March 29, 2014 — Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports photo — RIDGEWAY, VA — The Sunoco Rookie of the Year battle is just that. The anticipation surrounding Austin Dillon’s entry into the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has been followed-up – big-time – by the sudden emergence of NASCAR Drive for Diversity graduate Kyle Larson (No. 42 Target Chevrolet).
Dillon came into NASCAR’s premier series after winning championships in both the NASCAR Nationwide Series and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. But for anyone thinking Dillon (No. 3 Dow Chevrolet) was a lock for the top rookie honor, it’s time to re-think.
Larson’s second-place finish this past Sunday at Auto Club Speedway – on the heels of a breakthrough victory the day before in the NASCAR Nationwide Series – has him leading the rookie standings over Dillon, 58-54.
From the wide – and wide-open – 2-mile ACS layout, it’s on to the shortest track on the schedule, .526-mile Martinsville Speedway. Larson has one NASCAR Sprint Cup start there, finishing 42nd last October. Dillon has started four races at Martinsville, all in the trucks series with a best finish of third.
“I had some good runs there in my truck but it’s going to be totally different there in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series car,” Dillon said. “It’s one of those races where you have to fight to stay in it. Things are going to happen. Things are definitely wild there, so hopefully we can just have a good solid day as a rookie.”
At Martinsville, hope helps because the place is not a universally quick study. Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon (No. Axalta Chevrolet) didn’t win there until his eighth start, in his fourth full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup season. Another former champion, Matt Kenseth (No. 20 Dollar General Toyota), has never won there in 28 attempts; neither have an 0-for-18 Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&M’s Toyota), an 0-for-19 Carl Edwards (No. 99 Fastenal Ford) or an 0-for-28 Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet).
Which of the rookie contenders will rise above the rest? Find out Sunday at 1 PM Eastern from Martinsville.