In what could rival the talent level of the 1979 rookie class, the seven drivers that comprise the 2006 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidates are prepared to attempt to conquer the high banks of Atlanta Motor Speedway in March.
This year's rookies comprise nearly 100 years of combined racing experience. The 1979 class has set the mark for successful rookie classes to date as it is the only group to produce drivers winning multiple Cup Series championships. The group contained Dale Earnhardt Sr., Terry Labonte, Harry Gant and Joe Millikan, with Earnhardt and Labonte going on to win nine championships; Earnhardt with seven and Labonte with two.
There have been other strong rookie classes in the past. The 1994 season saw the entrance of Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte, both former NEXTEL Cup Series champions. Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dave Blaney emerged in the 2000 rookie class. Both Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch entered the Cup ranks in 2001, while Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson were rookies in 2002.
David Stremme, J.J. Yeley, Clint Bowyer, Brent Sherman, Denny Hamlin, defending NASCAR Busch Series champion Martin Truex Jr. and Peachtree City, Ga. native Reed Sorenson will all have yellow rookie stripes on their rear bumpers for the 2006 season.
Sorenson and Stremme will be piloting cars from the Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates stable while Joe Gibbs Racing will enter Yeley and Hamlin. Truex will continue driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc., while Bowyer will be in a Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. Brent Sherman will make his NEXTEL Cup debut in a BAM Racing Dodge.
One thing that all drivers share in common, regardless of their experience, is the desire to start the season on a high-note with a strong finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway. In 13 combined NASCAR Busch Series starts at AMS, the rookie class has only three top-10 finishes, averaging a finish of 18.
"Atlanta is a tough track for anyone to go race on, much less a rookie with limited seat time" said Denny Hamlin. "You just have to show up and make the best out of it and walk away with the best finish you can."
"I'm eager to race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in front of my hometown crowd," hometown star Reed Sorenson said. "This is one of the fastest tracks on the NASCAR circuit, so it is important to get used to it and try to start the season on a high note."
Atlanta Motor Speedway president and general manager Ed Clark is anxious to see how the seven rookies fare during the 2006 season.
"I predict at least one of the rookie drivers will win a race this year. With this strong of a group, two or three of them will likely win," Clark said.