Strong rookie class in Cup and Xfinity ready to challenge the high banks of Bristol
A rookie driver winning a Monster Energy Cup Series race is an extremely rare thing. So rare, in fact, that during NASCAR's modern era, only 20 rookies have claimed a victory at the Cup level.
That stat becomes even more amazing when you consider how many Cup races are run per season and that the modern era dates all the way back to 1972. With that in mind, it truly puts a spotlight on just how difficult it can be for rookies to tame the ultra-challenging high banks of Bristol Motor Speedway in their maiden season.
Quite literally, it just doesn't happen. Well, except for that one time.
In the 1979 spring race, rookie Dale Earnhardt defied the odds and caught lighting in a bottle. Or, so some thought at the time. He outlasted veterans like Cale Yarborough, Buddy Baker, Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison, just to name a few, on the tough East Tennessee bullring to win his very first NASCAR Cup Series race.
He drove a sponsorless baby blue and yellow No. 2 Chevy Monte Carlo to victory that afternoon for California team owner Rod Osterlund.
And we all know exactly what happened after that special moment in NASCAR history. Earnhardt went on to win the coveted NASCAR Rookie of the Year title that year, a Cup Series championship crown the very next season and as they say, the rest is history.
Fans who attend the Food City 500 on April 7 at The Last Great Colosseum will be looking for the next amazing NASCAR phenom to make a statement and emerge from the pack to become an overnight sensation. And ultimately, perhaps, a NASCAR legend.
As 2019 season has unfolded, there are several talented rookies looking to earn that distinction and make a name for themselves. Nothing builds a strong reputation for a young driver than working some short track magic at The World's Fastest Half-Mile.
Certainly, three of the top contenders for NASCAR's Rookie of the Year award, Daniel Hemric, Ryan Preece and Ryan Tifft, have demonstrated during their rise up through the racing ranks that they have the talent to deserve a shot at the premier level of the sport. Virginia short track specialist Quin Houff, Legends and midget racing veteran Tanner Berryhill and third-generation driver Cody Ware have also announced their intentions to compete for top rookie honors.
Hemric, who earned five poles and 23 top-five finishes over the last two seasons in Xfinity Series competition, is driving the revered No. 8 for Richard Childress Racing. This season he has a qualifying best of fifth and his best race finish is 18th at Phoenix.
Hemric has ran well at Bristol in the past, posting two top-five finishes in the Gander Outdoor Truck Series and three-top five finishes in four Xfinity Series starts.
He is still looking for a breakthrough NASCAR victory, however. His consistent style of finishing races, posting solid finishes and taking care of his equipment could give him the edge in the season-long battle for rookie bragging rights.
When he and other rookie hopefuls see the names on the roster of past Rookie of the Year winners, like Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and defending series champ Joey Logano, to name just a few, it makes them want to join the exclusive club even more.
"Being able to carry that title goes so far considering the people who have won that award in the past," Hemric said. "That's a huge, huge honor to carry that. Hopefully when it's all said and done we're the guys to carry it."
Preece is an old school throwback driver who cut his teeth racing in the tough modified classes in New England. He invested in his career last year when he drove the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Xfinity Series car to great success on a limited schedule. One of his victories came at Bristol, where he pocketed the $100,000 Xfinity Dash 4 Cash bonus.
This year he is piloting the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Chevy Camaro and has a season-best finish of eighth at the Daytona 500.
"It's a huge honor to be Rookie of the Year," Preece said. "You see some of the names that have claimed Rookie of the Year, it would be cool to put my name on that list."
Tifft, who finished seventh in points with six top 10 finishes in the Xfinity Series for RCR last year, announced his intentions to join the Cup rookie fray during the off-season and is driving the No. 36 Front Row Motorsports machine.
"It's an exciting rookie class and a fun group that has been together in the past," Tifft said. "So I think that is the exciting part about it."
The battle for the Rookie title in the Xfinity Series is going to be just as tough. Six rookies are expected to battle for the victory in the Alsco 300 on April 6 and the accompanying $100,000 Xfinity Dash 4 Cash bonus. The Xfinity Series rookies include several top contenders who have graduated from the Gander Outdoor Truck Series, including Noah Gragson, Justin Haley, John Hunter Nemechek and Chase Briscoe.
In less than three weeks, NASCAR fans will have their first chance to witness short track racing at its best and see the top NASCAR stars such as Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Logano and Busch in action during the April 5-7 Food City 500 weekend. In addition to Sunday's Food City 500, the event also will showcase a Saturday doubleheader with the Alsco 300 NASCAR Xfinity Series race and the Zombie Auto 150 NASCAR K&N Pro Series race. On Friday, the Cup Series stars will try to break the BMS track record of 131.668 mph (Denny Hamlin, Aug. 2016) as they qualify during Bush's Beans Pole Day. Friday afternoon's Food City Family Race night, held at the track, is one of the longest running fan events on the NASCAR circuit.
During the Food City 500 weekend you'll definitely want to take advantage of so many activities to make a complete weekend of family fun, including great video entertainment provided by Colossus TV, the world's largest center-hung video screen, premium VIP experiences like the Chairman's Experience, tailgating, on-site camping, concerts, great food and beverages in the concession stands throughout the property, and so much more.
And for families who want to bring the entire clan, Bristol Motor Speedway officials are making it easier than ever for kids to have an awesome experience. Kids' tickets (12 and under) are free and adult tickets are $10 for Friday's (April 5) Bush's Beans Pole Day. On Saturday (April 6), kids' tickets are free and adult tickets start at $30 for the Alsco 300 NASCAR Xfinity Series race and the Zombie Auto 150 NASCAR K&N Series event. On Sunday (April 7) adult tickets start at $50 for the Food City 500 and kids' tickets are $10. For all races, each child must have a physical ticket in hand to enter the gates. The Bristol Motor Speedway ticket office is the only authorized location that can produce the free kids' tickets.
To purchase tickets to the Food City 500, please call 423-BRISTOL or buy them online at www.BRISTOLTIX.com. Tickets can also be purchased directly from any neighborhood Food City store.