The 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series battle for the rookie-of-the-year title is set to be a great one. Two great drivers, driving for two great teams will contend for the freshman honor.
There have been many rookies-of-the-year in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series since Blackie Pitt was the inaugural winner of the award in 1954. Many of the sports great drivers earned the ROTY moniker. Richard Petty, David Pearson, Ricky Rudd, Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch, just to name a few.
Many big, well known, very successful drivers did not win the rookie title, but not due to lack of trying. Some of the more well-known drivers who came up short were Darrell Waltrip, who lost to Lennie Pond in ‘73, Mark Martin who lost to Geoff Bodine in ’82, Bobby Labonte who came up short against Jeff Gordon in ’93, perhaps the most notable driver not to win the title is Dale Earnhardt Jr, who finished second in the rookie standings to Matt Kenseth in ’00.
Many of these were great battles between great drivers. There have also been several seasons when the rookie battle was not quite as thrilling. Some drivers have earned this title almost by default. In recent years, a few rookie battles were barely even mentioned in the media coverage due to many of the contenders being start and park drivers, which was a little disappointing to say the least.
After a less than stellar rookie class in 2015, 2016 has the potential to be an epic clash of young talent. The two main contenders will be 2014 NASCAR Xfinity Series Champion, Chase Elliott, and Ryan Blaney, who was won races and raced competitively in several NASCAR series.
Elliott, son of former NASCAR Sprint Cup series champion, Bill Elliott, has proven to be a very talented wheel-man. The young star won the NASCAR Xfinity title in 2014, and was runner-up in 2015. For his 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series efforts, he will pilot the legendary No. 24 Chevrolet fielded by Hendrick Motorsports. A seat that was vacated last year by four-time series champion, Jeff Gordon.
Elliott will retain the same crew chief, Alan Gustafson, that called the shots for Gordon last year and came up just short of the series title in his farewell season. Backing from one of the most successful teams in the sport and a wealth of experience atop the pit box coupled with Elliott’s proven talent behind the wheel, will definitely make him a strong threat to win the coveted ROTY title.
Blaney, the son of former Cup series driver and dirt track ace, Dave Blaney, has also made quite a name for himself in NASCAR. Blaney has scored four wins in both the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the NASCAR Camping World truck series. Blaney will drive the legendary Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford.
The Wood Brothers team will return to a full-time schedule in 2016 with full technical support from Penske Racing, who has proven to be one of the fastest teams in the sport in the last few years. Penske won the series championship in 2012 with Brad Keselowski and appeared to be on its way to winning it again last season with Joey Logano, until a late season incident with Matt Kenseth ended those chances.
One major benefit that Blaney will have over Elliott is the fact that he has already accumulated 16 starts in the series compared to Elliott’s five starts. Additionally, the young Blaney will have the support of very successful, defacto teammates in Keselowski and Logano, who are also still young, Keselowski being the oldest at only age 31, and have similar personalities.
The wealth of talent these two young guns bring to the table, coupled with backing of the most successful teams in the sport right now, will make the 2016 rookie championship something of interest again. When you toss in the fact that it is also a classic Chevy vs Ford battle, you better have your seatbelt fastened, because it is going to be one heck of a ride!