With 11 races to go in the 2017 season (seriously? Where has the time gone?), now seems like as good a time as any to take a look at this year's rookie class. Let’s start with the obvious: It’s going to be very, very difficult for anyone to compete with Tanner Gray for the Auto Club Road to the Future Award, presented to the season’s top rookie. Gray already has two event wins and sits third in the Pro Stock points race. No one else in the hunt for the award has a Wally to their name, and only two other drivers are in the Countdown at the time of this writing.
But there’s still a lot of season to go. So, yes, if the season ended today we’d be handing the trophy to Gray, but it doesn’t end today. That means racers like Jonnie Lindberg, Joey Gladstone, and the rest of the 2017 rookie class still have time to get back into the race. If you’ve been following along with NHRA.com Managing Editor Candida Benson’s Rookie Report Card (and if not, shame on you), you’ve already got a grasp on how things are going. Let’s expand on that for each driver.
The true kid of the class, Gray burst onto the scene by winning his second race with a combination of incredible power and a great clutch foot. He’s not just the frontrunner for rookie of the year: he could be the first to win a championship in his rookie season since LE Tonglet in 2010.
If there’s hope for the rest of the class, it’s that Gray’s performance has tailed off a bit in the past handful of races. His last event win came back in Topeka, and his round win-loss record is 7-5 in the last five races. Listen, I know that’s not bad, but compare that to 17-6 over the first eight races and it at least offers a glimmer of hope to anyone trying to catch the phenom.
The Swedish Funny Car driver may pose the biggest threat to Gray’s candidacy, if for no other reason than what we’ve seen him do earlier this season. Those back-to-back final performances in Gainesville and Las Vegas seem like a very, very long time ago now, though. Since posting that 6-2 round record, Lindberg has gone 2-7.
Still, anything you’ve done once, you can do twice. Right? If Lindberg can fight his way back into the Countdown and capture a couple of Wallys along the way, he’ll be right back in the mix. It may seem like something of a longshot right now, but the Swede may just need a little bit of luck to go his way to get into the race again.
Pro Stock Motorcycle gets a tough shake when discussing the rookie race because it’s not until midway through the season that we get to see the riders on a regular basis. Gladstone has been, perhaps quietly, consistent, if not spectacular. He has one semifinal appearance and a few quarterfinal berths to his name and a 5-6 round record.
Chicago was the first time this season that he’s qualified in the bottom half of the field (ninth), and he looks likely to make the Countdown (he’s currently in seventh). Like everyone else, he’ll need to add a couple of wins to his resume to really get into contention, but Gladstone has had a very nice season so far.
Troy Coughlin Jr.
This has not exactly been a dream season for Coughlin. He has just two round-wins in the last 10 races and has gone from eighth place down to hanging onto 10th. It’s taken a little longer than most thought it would for the rookie to get a handle on piloting a dragster, which means it would take a big turnaround for him to get into the race at this point.
But stranger things have happened. There’s a reason Coughlin entered the season as the favorite for this award: He can flat out drive. Coughlin has been incredible in every single class he’s driven up to this point, and there’s every reason to believe he’ll get the hang of a dragster at some point. Once he does, watch out. If that happens in short order… well, anything can happen, right?
Reed competed in the first three races of the season and reached the semifinals in Phoenix, but he has only raced twice since then. That will probably keep him from being a factor in the rookie race, barring a truly storybook ending to the season. His last appearance on the tour was in Epping.