The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series should be full of surprises, including a competitive field of rookie drivers.
There are four first-year drivers who will vie for the coveted Rookie of the Year Award, including a late entry by Daniel Suarez, who will replace departed Carl Edwards in the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Suarez, the 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion, will be challenged for the rookie title by Ty Dillon, who is a grandson of Richard Childress; Erik Jones, who has 13 Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series wins since 2013; and Gray Gaulding, who was selected to drive the No. 23 BK Racing entry.
Dillon won’t be campaigning in Richard Childress Racing equipment, per se. The 24-year-old replaced Casey Mears in the No. 13 Germain Racing Chevrolet, which does get its parts and pieces from RCR.
Jones will become a teammate to Martin Truex Jr. at Furniture Row Racing. With the help of Joe Gibbs Racing, Truex scored a career-high four victories in 2016.
Suarez has a compelling story.
He was a relatively unknown driver racing in his native Mexico until he caught the eye of car owners in this country. Joe Gibbs nabbed him as a development driver, and he developed rather quickly.
When Edwards announced he was leaving the sport, Gibbs immediately handed the No. 19 Toyota over to Suarez.
“I wasn’t expecting to be in this position right now,” Suárez said. “It’s been an amazing time. This is hard to believe that I’m in this position.
“I know that it won’t be easy. We have a lot to work [on]. I have a lot to learn. It’s just an amazing team. I feel like it’s just a perfect place to be for a rookie like me.”
Jones, who will be driving JGR equipment, may turn out to be the biggest surprise of 2017.
He has the most NASCAR national series wins of any of his challengers and captured the Truck Series crown in 2015 at the age of 19. He got his first taste of Cup racing with his team during a tire test at Phoenix last week.
“Now it’s just a matter of fine-tuning everything at this point,” Jones said. “But overall, it was nice to get the group together to get everybody in sync, and everybody now has a better feel for exactly what they’re going to be doing at the track. So that’s out of the way, and now we can focus on Daytona.”
Dillon will join his older brother Austin in the Cup Series. Austin drives the No. 3 RCR Chevy.
“It’s a great rookie class, and the thing is all three of us are similar in a lot of ways and the way we approach racing,” Ty Dillon said. “We all have an understanding of each other on the racetrack.
“We go hard every lap, and I think it’s going to be an exciting rookie race. I kind of feel people put us on the back burner — me and Germain Racing — and I think they’ll be surprised.”
Gaulding is the long-shot member of this group. He’s with a team that has struggled at the Cup level.
“When I first walked into the BK Racing shop I felt at home,” Gaulding said. “It has the perfect mixture of Corporate America and the old-school race-shop feeling.
“Everyone was elbows deep preparing for Daytona, Richmond, Las Vegas and the entire season.”