Driver opportunities in NASCAR, from the time of entering the sport to making it to the "big show", have often been compared to a giant funnel.
The opportunities initially, whether in go karts or legends or even the developmental series, are as wide open as the mouth of the funnel.
But as more and more drivers swirl around, fewer and fewer make it through the stem of the funnel to emerge on the other side, landing a ride in the coveted Sprint Cup Series.
Of the thousands who are in the driver opportunity funnel, dreaming their big dreams, only a very select few make it to claim those prize 43 seats with NASCAR's elite.
This year, the funnel has narrowed even further, allowing fewer drivers through to that promised land.
Many factors have influenced this unfortunate trend and with the narrowing of the driver opportunity funnel, many drivers have been squeezed, continuing to swirl and languish with little hope of ever making it through to the other side.
One of the major factors in the narrowing of the funnel of driver opportunity has been the economy.
The impact of the economy, especially on sponsorship, has been felt throughout the sport and most likely will continue to play a pivotal role in the 2010 season as to who makes it through the funnel to the other side.
There is not a day that goes by on Sirius NASCAR radio or through the NASCAR columns in print or on the web where a driver or a team is not talking about, sometimes even begging for, sponsorship dollars.
Even NASCAR's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has had sponsorship woes for JR Motorsports and had to restructure his team to adjust to these changing economic times.
Back in the day, drivers could make it through the opportunity funnel with raw talent and a cocky belief in themselves as drivers.
They could convince and charm their way into a sponsorship here or there along the way that could see them through until making it to the "big time," where they could showcase their driving skills.
Those days are gone and drivers can no longer rely simply on their raw talent behind the wheel. The second element that has narrowed the driver opportunity funnel is that of marketability.
In order to make it through the funnel now, drivers must bring a total package. Yes, the talent must be there as a driver, however, talents in dealing with the media, hawking products, fan appeal, and even physical appearance are also now factors in determining who is making through the opportunity funnel.
The prime example of the importance of marketability has been Danica Patrick's move to NASCAR. Because of her "total package," including sponsorship with GoDaddy.com, fan appeal through her IndyCar success, and her physical attributes, she has managed to pass through the funnel of opportunity exceptionally quickly to land her ride with JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series.
The third factor that has contributed to the narrowing of the driver opportunity in NASCAR is simply the sheer volume of young racers who are now involved in the sport.
Coupled with the various paths that racers can now come to NASCAR, whether through stock car or open wheel paths, there is a real glut of young talent competing in the mouth of the funnel, struggling to get through to the next level.
Another factor that seems to be emerging with renewed force that influences drivers' abilities to make it through the opportunity funnel is a combination of their names and their gene pools.
Currently, there seems to be a plethora of new up-and-coming drivers with some fairly famous last names and racing genes, such as Steve Wallace, Chase Elliott and Ross Kenseth.
These second-generation drivers seems to have a much better chance than others swirling in the mouth of the funnel without those pedigrees.
They get noticed, their families know the business, and their connections have served them well in taking them to the next levels of the sport.
The final element narrowing the driver opportunity funnel in NASCAR is actually on the other side, that of mergers and alliances in the sport.
Back in the day, there were many teams, some just sporting one car, that would show up, put a car together, and go racing.
Again, because of the economic crunch, those times have changed. Teams, even big-name teams such as Petty Motorsports, have had to merge in order to survive.
Others are forming alliances with the mega-teams to share equipment and information, hoping for success.
With these mergers and alliances, there are simply fewer opportunities for available seats and fewer teams' doors to knock on for that chance. This phenomenon has already impacted the opportunity funnel and probably will continue to do so for the next year at two at least.
Drivers, teams and NASCAR itself will have to keep an eye on this driver opportunity funnel, particularly as it narrows. The concern for many is that it will narrow so dramatically that only those with sponsorship, marketability, a "name," and a connection to a mega-team will make it through the funnel to that elite ride.
And if that is the case, the sport of NASCAR is at definite risk. As the driver opportunity funnel narrows, the sport could just miss that one special driver, that next Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson or Tony Stewart, who could change the face of the sport forever.