Phenomenal Rookies

To say that this year’s winner of the Rookie of the Year Award in the Winston Cup Series will be a phenomenal driver of the future would be stating the obvious.

But to say that the second-place rookie driver this year had just as good a year if not better, well, that would be a rarity. But then that could very well turn out to be the case.

If things stay the way they are right now, Ryan Newman (who leads the rookie standings by 26 points), would be crowned the top rookie, and he would certainly be a fitting one with the season he’s had.

One victory, three poles, 13 top-five and 16 top-10 finishes would be a season that any rookie would be proud of. And don’t forget, we’ve still got nine races left in the 2002 campaign.

It is conceivable, however, that Jimmie Johnson could wind up second by Newman in the rookie standings, but a few places ahead of him in the Winston Cup standings. And, unbelievably even in Johnson’s eyes, Johnson could very well become the first rookie in Winston Cup history to win the series championship.

Indeed, it has been an odd year in Winston Cup.

Johnson currently runs third in the Winston Cup standings, just 40 points back of leader Mark Martin and with Sterling Marlin as the only other driver in front of him. His initial Winston Cup campaign has been filled with ups and downs, but his two victories, a series-high four poles (he’s tied with Bill Elliott in that category), 5 top-five and 16 top-10 finishes rank among one of the best years any rookie has ever had.

Only Tony Stewart had more victories in his rookie season – three – but once again, there’s still nine races left in the season and plenty of time for Johnson to get back to victory lane once, or even twice more.

In most years, at least recently, there’s only been one dominant rookie per year (the year 2000 the exception, with Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr.). Stewart ran away with the rookie title in 1999, as did Kevin Harvick last year.

Kenny Irwin (1998), Johnny Benson (1996), Mike Skinner (1997), Ricky Craven (1995) and Jeff Burton (1994) didn’t win a race or even come close to having a year like Newman and Johnson are having. And neither did Jeff Gordon, in 1993, for that matter. Gordon, who has gone on to win four Winston Cup championships, had only three top-10 and no top-five finishes during his rookie season.

Stewart has the distinction of being the highest-finishing rookie ever in the Winston Cup standings, finishing fourth in 1998. It seems probable that either Johnson or Newman will eclipse that.

It seems unlikely that Johnson will win the Winston Cup championship, but stranger things have happened. But if you’re going to put your money on someone, put it on Newman.

The driver of the No. 12 ALLTEL Ford showed me something back in May when he out-dueled crowd-favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win The Winston. On the last lap of that race, Newman was tapped from behind by Earnhardt Jr., but he managed to save his car and keep it in front of the No. 8 Chevy and win the all-star event.

That showed me that Newman had some grit, and in recent weeks, he’s shown a lot of that.

Newman may be 192 points out of the championship lead, but he’s been on one heckuva roll lately. He’s finished second, second and first the last three weeks, including his first Winston Cup Series points race victory last weekend at New Hampshire.

With the fact that no one has really taken charge in the Winston Cup championship chase this season, don’t count Newman out of anything just yet. You’ve gotta wonder just where he’d be right now if it hadn’t been for a stretch of four races where he finished 37th at Bristol, 40th at Texas, 41st at Martinsville and 43rd at Talladega.

In three of those four races, Newman suffered either engine or mechanical failure. What if, what if…

Whatever the case, the final nine weeks of the season will be exciting, if anything, just to see who wins the Rookie of the Year Award. Who knows, you might even see a big piece of history – a rookie winning the big prize.

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2002

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