While the Nextel Cup Series Chase For The Championship traditionally includes ten participators, the Chase for the Rookie Of The Year will exhibit seven in 2006. Six of those seven rookies are considered to be employed by powerhouse programs. Joe Gibbs Racing, Dale Earnhardt Inc. Richard Childress Racing, and Chip Ganassi Racing are four of the most recognizable organizations in all of motor sports and each of these teams will take their chances on pristine youthful talent.
It’s doubtful that any of the 2006 rookie candidates will make the chase, but each of these drivers will be facing a chase of their own, the Rookie Of The Year chase. So far, at least four of these rookies have been consistently regarded as the favorite. Martin Truex Jr, Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, and Reed Sorenson have emerged as potential favorites. At the same time, David Stremme and J.J. Yeley fall into the sleeper category. Brent Sherman has been cited as the long-shot.
By the end of 2006, one or more of these car owners will look like geniuses while others will address the decision of giving second chances or exploring other options.
Here’s my synopsis on the Rookie Of The Year Chase
1. 11-Denny Hamlin- Federal Express Chevrolet (Joe Gibbs Racing)
Based on Hamlin’s results in his seven starts in 2005, he is my pick to win the Rookie Of The Year. Hamlin accumulated 806 points, 3 top tens and 1 pole in his 7-race audition. What was most impressive about the whole scenario is that before Hamlin, only one top ten was scored in the team’s first 29 starts. Even two-time champion Terry Labonte was unable to right this ship. What this entails is that Hamlin has adapted quickly to NASCAR’s highest level of competition and has developed chemistry with crew chief Mike Ford.
2. 07-Clint Bowyer- Jack Daniel’s Chevrolet (Richard Childress Racing)
No one knew quite what to expect out of Bowyer when he began his first full-year in the Busch Series in 2005. By season’s end, we all knew that his potential in this sport is unlimited. When the Busch Series championship was seemingly out of reach, Bowyer and his team fought and scrapped and made Truex and company sweat. As he heads into his rookie season, Bowyer has proven that he can take care of the race car. His patience is apparent, even when the car isn’t handling up to par. And you can’t forget the anticipated advancement in Richard Childress Racing’s engine program.
3. 1-Martin Truex Jr- Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet (Dale Earnhardt, Inc.)
After two successive Busch Series Championships, Truex has become the popular favorite, but not the logical pick. In three of the last six years, the Busch Series championship has not translated into a Rookie of the Year award. In 2000, Dale Earnhardt Jr was outperformed by Matt Kenseth. In 2003, Greg Biffle lost the battle to Jamie McMurray, and in 2004 Brian Vickers came up short against eventual Rookie of the Year winner Kasey Kahne. Earnhardt Jr, Biffle, and Vickers had all won the Busch Series championship in the year previous to their rookie season. That trend is likely to continue in 2006. Truex will make the rookie fight interesting, but I believe that DEI’s program is a step or two behind Joe Gibbs’ and Richard Childress’. I haven’t detected any dramatic improvement within the #8 team and that is obviously DEI’s flagship team, so most focus will be on amending their performance.
4. 41-Reed Sorenson- Target Dodge (Chip Ganassi Racing)
As talented as this young man from Georgia is, another full-year in the Busch Series before entering Cup would have been beneficial. Sorenson has one thing going for him, as the 2005 season drew to a close, this #41 team led by Jimmy Elledge was on the mark as they nearly won two of the final four races with Casey Mears behind the wheel. They will continue to ride that wave of momentum as Sorenson will be just as fast as Hamlin, Bowyer, and Truex, but I have a feeling that they will be less consistent.
5. 40-David Stremme- Coors Light/Lonestar Dodge (Chip Ganassi Racing)
All the signs were there, but the results lacked. I’m talking about Stremme’s Busch Series career. Ever since signing up as a developmental driver at Chip Ganassi Racing back in 2003, he’s been on the threshold of breaking through but unable to close the deal. Stremme is talented but sometimes he has the tendency to overdrive the car which often leads to errors. I think Stremme may be a year or two away from really being listed in the same class as Hamlin, Bowyer, Truex, and Sorenson. But what do I know? Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, and Kasey Kahne never broke bad in the Busch Series but had stellar rookie seasons.
6. 18-J.J. Yeley- Interstate Batteries Chevrolet (Joe Gibbs Racing)
J.J. Yeley is obviously a talented race car driver as he has proven in USAC, but he has yet to impress in stock car racing. He has struggled mightily in his handful of Cup starts and as Hamlin showed, the #11 team wasn’t to blame. Yeley would have probably ran another year in the Busch Series before moving up to Cup if it wasn’t for the exit of 2000 champion Bobby Labonte. Look for Yeley to struggle in 2006, especially early on.
7. 49-Brent Sherman- Schwan’s/Serta Dodge (BAM Racing)
Before it was revealed that he would take over for Ken Schrader in the #49 Dodge, the name Brent Sherman was foreign to most fans. Sherman has made several starts in the Busch Series for ppc Racing, but his results never stood out. It’s highly improbable that Sherman will make a lot of noise in Nextel Cup, but the seat time he will experience will be valuable.