by Tom Jensen November 15, 2021
10 drivers who didn’t win rookie of the year honors but went on to have Hall of Fame careers.
Winning Rookie of the Year honors in the premier series is certainly something first-year drivers aspire to but winning – or not winning – the rookie award is no guarantee of success.
For example. Since 1954, there have been 20 drivers who were named Rookie of the Year but never won a single premier series race in their respective careers.
Of those 20 Rookies of the Year, exactly half of them never even posted a top-five finish, and four of them failed to post a single top-10.
Conversely, there have been any number of drivers who didn’t win Rookie of the Year but went on to enjoy fabulously successful careers. Here are 10 Hall of Fame drivers who weren’t bestowed rookie honors.
Buddy Baker, 1959
No, “Leadfoot,” as Buddy Baker (2020) was known, did not win ROTY honors in 1959, but there were good reasons for it. First off, Baker only ran 12 of 44 races, finishing 26th in points. More importantly, the man who beat him was none other than Richard Petty (2020), who had six top-five and 9 top-10 finishes in 21 starts in 1959. Petty, of course, went on to win a record 200 races and set the mark for championships with seven.
Wendell Scott, 1961
A member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2015, Wendell Scott was beaten out for ROTY in 1961 by Alabama native Woodie Wilson. During that season, Scott competed in 23 races, with five top-10 finishes, ending the season 32nd in points. Wilson, meanwhile, ran only five races in ’61, but somehow got the rookie award. Wilson only competed in 10 races his entire career, including one during the inaugural Strictly Stock Division (now premier series) season of 1949.
Cale Yarborough, 1962
South Carolina racer Cale Yarborough (2012) would go to win 83 races and become the first of only two drivers to earn three consecutive premier series titles in a row. But because he entered just eight races in his rookie season of 1962, Yarborough lost the rookie crown to Tom Cox, who competed in 42 races, mostly driving Ray Herlocker’s No. 60 Plymouth. Cox would compete in two races in 1963, and that was it for his career.
Bobby Isaac, 1963
In his rookie season of 1963, Bobby Isaac (2016) had three top-five and seven top-10 finishes in 27 starts, ending the year a more than respectable 20th in points driving the No. 99 Plymouths and Fords for Bondy Long. ROTY in ’63 went to Texan Billy Wade, who drove the No. 6 for Hall of Fame team owner Cotton Owens (2013). Wade finished 16th in points on the strength of four top-five and 14 top-10 runs.
Darrell Waltrip, 1973
Call this one a tale of two drivers: Darrell Waltrip (2012) won 84 races and three championships in a brilliant career. Lennie Pond had one career victory in 234 starts over 17 seasons. But in their rookie seasons of 1973, Pond made 23 starts, with a single top five and nine top 10s, good enough for 23rd in points and rookie honors. Waltrip made only 19 starts and ended the year 28th in points with one top five and five top 10s.
Bill Elliott, 1976
Eerily reminiscent of three years previously, Louisiana native Skip Manning claimed rookie honors in ’76, with four top 10s and an 18th-place points finish after competing in 27 of 30 races. Manning would go on to make 79 premier starts, with just a pair of top fives to show for it. The guy Manning beat for ROTY was Bill Elliott (2015), who only made eight starts in ’76 before building a resume that included 44 race wins, the 1988 championship and the fastest NASCAR qualifying lap ever, 212.809 mph at Talladega Superspeedway in 1987.
Terry Labonte, 1979
In a true Clash of the Titans, Dale Earnhardt (2010) beat out fellow Hall of Famer Terry Labonte (2016) to become the top rookie in 1979. Earnhardt would win his first of a record-tying seven championships the following year in a car featured in the NASCAR Hall of Fame exhibit, “Dale Jr.: Glory Road Champions.” Labonte took his first title in 1984 and his second in 1996. His ’96 title car, which is owned by Rick Hendrick (2017), is one of 10 cars displayed in the Hall of Fame’s Great Hall exhibit, “A Legendary Decade: The First 50 Inductees.”
Mark Martin, 1982
In something of an unusual situation, Mark Martin (2017) ran 30 races in his rookie season of 1982, ending the year 14th in points after posting a pair of top fives and eight top 10s. But the ROTY award went to Geoffrey Bodine, with four top fives, 10 top 10s and a 22nd-place points finish. Both drivers would go on to have long, successful NASCAR careers. One of Martin’s Jack Roush (2019) owned Fords is on display in the Hall of fame’s Great Hall exhibit, “A Legendary Decade: The First 50 Inductees.”
Dale Jarrett, 1987
Another stellar rookie class in 1987 produced a pair of Hall of Famers, both of whom were preceded in the Hall by their fathers. Davey Allison (2019), son of Bobby Allison (2011), was the first premier series driver to win two races in his rookie season. Dale Jarrett (2014), son of Ned Jarrett (2011), didn’t tale the rookie title in ’87, but did win 32 races in his career, along with the 1999 championship. At various points in their careers, Davey and Dale both drove for car owner Robert Yates (2018).
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., 2000
Two close friends from their days of racing each other in the NASCAR Busch Series (now Xfinity Series), Matt Kenseth took the 2000 rookie title over Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2021). Both drivers had strong campaigns, with Kenseth winning the prestigious Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway en route to a 14th-place points finish, while Earnhardt won two points races and the NASCAR All-Star Race while finishing a solid 16th in the standings himself.