The NASCAR Rookie of the Year Award is presented to the first-year driver that has the best season in a NASCAR season. Each of NASCAR's national and regional touring series selects a RotY winner each year.
The Rookie of the Year award for NASCAR's premier series was first presented to a driver named Blackie Pitt by Houston Lawing, NASCAR'S Public Relations director, in 1954. While it wasn't an official award, it would help set the standard for the top rookie prize. An official award started with the 1958 season.
From the 1958 through the 1973 seasons, NASCAR did not have an official points system to determine the Rookie of the Year, so NASCAR's officials merely gathered together to select a winner. Some years were straight forward, such as James Hylton's selection in 1966, when he finished second in the overall championship, the highest ever finish for an eligible rookie. In other years, the system came under controversy, as officials didn't consider former champions from rival racing series and there were no transparent and consistent criteria for selecting the winner. Since 1974, the Rookie of the Year points system described below has been used, even if it meant the winner was not the highest finisher in championship points.
As of the 2018 season, the rookie of the Year points are the same as the championship points.
The award is currently sponsored by Sunoco. Drivers competing for the award must display the Sunoco contingency decal.
One point is granted to all rookies who enter an event prior to the entry deadline, regardless of finishing position or even if they don't qualify. All rookies with teams that enter past the regular entry deadline ("post entry") do not receive this point.
Race performance points are also awarded, on a declining ten-to-one system. The highest finishing rookie earns ten points, the second highest finishing rookie earns nine points, etc.
Coupled with the "Race-by-Race Bonus" (see next item), a rookie candidate can earn up to 21 points for his/her performance in every individual race.
Bonus points are also awarded to drivers in the following circumstances:
"Race-by-Race Bonus". If a candidate wins a race, he/she earns ten bonus rookie points for that race. If a candidate finishes second, he/she earns nine bonus rookie points for that race, etc.
"Segment Bonus – Cup and Xfinity". The season is divided into three segments, the first segment being after the first ten races of the season, the second segment being after the second ten races of the season, and the third segment being the rest of the schedule. The candidate with the most championship points in each segment earns ten bonus rookie points, the candidate with the second-most championship points earns nine, etc.
"Season Bonus – Cup and Xfinity". The single rookie driver who finishes highest in the overall championship standings at season's end will receive an additional ten bonus rookie points.
"Season Bonus – Truck". Because the season is only 22 races, the segment system is not applied to this series. For Truck rookies, the candidate with the most championship points at the end of the overall season earns ten bonus rookie points, the candidate with the second-most championship points earns nine, etc.
There is a five-member panel composed of the preceding year's Series Champion, officials, etc. that meet during the final week of the season. They evaluate that year's candidates, on a declining ten point system, on each of the following criteria:
Conduct with officials
Conduct and awareness on the racetrack
Personal appearance and conduct with the media
The scores of all panel members for each candidate are averaged, and the candidate with the most panel points at the end of the overall season earns ten bonus rookie points, the candidate with the second-most panel points earns nine, etc.
Note that anyone involved with a rookie candidate (such as a teammate or car owner) may not serve on that year's panel and will be replaced by another person in that category. In case of an ineligible Series Champion, it is the next preceding year's Series Champion. In 2002, 2000 champion Bobby Labonte served on the Cup rookie panel as NASCAR disqualified 2001 champion Jeff Gordon from the position because of his equity ownership in candidate Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 car.
Drivers must meet the following criteria in order to be eligible to run for or receive the Rookie of the Year award.
Must have run no more than five (prior to 2001) or seven (2001–present), and have been declared to race for driver points in that series (2011–present), races in any previous season.
Drivers who compete in more than five races in a higher NASCAR-sanctioned series are not eligible for the award in a lower series if they have not declared for the higher series.
A Truck Series driver who is under 18 may participate in all nine eligible races (Martinsville (2), Dover, Gateway, Iowa, Bristol, Mosport, Eldora, Phoenix)without losing rookie eligibility.
Truck Series drivers who turn 18 during the year may participate in up to ten races without losing rookie eligibility.
If a driver does not start eight races before the end of Race 20 on the schedule, they will immediately become ineligible to earn rookie points for the rest of that season and starting in 2011, remained declared for that series. Drivers may change series declaration in order to avoid this.
A driver may not receive rookie points if they start a race for a team that they did not qualify with. However, they are still eligible for championship points in that race.
There have been a few cases before the 2011 rule change where aspiring Cup drivers have sacrificed their future eligibility to be Rookie of the Year candidates by driving part-time schedules including more than seven Cup races. For example, in 2009, Brad Keselowski ended up running 15 races, including a win at Talladega. Two other famous drivers who did the same thing are Carl Edwards (13 Cup races in 2004), and Marcos Ambrose (11 races in 2008).
On the other hand, 2007 Rookie of the Year winner Juan Pablo Montoya was eligible even though he had previously been the 1999 Rookie of the Year in the CART series (which at the time was the top level of open wheel racing.)
The 2009 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Rookie of the Year was Johnny Sauter, who was a veteran of both the Nationwide and Cup Series. He had never run more than three Truck races in any previous season, and made no 2009 starts at all in either of the two higher-level series, hence he was eligible for the truck series' rookie award. The 2006 Busch Series ROTY runner-up John Andretti was a veteran of the Cup Series but had made only one prior Busch Series start, making him eligible for the award.
In 1992, Ricky Craven, the Busch Series Rookie of the Year, actually had run seven races when the limit was five in 1991. However, Craven was only credited with two Busch-only starts, as the other five starts were in combination races with the Busch North Series (now the K&N Pro Series East), which he was a full-time regular at the time. The races were registered in the Busch North Series, so he could enter the race in that series and not compromise his eligibility in the "South" series.
Beginning in 2011, drivers that are ineligible for points in one series cannot earn Rookie points in that series. For example, Trevor Bayne ran 18 races in 2011; however, due to him declaring to run for the Nationwide championship, Bayne was also ineligible to declare for ROTY in 2011. Bayne therefore retained the right to declare for Rookie eligibility at a later date. However, when Bayne finally declared for Sprint Cup points in 2015, a previously little-known provision came into play that places a limit on the cumulative number of races a driver can run without declaring for points before he loses future Rookie eligibility. Bayne was confirmed by NASCAR to have exceeded this limit (although there has yet to be a definite announcement on what this limit actually is) and is therefore ineligible to run for Rookie of the Year in 2015. Danica Patrick ran 10 races in 2012 in Sprint Cup, though she declared she would race for the Nationwide championship, allowing her in 2013 to declare in Sprint Cup, and race as a rookie. This also allows lower-tier drivers to substitute for injured drivers in higher-tier series without risk of losing rookie eligibility.
Furthermore, in 2013, NASCAR added rules where drivers 16 and 17 years of age may race in the Camping World Truck Series and not lose rookie eligibility because a driver can only race 10 of the 23 races on the schedule (tracks under 1.25 miles (2.01 km) or shorter and road courses). In 2015, two rookie contenders in the series – Erik Jones and John Hunter Nemechek – were declared rookies though they had exceeded the seven-race limit because of age restrictions (Jones turned 18 in the middle of the 2014 season, and Nemechek turned 18 in the middle of the 2015 season). Cole Custer was declared a 2016 Truck Series rookie despite having raced two seasons because of age eligibility (turned 18 before the start of the 2016 season). Starting in 2018, the restrictions were tightened, since one driver-eligible track, New Hampshire Motor Speedway (1.058 miles), was removed from the schedule in favour of a second race at a driver-ineligible track, Las Vegas Motor Speedway (1.5 miles).
Below is a list of all winners, and known runners-up. (Note: some of the drivers listed here are not confirmed as ROTY contenders, and competed in more than the maximum number of races to be eligible for ROTY honors.)
Did not declare for ROTY and ran more than seven races (or 10 in the Truck Series 2013–), but did not run for series points (2011–) and thus could be eligible in a later year.
Did not declare for ROTY, but ran more than five (or seven as of 2001, or ten in the Truck Series 2013–) races (while eligible for series points, 2011–) or did not run for series points but ran too many races in that series (limit is unknown as of yet) and are completely ineligible for the award.
Declared for ROTY, but did not make minimum five (or seven as of 2001) races, thus could be eligible in a later year.
Prince and Orr died during their rookie seasons and were unable to complete the schedule.
Moroso died after race 25 of 29 during his rookie season, receiving the award posthumously.
Hylton finished second in the overall 1966 championship, the highest ever finish for an eligible rookie.
^ Craven started seven races in 1991 (the limit was five) but was charged with only two starts. The other five starts were in combination races with the Busch North Series, where he raced as a regular. Both 1991 Busch Series wins were in combination races as a North driver.