond by Dale Earnhardt Jr. He would go on to finish 13th in points at season's end, but still managed to be one of the hottest rookies in recent memory.

9. Jamie McMurray (2003)

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    The fact that Jamie McMurray took the 2003 Rookie of the Year award came as no surprise to virtually everyone. That's because McMurray went into his rookie season with something else no other rookie had ever accomplished: a win.

    A week following his debut filling in for the injured Sterling Marlin, McMurray led 96 laps at the UAW-GM Quality 500 at Charlotte to get his first career win in just his second Cup start. It was a success many believed would follow into his rookie year.

    In a season that was capped by a pole at the season finale in Homestead, McMurray finished 13th in points with five top-5s and 13 top-10s. Although he failed to win a race, he did not disappoint.

8. Ryan Newman (2002)

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    Much like McMurray in 2003, before Ryan Newman began his first full Cup season it was a given he was going to cause some trouble.

    In just his third Cup start, Newman took his first career pole at the 2001 Coca-Cola 600. He would crash early and finish last, but during his limited schedule run he would gain two top-5s and two top-10s with a fifth at the June Michigan race and a second at the fall Kansas race.

    He follow this up in 2002 by becoming the second rookie to win the All-Star race as well as gaining his first Cup win at New Hampshire in September. He would finish the year with one win, 14 top-5s and 22 top-10s. He would also earn the moniker "The Rocket" for his uncanny knack of winning poles as he won six pole awards.

    Although he would go on to finish sixth in points behind fifth-place rookie Jimmie Johnson, Newman would be awarded the top rookie honors for 2002. 

7. Matt Kenseth (2000)

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    When the 2000 season rolled around, rookie Dale Earnhardt Jr. was the top pick to win rookie honors for the season. Fellow rookie Matt Kenseth didn't seem to mind that at all.

    Although Junior would win two points races and become the first rookie to win the All-Star as well, Kenseth followed in his teammate Mark Martin's footsteps and became numbingly consistent, a trait that would later earn Kenseth the 2003 Cup championship.

    He would become the first (and to date only) rookie to win the Coca-Cola 600. He would finish 14th in points in 2000, with one win, four top-5s and 11 top-10s. More importantly, he would win rookie of the year for 2000. 

6. Dale Earnhardt (1979)

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    For some, it is simply hard to believe that someone like Dale Earnhardt was ever a rookie. Yet in 1979, that was the case as Earnhardt won Rookie of the Year honors at season's end.

    He would begin the year with a 21st-place showing at Riverside, followed by an eighth-place finish in the Daytona 500. He would finally break through with a win at Bristol on April 1. 

    He would be injured in a crash at Pocono and would miss four races. Yet somehow at season's end he would place seventh in points with one win, 11 top-5s and 17 top-10s. He would also win four poles during the season. 

5. Davey Allison (1987)

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    One of NASCAR's brightest stars, Davey Allison was a legend in his own right.

    In 1987 Allison would compete for Rookie of the Year, even though he didn't run the entire season. Yet he took his Harry Rainier-owned Ford to Victory Lane at Talladega in just his ninth start of the season, and would follow that up with a win at Dover just two races later.

    He would end up winning five poles that year, as well as posting two wins, nine top-5s and 10 top-10s. He won the Rookie of the Year honors that year, even though he would be credited for his partial schedule with a 21st-place points finish. Yet in 22 starts, he would post an average starting spot of 9.0 and an average finish of 14.2. 

    For Allison, the best was yet to come.

4. Kevin Harvick (2001)

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    Along with running the entire 2001 Nationwide Series season, Kevin Harvick was faced with the unenviable task of taking over Dale Earnhardt's seat following the senior Earnhardt's death on the last lap of the Daytona 500. 

    Yet in just his second start, he earned his first top-10 at Las Vegas, where he finished eighth. However, the next week in Atlanta was where he did his part in helping the NASCAR community heal, when he won in just his third start by overtaking Jeff Gordon in a thrilling finish. 

    He would win again that year at the circuit's first trip to the Chicagoland Speedway. Along with those two wins, he would earn six top-5 finishes and 16 top-10s. A ninth-place points finish as well as the 2001 Nationwide championship was just icing on the cake for 2001's top rookie.

3. Jimmie Johnson (2002)

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    Not every stellar rookie wins the Rookie of the Year.

    In what was arguably the most hotly contested rookie race in history, Jimmie Johnson went toe-to-toe with Ryan Newman for top rookie honors. Johnson would squeeze off the first shot of the battle when he won the pole for the 2002 Daytona 500.

    He would finish sixth at Las Vegas two weeks later and third at Atlanta the next week, However he wouldn't take his No. 48 to Victory Lane until April when he took his first career win at Fontana. He would follow this up by sweeping the Dover races.

    He would become the first rookie to ever lead the Cup points following a 10th-place finish at Kansas in September. He would go on to post six top-5s to go along with his three wins, and 21 top-10s to ultimately finish fifth in points. He would also go on to win three more poles to go along with his 500 pole, including the summer race at Daytona.

    Yet despite all that, he would finish second to Newman for Rookie of the Year honors.

2. Tony Stewart (1999)

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    Three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart had one of the greatest rookie seasons ever in 1999. Beginning with a second-place starting spot in the 1999 Daytona 500, the former IndyCar champion would post strong results throughout the season. 

    He would come close to winning multiple times, yet he didn't seal the deal until the September event at Richmond. He would repeat at Phoenix and again at the inaugural Homestead race, and would post one of the highest points finishes for a rookie when he finished fourth in the final points standings. 

    Along with his three wins and two poles, he would earn 12 top-5s and 23 top-10s on his way to claiming top rookie honors for 1999.

1. Denny Hamlin (2006)

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    Denny Hamlin wasn't exactly blazing into sports headlines throughout the 2005 NASCAR Nationwide season. He was consistent, but he wasn't on the same level as fellow Nationwide rookie Carl Edwards. So when he was called up to take over the No. 11 FedEx Chevy, the reaction was pleasant, but not overwhelming.

    Hamlin quickly changed that when he began to show results almost immediately. He posted several top-10 finishes during that limited run and even won the pole at the fall Phoenix race. That pole made him eligible for the 2006 Budweiser Shootout at Daytona, which he won, becoming the first rookie to do so.

    He won his first career race in a dominant showing at the June Pocono race, winning from the pole and leading 83 laps. He repeated at Pocono again in August, this time leading 151 laps. 

    By the time the checkered flag flew in Homestead, Hamlin was the Rookie of the Year with three poles, two wins, eight top-5s and 20 top-10s. His third-place finish in the season points made him the highest finishing rookie ever in the Sprint Cup series, also becoming the first rookie to make the Chase for the Cup.

Honorable Mentions

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    These rookies were good, but not good enough to make this list.

    • Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2000): Two poles, two wins (plus The All-Star, becoming the first rookie to do so), three top-5s, five top-10s, 16th in points.
    • Jeff Gordon (1993): Became first rookie to win Daytona qualifying race, one pole, zero wins, seven top-5s, 11 top-10s, 14th in points.
    • Joey Logano (2009): One win, three top-5s, seven top-10s, 20th in points.
    • Kyle Busch (2005): Two wins, nine top-5s, 13 top-10s, 20th in points.
    • Juan Pablo Montoya (2007): One win, three top-5s, six top-10s, 20th in points.

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