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2012 Top Rookies: Newcomers to Watch

Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor

Taylor covers NASCAR for RotoWire. He is a three-time winner of the FSWA's Racing Writer of the Year award. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

The 2012 rookie class will be short on numbers once again. In fact, this year's field has only one eligible candidate for Rookie of the Year. This is due in part to the poor economy and shrinking corporate sponsorship in NASCAR. Still, we have some talented, young drivers whi will make some part-time forays into the world of Sprint Cup Series racing from the sport's lower divisions. The transition from the Nationwide Series or Camping World Truck Series to the top division of NASCAR is always a big adjustment for young drivers. Joey Logano's performance in 2011 is a good example of even how a future star of the Sprint Cup Series takes some time to adjust to the sport's top division. We'll look at the ROTY candidate and some of the young, up-and-coming drivers who will likely make part-time starts in the Sprint Cup Series this season and analyze which rookie drivers are the ones to watch closely in the future.

1. Austin Dillon
Car:
TBD
Owner: Richard Childress Racing
Manufacturer: Chevrolet

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10s
ARCA Series40023
K&N Pro Series East1511712
K&N Pro Series West10000
Camping World Truck Series524121732
Nationwide Series110024
Sprint Cup Series10000


The grandson of car owner Richard Childress is making quite a reputation for himself in the lower divisions of NASCAR. Dillon won the 2011 Camping World Truck Series championship in thrilling fashion. For the second straight season he won a pair of races and finished in the Top 5 of that racing series. Dillon upped the ante in 2011 by making four very successful Nationwide Series starts for car owner Kevin Harvick. He collected three Top-10 finishes in those efforts. Additionally, Dillon made his Sprint Cup Series debut this past season. He started the No. 98 Chevy for owner Mike Curb at the Kansas Chase race and finished a respectable 26th in his debut racing with the big boys. Dillon is without a doubt the next big thing in NASCAR, but he's not slated for a full schedule just yet. Speculation has it that he may make a handful of starts in Childress' idle No. 33 team or Dillon could make some starts in that No. 98 car again. He won't be racing for Rookie of the Year in 2012, but all eyes will be on Dillon when he's on the race track.

2. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Car:
TBD
Owner: Roush Fenway Racing
Manufacturer: TBD

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10s
ARCA Series21231014
Nationwide Series73242036
Sprint Cup Series10000


The 2011 Nationwide Series champion isn't slated to run a full schedule just yet at NASCAR's top level, but we expect to get some glances of Stenhouse throughout the year. The Roush Fenway Racing youngster came from near-obscurity to win last season's championship in NASCAR's second-tier series. Considering the company that he beat out for the honor it was quite an accomplishment. Stenhouse's near 100-race resume has a handful of wins and Top 10s a plenty so the level of talent is unquestionable. There has been some talk that Stenhouse might make a few starts for the No. 21 Wood Brothers team in 2012, or that he might get a few starts in a part-time Roush team. He made his Sprint Cup Series debut last season for the No. 21 team and piloted the car to a very surprising 11th-place finish at Charlotte in the spring. Stenhouse has the gift, but the opportunity just isn't quite there yet. Meanwhile, he should continue sharpening his claws in the Nationwide Series in 2012, and staging a good defense of his title in that racing series.

3. Danica Patrick
Car:
No. 10
Owner:
Stewart Haas Racing
Manufacturer:
Chevy

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10s
ARCA Series10001
K&N Pro Series East10001
Nationwide Series250013


Patrick's long awaited Sprint Cup Series debut will come at Daytona in February. She signed a 10-race deal with Stewart Haas Racing and will take the wheel of the team's No. 10 Chevrolet starting at the Daytona 500. Patrick has spent parts of the last two seasons getting familiar with stock cars in the Nationwide Series. There she has raced for JR Motorsports in the No. 7 Chevrolet and has had some encouraging progress. Patrick failed to crack the Top 10 in her first Nationwide Series season in 2010, but she picked up three Top 10s in 12 starts this past season. The highlights of the campaign was a fourth-place finish at Las Vegas early in the year, and leading 13 laps in the summer Daytona race before finishing a respectable 10th. We expect the transition to the Sprint Cup Series car to be a slow one for Patrick, so don't expect a big splash just yet.

4. Josh Wise
Car:
No. 37
Owner:
Gunselman Motorsports
Manufacturer:
Ford

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10s
ARCA Series130147
K&N Pro Series East10000
Camping World Truck Series100002
Nationwide Series770026
Sprint Cup Series40000


Wise made his first foray into the Sprint Cup Series in 2011. He made four starts in seven attempts for owner Larry Gunselman in what was only a start-and-park team. A veteran of over 70 Nationwide Series starts, Wise will be the only eligible candidate for Rookie of the Year in 2012. Last season he had his most successful campaign to-date in the Nationwide Series racing mostly for JR Motorsports in the No. 7 Chevrolet. Wise finished a respectable 16th in the final driver standings and picked up three Top-10 finishes along the way. While Wise still has a long way to go as far as driver development is concerned, it's still clear that he has the “gift” behind the wheel of a stock car. The only thing that will hold him back in the 2012 campaign will be the limited resources and funding of the No. 37 Ford team.

5. T.J. Bell
Car:
No. 50
Owner:
LTD Powersports
Manufacturer:
TBD

RACESWINSPOLESTOP 5sTOP 10s
ARCA Series41001020
Camping World Truck Series7900113
Nationwide Series150000
Sprint Cup Series50000


The one thing that Bell has going for him that the other drivers in the up-and-coming list do not is experience. He's a not-so-young 31 and has 140 starts across all of NASCAR's racing series. Bell took his first dip into the Sprint Cup Series in 2011, starting five events for the small No. 50 LTD Powersports team. The effort was little more than a start-and-park operation due to this small team's lack of funding and equipment. Bell will likely race a part-time slate for this team again in 2012. The funding remains in question so he could be looking at another campaign of frustration. Bell has talent, and he got to show it in last season's finale at Homestead. He was able to race the entire event and finish a respectable 29th, so this driver and team do have some potential if the funding comes.