It’s always good to have options, but in some instances, too many choices tend to complicate matters, and that appears to be where NHRA is headed when it comes to the 2024 NHRA Rookie of the Year balloting.
Last season, there were several qualified candidates to choose from, but in the end, Pro Stock Motorcycle freshman Chase Van Sant was the clear-cut winner, and the media vote that decides the prestigious award reflected that. This time around, it won’t be nearly as easy because there are expected to be no less than a half dozen or more first-year racers who could and should achieve a significant level of success. It isn’t an exaggeration to suggest that the upcoming NHRA Mission Foods Drag Racing Series season will feature an extremely competitive battle with multiple deserving candidates. Let’s take a closer look at some of the probable contenders.
Tony Stewart (Top Fuel)
By a wide margin, the preseason favorite is Tony Stewart, who is scheduled to make his Top Fuel debut in Gainesville after a very successful 2023 run in the Top Alcohol Dragster class. The NASCAR Hall of Famer and past IndyCar champ isn’t exactly a traditional “rookie” because he’s already regarded as one of the most talented drivers in all of motorsports. That being said, as a first-year NHRA Pro, he’ll fit the criteria for selection and will no doubt be the favorite.
Previously, Stewart was named the 1999 NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year after scoring three wins in his debut season. Could he win three (or more) Top Fuel races this season? It won’t be easy, but it's certainly possible because he’s getting into a car that went to six finals, won twice, and nearly won the 2023 title with Leah Pruett driving. The competition in Top Fuel is as fierce as it's ever been, so nothing is a given, but at this point, the award is nearly Stewart’s to lose.
Richard Gadson (Pro Stock Motorcycle)
In 2022, Gaige Herrera ran one-too-many races to remain eligible for the NHRA Rookie of the Year award last season. Obviously, with 11 wins and a world title, he’d have won it easily. Richard Gadson, the newest Vance & Hines Pro Stock Motorcycle rider, doesn’t have that problem as he’s run just three races over the last two seasons, so he maintains his eligibility as a rookie. Gadson’s talent level has been favorably compared to Herrera’s, and he was certainly impressive with 6.7-second performances during a Monday test session with the Vance & Hines team.
Much like Stewart, Gadson is inheriting a very competitive ride. In this case, he’s on the RevZilla/Mission Foods Suzuki that carried Eddie Krawiec to five finals and a second-place finish last season. Given his reputation and the quality of the Vance & Hines Suzuki, Gadson should nearly be a co-favorite along with Stewart.
Daniel Wilkerson (Funny Car)
A late entry into the NHRA Rookie of the Year sweepstakes, Daniel Wilkerson is taking over the reins of the SCAG Mustang previously piloted by his father, Tim. Already regarded as one of the sport’s best up-and-coming young tuners, Wilkerson will now have a chance to show off his driving skills. Wilkerson actually made his debut in 2009, but he maintains his eligibility because he’s never run five events in a single season (or more than 15 in his career). Last year, Tim went to four final rounds and won twice, so once again, we have a new driver taking over a very competitive ride, which makes Wilkerson very much a contender for NHRA Rookie of the Year honors.
Jacob McNeal (Top Fuel)
Jacob McNeal has announced his intention to race Top Fuel in approximately eight to nine races this season, which means he’s eligible for the NHRA Rookie of the Year award and will very likely be included on the ballot at the end of the season. McNeal drove Scott Palmer’s dragster at four events last season, made a huge commitment when he purchased Buddy Hull’s Top Fuel operation, and enlisted veteran crew chief Mike Guger. The new team, backed by Poseidon Oilfield Services, is scheduled to debut at the season opener in Gainesville. Winning the NHRA Rookie of the Year award on anything less than a full season will be difficult, but not totally impossible. It’s worth mentioning that two of the last three Gainesville Top Fuel winners were first-time NHRA victors (Josh Hart and Tripp Tatum).
Jasmine Salinas (Top Fuel)
It’s currently unclear when Jasmine Salinas will make her Top Fuel debut or how many events she’s got on her schedule, but it’s very likely that the 2024 season will make her eligible for the NHRA Rookie of the Year award. Salinas had many successful moments during her time in the Top Alcohol Dragster class, including a pair of 2022 national event wins in Gainesville and Dallas. She received her Top Fuel license after multiple test sessions last year in her father, Mike’s Scrappers Racing dragster. Ironically, Mike Salinas is the defending Gainesville Top Fuel winner, and he’s got an extremely competitive race car thanks to crew chief Rob Flynn, so it stands to reason that Jasmine will be in a car that is equally competitive.
Travis Shumake (Top Fuel)
Much like his friend, Jasmine Salinas, Travis Shumake earned his license last season and is expected to make his Top Fuel debut in 2024. The son of the late Funny Car racer Trip Shumake, Travis purchased his own Top Fuel operation and will race out of the Scrappers team headquarters in Brownsburg, Ind. Shumake is currently looking for funding in order to expand his schedule, but for the time being, he’s planning to make his official debut in Phoenix, which happens to be his home track. Another big question mark here, but it’s entirely possible that he runs five or more events and is included on the end-of-the-year ROY ballot.
Ida Zetterstrom (Top Fuel)
Coming off a season where she dominated the FIA European Top Fuel class with multiple wins and a championship, Ida Zetterstrom is scheduled to make her NHRA debut this season as a member of the JCM team. Zetterstrom plans to compete in a minimum of five events, which would make her eligible for the NHRA Rookie of the Year award. Zetterstrom has already run in the 3.7s in Europe and will be a teammate to Tony Schumacher, the winningest driver in the history of the Top Fuel category, so she’ll have plenty of experience to draw from. With additional funding, it’s possible that Zetterstrom could expand her schedule, which obviously would increase her chances of winning the NHRA Rookie of the Year title. At the very least, she is expected to be on the ballot next November.
Sienna Wildgust (Pro Stock)
Late last year, it was announced that 17-year-old Sienna Wildgust would be racing in Pro Stock in 2024 as a member of the KB Titan team. Currently, the Canadian driver is in the process of earning her NHRA competition license, so the question remains where and when she might make her official NHRA debut. Pro Stock cars are difficult to drive, and nearly impossible to master, so it’s not likely that she’ll be rushed into competition. That being said, there is no such thing as a KB Titan car that isn’t competitive, so whenever Wildgust does make her debut, she’s expected to be in a car that is capable of qualifying solidly.