Rookies knocking on door of top 10

Updated: April 23, 2006, 3:38 PM ET
By Rupen Fofaria | Special to ESPN.com

If you take a quick glance at the standings, the largest rookie class in the modern era doesn't look so hot. But just because these drivers are absent from the top 10 doesn't mean you should count them out.

In five of the seven races this year, the top-finishing rookie has come home with a top-10 finish. And a little more than a week ago at Texas Motor Speedway, three rookies finished in the top 15.

With Denny Hamlin's fourth-place Texas finish, he jumped a remarkable nine spots into 14th in the standings. Martin Truex Jr. used an eighth-place finish to move up five spots to 15th. Clint Bowyer's 19th-place finish netted him a three-position gain to 13th. Just a bit further back, Reed Sorenson's 13th-place finish meant a five-spot bump to 19th.

To hear the rookies tell it, it's not about getting used to Cup racing or new tracks -- it's just about getting luck on the right side.

"I didn't really feel like we had any problems beside bad luck," Sorenson said. "And now we have some luck on our side."

Added Hamlin: "This is the way that we've been running all year long, just haven't been able to finish the deal off. … It's such a momentum builder for the rest of the season. Hopefully, we can sneak into that Chase."

This group, although not running as high as the 2002 rookie class of Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman, is off to a better start than its more recent counterparts. Indeed, no rookie has made the Chase for the Nextel Cup playoffs in the playoffs' two-year existence. The year before the Chase was implemented also had a top 10 without a rookie.

This year, the rookie class' climb has three of them knocking quietly on the door to the top 10. A fourth isn't far behind.

And the early success is showing in the teams' attitudes.

At the No. 41 Dodge shop, the Chip Ganassi Racing crew is convinced it is destined for success with Sorenson behind the wheel.

"I think he's potentially a star," crew chief Jimmy Elledge said. "And if we can just keep up with him and keep him in competitive equipment and do our job, we'll be there."

At the No. 1 shop, the team is so impressed with its driver that crew chief Kevin Manion has started making bold promises.

"We promised Martin a top-five, and we ran in the top five most of the day," Manion said after the eighth-place run at Texas.

The crew chief's confidence has translated into a very demanding driver.

"You need to be perfect every chance you get," Truex said.

Hamlin and Co. haven't always been as optimistic this season. The No. 11 team has finished outside the top 30 three times. But with three top-15s and the recent top-five finish, the leader in the rookie standings is feeling more confident.

"We worked hard for that," Hamlin said. "… We are all striving to find that consistency and turn it into good finishes."

Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@yahoo.com.