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Top 10 Rookie Seasons in NASCAR Cup Series History

| May 4, 2022 9:24 am PDT
NASCAR logo, Rookie stamped, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Sr.

The NASCAR Cup Series features the best stock car drivers in the world. It’s tough for young drivers to step into the Cup Series and have success. However, we’ve seen multiple drivers buck that trend.

Most of these great rookie seasons come from over 15 years ago. That’s because drivers enter the Cup Series with less experience these days. In the 1980s and 1990s, drivers were in their upper 20s to lower 30s when they were rookies.

Here are the top 10 rookie seasons in NASCAR Cup Series history.

10. Kasey Kahne (2004)

Kasey Kahne’s rookie season is one of those what could’ve been seasons. After blowing an engine in the 2004 Daytona 500, Kahne finished top three in four of his next six races. He finished second in a pair of photo finishes at Rockingham and Texas.

Kahne had a bit of a cold stretch, finishing outside the top 10 in seven straight races. At the end of that stretch, it looked like Kahne would capture his first career win. He was in the lead with under 20 laps to go at Dover. Then, this happened.

Ultimately, a lack of consistency kept Kahne from making the playoffs. He led 30+ laps in a six-race stretch late in the season but couldn’t find victory lane.

In the playoffs, Kahne had the dominant car at Charlotte. He led 207 of the first 267 laps, but a flat tire ended his race. It was the second time in 2004 that he crashed while leading.

Kahne failed to win in his rookie season but had 13 top-five finishes, including six second-place finishes. He didn’t have a great average finish, but Kahne led 692 laps. He failed to find victory lane, but he had many near misses.

9. Chase Elliott (2016)

In the intro, I mentioned most of these seasons came from over 15 years ago. Chase Elliott’s rookie season in 2016 is the lone exception. Elliott had the difficult task of replacing one of the greatest NASCAR drivers in the legendary Jeff Gordon, but he was up for the task.

Elliott scored five top 10 finishes in his first eight races, but we didn’t see him lead many laps. Following a 12th-place finish at Richmond, Elliott went on an impressive run.

Track Finishing Position Laps Led
Talladega 5th 27
Kansas 9th 0
Dover 3rd 0
Charlotte 8th 0
Pocono 4th 51
Michigan 2nd 35
Chase Elliott

The Michigan race was a tough loss because Elliott led a late-race restart. He spun the tires, allowing Joey Logano to take the lead and eventually the victory. The same thing happened in the second Michigan race, with Kyle Larson stealing the win.

Elliott made the playoffs and was in a position to win the opening race. He had a one-second lead with five laps to go, but a caution erased his lead. Elliott went on to finish third.

He failed to win a race in his rookie season, but Elliott finished 10th in the standings with ten top-five finishes and 17 top 10 finishes.

8. Ryan Newman (2002)

The 2002 season featured two great rookie seasons. We’ll talk about the other one later, but this spot focuses on Ryan Newman. In the first half of the season, Newman either had top-five runs or finished outside the top 20.

In the second half, Newman went on an awe-inspiring run. Check out his numbers in this 14-race span.

Ryan Newman
  • 1 win
  • 9 top-five finishes
  • 12 top 10 finishes
  • 487 laps led
  • 8.4 average finish

If you take out a pair of finishes outside the top 30, his average finish would’ve been 4.3. He rose from 16th to fourth in the standings. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the best close to the season.

Newman finished 10th or worse in four of his last five races. He ran up front, leading 25+ laps three times, but he couldn’t close the deal. The late-season struggle dropped him to sixth in the standings.

He finished his rookie season with one win, 14 top-five finishes, 22 top 10 finishes, and 754 laps led. Newman also had an act for starting up front, as he scored six poles. That earned him the nickname “Rocket Man.”

7. Davey Allison (1987)

Davey Allison failed to run the entire schedule, yet he earns a spot on this list. Right off the bat, that should tell you how impressive he performed in his rookie season.

It wasn’t a great start, as he finished outside the top 25 in three of his first five starts. Allison missed the following three races but returned with this impressive stretch.

Track Finishing Position Laps Led
Talladega 1st 101
Charlotte 16th 88
Dover 1st 212
Davey Allison

Allison continued to run up front, but he was very inconsistent. He followed up that stretch with five top-five finishes in the next nine races. His other four finishes came outside the top 10, but he led 30+ laps in two of those races.

He had a rough stretch to close the season, with four straight finishes of 14th or worse. Allison did cap off the season with a fifth-place finish at Atlanta. That marked his ninth top-five finish of the season.

The great rookie season also includes two wins, 10 top 10 finishes, 710 laps led, and an average finish of 14.2. He didn’t have a great points finish because he missed races, but it was still a great rookie season.

6. Kevin Harvick (2001)

In 2001, Kevin Harvick had the impossible job of replacing Dale Earnhardt after his tragic death in the 2001 Daytona 500. It might not have been the worst crash in NASCAR history, but it changed NASCAR forever.

Richard Childress Racing brought in Harvick to replace Earnhardt. In his third career race, Harvick pulled off a monumental victory.

His victory was a great moment for NASCAR. It helped ease some of the NASCAR community’s pain with Earnhardt’s death. Harvick became the fourth driver to win in his third career start.

Harvick led 137 laps at Bristol two races later but had a disappointing 24th-place finish. He struggled in the middle portion of the season, but he led 118 laps en route to his second win of the season at Chicagoland.

That kick-started a run of eight top 10 finishes in 12 races. Harvick was as high as seventh in the standings but dropped to ninth by the season’s end.

Harvick’s rookie season consisted of two wins, six top-five finishes, 16 top 10 finishes, 374 laps led, and an average finish of 14.1. He didn’t have many dominant performances, but he did a great job considering the circumstances.

5. Dale Earnhardt Sr. (1979)

Everyone knows Dale Earnhardt is one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise many to see his 1979 rookie season on this list.

Earnhardt was good, not great early in the season. His breakthrough came in the seventh race of the season at Bristol. He led a race-high 163 laps, including the final 27, to capture his first career win.

A few races later, Earnhardt led 122 laps en route to a third-place finish at Charlotte. He was putting together consistent finishes, but his season came to a halt after a crash at Pocono. He missed four races but didn’t miss a beat upon his return.

Dale Earnhardt Sr.
  • 8 races
  • 6 top five finishes
  • 7 top 10 finishes
  • 209 laps led
  • 9.0 average finish

Despite missing four races, Earnhardt finished seventh in the standings. The best thing about Earnhardt’s rookie season was his consistency. He scored 11 top-five finishes and 17 top 10 finishes in 27 races. That led to a 10.7 average finish.

From there, we didn’t see Earnhardt slow down. He won the championship in 1980 and became one of the legends of the sport.

4. Jimmie Johnson (2002)

We move from one NASCAR legend to another. It didn’t take long for Jimmie Johnson to hit his stride in the NASCAR Cup Series. He finished outside the top 10 in his first two races but finished seventh or better in seven of his next eight races.

Johnson concluded that stretch with his first career victory at Auto Club. That race began a very impressive stretch for the rookie.

Track Finishing Position Laps Led
Auto Club 1st 62
Richmond 31st 0
Charlotte 7th 263
Dover 1st 188
Jimmie Johnson

It was a rough performance at Richmond, but those other three performances speak for themselves. That stretch propelled him to second in the standings.

Johnson was running consistently in the middle portion of the season, but we didn’t see him competing for wins. However, he remained in contention and scored his second victory at Dover and third of the season. The following week, he moved into the points lead.

Unfortunately, he blew an engine at Talladega. That began a stretch of four finishes of 15th or worse in the final eight races. That led to a fifth-place points finish.

He finished the season with three wins, six top-five finishes, 21 top 10 finishes, 838 laps led, and an average finish of 13.5.

3. James Hylton (1966)

James Hylton

James Hylton is the eldest member of this list. Hylton didn’t run the entire Cup Series schedule

in 1966, but he was a championship contender. It wasn’t a great start to the season, as Hylton finished outside the top 10 in five of his first seven races.

Hylton had a nice little streak of three straight top 10 finishes, but that ended when he failed to finish back-to-back races. That was the end of his struggles as he scored 12 consecutive top 10 finishes. The final race of that stretch saw him lead 148 laps at Islip.

We didn’t see him lead any laps for the remainder of the season, but Hylton was always one of the top contenders.

We didn’t see many drivers run the full schedule in this era. The 49-race schedule was longer than your typical 36-race schedule from the 21st century.

Hylton finished the season with 41 races. He failed to win a race but finished second in the standings with 20 top-five finishes, 32 top 10 finishes, 198 laps led, and an average finish of 8.6. His points, finish, and consistency earns him a spot in the top three.

2. Denny Hamlin (2006)

Denny Hamlin’s rookie season success started before the season’s official start. He won the Budweiser Shootout, an exhibition race held before the Daytona 500. Once the official season began, Hamlin struggled.

He led 41 laps, scoring a fourth-place finish at Texas, but that was his only finish better than 10th in his first nine races. Over the following five races, we began to see his potential. He led 19+ laps in three races, scoring his first career victory at Pocono.

Hamlin recovered from a mid-race flat tire to pick up the victory. He won at Pocono later in the Summer to complete the sweep.

A streak of seven straight top 10 finishes earned Hamlin a spot in the playoffs. A pair of bad races left him behind in the championship battle, but he scored three top-three finishes in his last five races. That capped off a successful rookie season that saw him finish third in the standings.

All in all, Hamlin had two wins, eight top-five finishes, 20 top 10 finishes, 418 laps led, and an average finish of 12.5. It didn’t take long for people to realize Hamlin belonged in the Cup Series.

1. Tony Stewart (1999)

Joe Gibbs Racing takes the top two spots, with Tony Stewart having the best rookie season in Cup Series history. Like most rookies we’ve talked about, Stewart struggled to begin his career.

Stewart only scored two top 10 finishes in his first eight races, but he did lead 55 laps at Bristol. From there, Stewart established himself as one of the top drivers in the Cup Series. He finished in the top 10 in 13 of his next 15 races. He led 115+ laps three times in that stretch.

Then, we saw this impressive run from Stewart.

Track Finishing Position Laps Led
Richmond 1st 333
New Hampshire 2nd 40
Dover 2nd 97
Tony Stewart

Stewart put on a clinic, leading 333 of 400 laps at Richmond. He backed that up with a pair of second-place finishes. That came with ten races remaining, but he wasn’t done winning.

He won the third to last and second to last race of the season. Stewart led 150 laps at Phoenix and 44 at Homestead. He finished 15th in the final race to finish fourth in the standings. That capped off the best rookie season in the Cup Series history.

Overall, he finished the season with three wins, 12 top-five finishes, 21 top 10 finishes, 1,223 laps led, and an average finish of 10.3.

Betting on Rookies in the NASCAR Cup Series

Nascar logo

I bet most people sensed the theme that most of these seasons came from over 15 years ago. It’s not common to see rookies contend for wins in this era. Chase Elliott showed us it’s possible, but a lot would have to go right.

Moving forward, I would advise betting against rookies in the Cup Series. Eventually, we’ll see one come along and outweigh expectations, but until then, proceed with caution.

Either way, you can use the top NASCAR betting sites to bet on any driver during the season.

Nicholas Sterling

Nicholas has been a Sports Writer with GamblingSites.com since May 2021. He has a rich sports background, writing about NASCAR, NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, Golf, etc. Nick is always ready for a new challenge.

He enjoys rooting on D.C. sports teams, including the Commanders, Wizards, and Capitals.

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