For the first time in years, I have begun to tune back into following the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series thanks in large part to a talented crop of drivers champing at the bit for the 2014 Rookie of the Year title as well as a handful of other drivers who used to compete at dirt tracks around the Midwest.
Not since Tony Stewart captured the USAC Triple Crown nearly 20 years ago has an “upper” division series (Indy Racing League, NASCAR) intrigued me like it has this year.
Sunday at Phoenix, it was great to see talented Kyle Larson lead the rookie contingent with his 20th-place run aboard Chip Ganassi’s Target No. 42, four spots ahead of the much-heralded Austin Dillon, whose grandfather Richard Childress brought back the No. 3 that Dale Earnhardt made so famous.
Cole Whitt, the 2009 Kokomo Speedway track champion, was 26th. All told in the race at Phoenix on Sunday, seven drivers who were regulars at the local oval not that long ago competed. Of those seven, only Whitt finished outside the top 20.
To be honest, it’s hard to judge a driver’s ability at the restrictor-plate tracks (Daytona and Talladega). At both of those venues, the luck of the draft is as much responsible for who wins (see Trevor Bayne a couple years ago) as a driver’s ability wheeling the race car.
In Daytona’s smash-fest, it seemed like each time a caution flag flew, somehow Dillon was right in the middle of it. Though Larson admitted he made a rookie mistake cracking the wall in the early going, later in the race Dillon drifted straight into Larson’s left rear quarter panel, spinning out the popular young California native. Later on Dillon again was involved in an accident that collected Whitt and his hugely under-funded team, ruining what looked to be a pretty darned good race.