Deep Sprint Cup rookie class should lead to excitement

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It’s been a while since we’ve had intrigue about the yearly crop of NASCAR Sprint Cup rookies.

Yes, last year’s group of freshmen featured the highest-profiled newcomer in a long time with Danica Patrick. But because of her inexperience with stock cars, the Rookie of the Year title was still her boyfriend/two-time Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s to lose (he didn’t.)

Before then, you had Stephen Leicht (2012), Andy Lally (2011), and Kevin Conway (2010) as your ROTY in the previous three seasons. All three are now gone from the series.

But this year promises to be different. Sure, on paper, you expect Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson (pictured) to have another one-on-one battle for the ROTY like we got last year between Stenhouse and Patrick. Dillon and Larson have the talent and the resources to make sure the fight stays between them and them alone.

However, that’s not to say the other rookies are just a bunch of cast-offs.

We’ll start with the newest official ROTY contender, Phoenix Racing’s Justin Allgaier. He’s a former ARCA champion and has been consistently strong in Nationwide for both Team Penske and Turner Scott Motorsports. While he’s never won an NNS title, he’s never finished worse than sixth in that series championship during the last five seasons (he finished fifth last year for TSM).

Yes, he’s only earned three NNS wins in that time frame but he’s shown that he can not only get the car home in one piece but also toward the front – both important for any rookie driver who hopes to succeed.

BK Racing’s new tandem of Alex Bowman and Ryan Truex have had their share of success along the way to Cup as well.

Bowman claimed six wins in ARCA across the 2011 and 2012 campaigns before moving to Nationwide last year for RAB Racing. While unable to beat out Larson for Nationwide’s ROTY award, he didn’t flop either, finishing 11th in points and earning a couple of poles as well.

Truex already has a couple of NASCAR championships on his mantle after winning back-to-back K&N Pro East titles in 2009 and 2010. From there, he went into NASCAR’s national series, where he primarily worked as a Nationwide part-timer (35 starts from 2010-2012) before getting to make his first three Sprint Cup starts last year for Phoenix Racing.

Another rookie pairing will take center stage at Swan Racing in the form of Parker Kligerman and Cole Whitt. Kligerman ran for two years in the Camping World Truck Series, finishing fifth in the 2012 championship before going to Kyle Busch’s Nationwide operation last year. There, he collected 13 Top-10s in route to a ninth-place finish in the standings.

Whitt experienced major success in the USAC ranks (he was the 2008 national midget champion) before jumping to stock cars in 2010. A fourth-place finish in the K&N East Series led to a move into the Trucks in 2011 and then into Nationwide in 2012. Last season, he competed in seven Cup events for Swan Racing toward the tail end of the year – the most out of the group of drivers that stepped into the Swan car after David Stremme was released.

Finally, there’s Michael Annett, in at Tommy Baldwin Racing. Annett will be looking for a smoother 2014 after missing part of his Nationwide season in 2013 due to a chest injury sustained in a crash during the season opener at Daytona International Speedway (he returned to action in May at Charlotte).

Annett finished fifth in his last full season of Nationwide competition in 2012, in which he earned six Top-5s and 17 Top-10s. You figure he’d be thrilled with a return to that form as he embarks on his first Cup season.

You’re tempted to think the pecking order is relatively set based on their teams’ strengths: Dillon and Larson at the top, Allgaier behind them, and then the rest – Bowman, Truex, Kligerman, Whitt and Annett – bringing up the rear.

But altogether, it’s not a bad group of greenhorns we’ve got here. And that should make things a bit more exciting in the Cup series this year.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”