The 2017 Daytona 500 is almost upon us, but in a season of change, who will be this year’s champion rookie driver?
Chase Elliott was the 2016 Rookie of the Year | Picture Credit: Brandon Farris

The 2017 Daytona 500 is almost upon us, but in a season of change, who will be this year’s champion rookie driver?

As the latter half of February approaches, most people start to look ahead to warmer weather and longer days. But for some it marks the return of growling V8 engines, the smell of burnt out rubber and sight of 40 cars sweeping past them in a split-second blur.

Paul Nicholson

Yes, NASCAR returns this month, opening the points-scoring season, as ever, with their showpiece race – the Daytona 500.

Of course, before that there is the traditional preseason curtain-raiser, the newly named Advance Auto Parts Clash.

But this is not the only change for NASCAR in 2017.

In what seems like a chaotic off-season for the sport, there have been changes to drivers, engine manufacturers, sponsors, cars, and perhaps the biggest – and most controversial – the races themselves.

Gone are the traditional long races that we have been accustomed to over the years. Instead we will see races divided up into three segments of varying length – depending on the track size and total race distance.

With points available for the front-runners at the end of each segment – both championship points and play-off points, to break-down the new rules fully would take many column-inches, and is a different story for a different day.

With Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart stepping away, there are some big shoes to fill

Carl Edwards decided to step away from racing| Picture Credit: Brandon Farris
Carl Edwards decided to step away from racing| Picture Credit: Brandon Farris

After Carl Edwards surprised everyone with his decision to step down from his JGR commitments (even though he refused to use the ‘R’ word), and the curtain coming down on Tony Stewart’s colourful career, it will be down to many of the newer, younger drivers to make a name for themselves.

So which drivers and teams have the best chance of lifting the inaugural Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series trophy?

The main Championship contenders will be previewed in other articles before the Daytona 500, but in this preview we will look at what appears to be a very competitive Rookie of the Year battle for 2017.

While the usual suspects will always be in and around the final four shoot-out at Homestead in November, there may be some new faces spoiling the party.

Last year’s battle for the outstanding rookie driver was largely between Chase Elliott in the Hendricks Motorsport #24 Chevy, Ryan Blaney in the Woods Brothers #21 Ford and Chris Buescher in the Front Row Motorsports #34 Ford battling it out, which eventually saw Elliott, the son of NASCAR legend Bill Elliott, take the crown.

But with two of those three making the Chase - now called simply the Playoffs - this season’s yellow-bumper-sticker drivers will have a lot to live up to.

The Rookie of the Year contest promises to be a close one this year

There are five Rookie of the Year eligible drivers in 2017, namely Ty Dillon – replacing Casey Mears in the #13 Germain Racing Chevrolet; Gray Gaulding – sharing a ride with Joey Gase in the #23 BK Racing Toyota; Erik Jones – driving in the newly formed #77 second Toyota for Furniture Racing; Corey LaJoie – driving the #83 BK Racing Toyota; and Daniel Suárez – replacing Carl Edwards in the #19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

The fight will likely come down to the two drivers who have both been dubbed the future of NASCAR – Jones and Suárez.

Both will be driving under immense pressure and scrutiny this season. Suárez is replacing one of the sport’s biggest names at one of the biggest teams – JGR – while also carrying the hopes of all of the Mexican NASCAR fans on his shoulders.

Jones, on the other hand, was hand-picked for the slot in a newly formed team, which has seen a lot of success over the past few seasons, under the stewardship of its other driver Martin Truex Jr.

Martin Trues Jr has brought a lot of success to Furniture Row Racing| Picture Credit: Brandon Farris
Martin Trues Jr has brought a lot of success to Furniture Row Racing| Picture Credit: Brandon Farris

Ironically, had Jones not taken the seat at Furniture Row, it was likely that he would have been offered the vacated #19 role, subsequently given to his rival.

Daniel Suárez and Erik Jones rivalry should see one of them crowned Rookie of the Year

Suárez enters the Cup series as the reigning Xfinity Champion, beating Jones to the title. Jones, however, was the Xfinity Rookie of the Year for 2016, which Suárez claimed in 2015. Both drove for Joe Gibbs in the Xfinity Series, and are friends off the track.

Both are intensely focused on winning, as was evident in the Food City 300 race at Bristol in August last year, when Jones wrecked teammate Suárez as he tried to make up for an earlier mistake and race back to the front.

It promises to be a fascinating contest, and will be interesting to see which – if either – of them can make it to the post-season playoffs.

The fact that they are both immensely talented, both driving Gibbs powered Toyotas, and look to be so evenly matched, means the Rookie title this year will definitely be one worth keeping an eye on this year.

Of course there are many miles to be driven between now and then, but with the new format, and the lower downforce packages on the cars, coupled with the new look and added flavour that Monster Energy have promised, 2017 will certainly see a different NASCAR than the one we have been used to.

Optimists see all the changes as the kick up the butt that NASCAR has needed for a while. Traditionalists see it as the end of an era, and too much change – too quickly.

Time will tell, however, and it is only after attendance figures and TV audience figures are announced and dissected that we will truly know if new-look-NASCAR is a success or not.

For the future of our sport, let’s hope it is.