Bump & Run: Don’t overlook these drivers

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There’s much to talk about just days before engines fire at Daytona International Speedway. But for all the conversations about enhancements to the points system, Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s return and Carl Edwards‘ departure, there are other key areas you might be missing.

Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty, who will be on NASCAR America at 6 p.m. ET today on NBCSN, join Nate Ryan and Dustin Long to discuss drivers you might be overlooking and more in this week’s Bump & Run.

Who is one driver people might not be paying much attention to but should this year?

Dale Jarrett: Chase Elliott is not being talked about a lot this year, but I really expect a lot of him. I think that we’re looking at a two or three wins kind of season for him. I think that he showed that kind of potential. As we get closer to the playoffs, this will be someone who we just won’t be talking about will he make the playoffs, but what impact he’ll have. I really think that the things he was able to learn — and sometimes you learn a lot more by not closing the deal — I think that it was a great learning year, still a great year, as a rookie. I think he’s someone to pay attention to.

Kyle Petty: The driver I’m watching is Austin Dillon. I thought last year he made big progress. He became the RCR team leader on and off the track. He showed more maturity on and off the track. RCR needs to produce wins this year. I know they want to, but they are in a need-to situation to survive. I don’t believe people (fans) are paying attention to him because of RCR’s recent performance. I believe Austin will surprise people this year.’’

Nate Ryan: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. This is the fifth season in NASCAR’s premier series for the driver whom Jack Roush once said would be remembered as the greatest ever to run for Roush Fenway Racing. Stenhouse is five years’ removed from the promise of consecutive Xfinity Series championships. If he finishes outside the top 20 in points for a fourth straight year, it’s worth pondering what the future might hold (particularly given Roush’s seemingly tenuous sponsorship situation). Stenhouse previously was coveted by other powerhouse teams. If he can exhibit at least flashes of the potential he showed in Xfinity, it could help shore up his future prospects (even if they don’t include Roush).

Dustin Long: I’ll be watching Kyle Larson. He’s shown improvement and scored his first Cup win last year. The key is his team. Can it provide him the equipment to excel and put him in situations to take advantage of? With Stewart-Haas Racing now at Ford, there’s a chance for Chip Ganassi Racing to climb up to the No. 2 spot at Chevrolet behind Hendrick Motorsports. If this team steps up, Larson could score multiple wins.

How do you forecast the rookie of the year battle in the Cup Series?

Dale Jarrett: I think this comes down to two drivers who are both very talented. I think that Erik Jones may have got his thought process off a little bit and maybe cost him even a better chance at winning that Xfinity championship last year. I think he’s going to be an outstanding Cup driver. I really believe that he’ll put himself in position to win some races. Will he able to do that? We’ll have to see because it’s tough. He’s going to be racing basically a teammate, certainly a Toyota teammate in Daniel Suarez. You have to look at the teams they are with. Even though Jones’ deal is a new car with Furniture Row Racing, the experience he has surrounding him and the ability to work with everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing still will be a huge benefit. Suarez, I know he’s trying to grasp all of this. He’s such a talented young man. There will be a lot for him to learn, tracks, the different cars. It’s going to be a steeper learning curve for him, but I think he’ll give Jones a run for his money in that. I really believe at the and of the year that Erik Jones is the rookie of the year.

Kyle Petty: The rookie battle is up for grabs as far as I’m concerned. I know Erik Jones is a favorite and I believe last year he showed why. My concern is he’s driving a second car for a team that has just broken into that elite level of Cup racing. Can he and a startup new team help himself and Martin Truex Jr., or will his addition to the team as a whole take Furniture Row back a step? If that’s the case, advantage Daniel Suarez. He may not have had the year Erik did as a driver, but he won the Xfinity championship. Also he’s driving the 19 car that Carl Edwards was within a handful of laps of winning the Cup championship in. Driving for a team that’s “been there, done that” has its advantages! I’m a fan of Ty Dillon and believe talent-wise he stacks up against Erik and Daniel pretty evenly; equipment-wise, I’m taking a wait and see attitude.

Nate Ryan: Even though Daniel Suarez beat him for the Xfinity championship last year, the rookie of the year title is Erik Jones’ to lose. Jones is the most accomplished of the class and already has proven adept in Cup cars. He will be joining a formidable Furniture Row Racing team with a championship-caliber teammate in Martin Truex Jr. Suarez is in a Toyota of equal quality and made great strides last season, but his development will remain ongoing this year (just as it was in the 2015-16 Xfinity seasons). It might be a fair fight by the end of the season, but Jones will have the upper hand for at least the first half. Among the rest of the rookies, Ty Dillon will deliver respectable performances but won’t contend for top-15 finishes.

Dustin Long: I agree with my colleagues that Erik Jones is the favorite for all the reasons they’ve mentioned. That said, I’ll be interested to see how Daniel Suarez performs with the No. 19 team, noting what Kyle stated about that team’s experience and personnel. I think this could be among the more fascinating rookie races in recent years with Jones finishing with winning the crown.

Watch Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty on NASCAR America today from 5:30 – 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN.