Ty Gibbs and Noah Gragson will both officially kick off their rookie seasons with the Daytona 500. They will suit up for two separate teams while having an opportunity to pursue a rookie record held by two champions.
Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and three-time champion Tony Stewart hold the all-time record for most Cup Series wins by a rookie driver. They each won three races during their respective seasons. They are both ahead of Davey Allison (two in 1987), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (two in 2000), and Kevin Harvick (two in 2001).
Stewart was a NASCAR Cup Series rookie in 1999, but he was no stranger to racing before winning at Richmond Raceway, Homestead-Miami Speedway, and Phoenix Raceway. He had two full-time IndyCar Series seasons on his resume, an IndyCar Series championship, and 36 Busch Grand National Series — now Xfinity Series — starts.
Johnson entered his rookie season (2002) with a resume that featured two full-time ASA National Tour seasons with two wins, 72 career Busch Grand National Series starts with one win, and three Cup Series starts. He then moved to the top level of NASCAR on a full-time basis and won at Auto Club Speedway. Johnson added two wins at Dover Motor Speedway.
Both Drivers Should Remain Eligible for an Important Award
Gibbs and Gragson both made numerous starts during the 2021 season, albeit for different reasons. The reigning Xfinity Series champion joined 23XI Racing for 15 races while replacing Kurt Busch, who suffered a concussion at Pocono Raceway.
Gragson, for comparison, made 18 starts for three different teams. He joined Beard Motorsports for three superspeedway races and Kaulig Racing for 10 races. Gragson then joined Hendrick Motorsports for five races while replacing Alex Bowman, who suffered a concussion at Texas Motor Speedway.
While the 2023 season will serve as the official rookie year of both Gibbs and Gragson, the two drivers have experience at the top level of NASCAR. Though this should not affect their eligibility for Rookie of the Year.
NASCAR determines eligibility for the prestigious award on a case-by-case basis. Gibbs should certainly be on the positive side of a ruling considering that he only stepped into a Cup Series car as an injury replacement. He also focused on the Xfinity Series championship.
Gragson had some scheduled starts in 2022 with two teams, but he also set out with the goal of racking up numerous Xfinity Series wins and pursuing the championship. Like Gibbs, he also had to shake up his schedule due to an injury.
Gibbs Will Have the Best Opportunity on Paper
Both Gibbs and Gragson have shown over multiple seasons that they are top Cup Series prospects. Gibbs has 11 Xfinity Series wins in two seasons while Gragson has 13 wins in the past three seasons.
Heading toward the Cup Series, Gibbs will be in a more favorable position, at least on paper. He will take over for a Toyota Camry that Kyle Busch took to Victory Lane at Bristol Motor Speedway (dirt). Though he will have a new number for his rookie season. Gibbs will also stick with the family-run team that has won five Cup Series championships.
Gragson, on the other hand, joins a team that is on the rise. Petty GMS capped off its first true season with the season finale at Phoenix Raceway. The team made some major gains with Erik Jones posting 13 top-10 finishes, three top-fives, and one win, but the No. 42 team struggled with one top-10.
The situation will now change for 2023. Gragson will take over the No. 42 Chevrolet Camaro for his rookie season. The level of competition and the car will both change, but he will have one main thing in his favor — crew chief Luke Lambert will move with him to the Cup Series after an eight-win season.
While Gibbs will join an organization with 200 Cup Series wins, Gragson will be part of one that still has considerable room to grow. Though there are questions about whether Petty GMS will build upon its momentum from the 2022 season.