Explaining NASCAR's Weakest Rookie "Race" in Recent Memory

Christopher Leone@ChristopherlionSenior Analyst IJanuary 17, 2010

MEMPHIS, TN - OCTOBER 24:   Kevin Conway, driver of the #26 Extenze Chevrolet tries to get back to pit lane after wrecking in the first turn during the NASCAR Nationwide series Kroger 'On Track For  Cure' 250 race at the Memphis Motorsports Park on October 24, 2009 in Memphis, Tennessee.  (Photo by John Sommers II/Getty Images)
John Sommers II/Getty Images

In the Sprint Cup Series, this year’s Raybestos Rookie of the Year race may not be much of a race at all.

Front Row Motorsports recently announced Kevin Conway as the full-time driver of one of its two cars, a Ford which will likely carry sponsorship from male enhancement pill Extenze. This announcement made Conway the first rookie candidate for the 2010 season.

Days later, former Nationwide Series owner Dusty Whitney announced that he had purchased a fleet of Dodges from Richard Petty Motorsports, now a Ford team, and would be fielding a car for former Truck Series driver Terry Cook for the full 36-race schedule. Cook, who had been competing in the trucks since 1996, will also compete for the award.

But looking at the press release, Whitney’s quote appears to hint at a start-and-park program for the Truck Series veteran. “Terry did a fantastic job qualifying the No. 91 Nationwide Car last season and we are hoping for the same qualifying success in our No. 46 Sprint Cup Car,” Whitney said. This explicit mention of qualifying success suggests that the team will probably pull into the garage after a handful of laps every weekend.

This leaves Conway as the only legitimate candidate for Rookie of the Year in 2010, the first time this has happened since 1996, when Johnny Benson won almost by default. And even then, Conway hasn’t done much with his career—and without his Extenze sponsorship, he wouldn’t even be there.

Granted, rookie classes have always fluctuated from year to year. Consider the influx of open-wheel stars gunning for the award in 2008, compared to 2009, where only Joey Logano and Scott Speed duked it out.

But it appears that the failures of the young guns in the then-Busch Series in 2004 and 2005 may be to blame for the recent shortage—not just the one-year stand of IndyCar and Formula One rookies.

In that time period, Cup drivers were running fewer Busch races, allowing the Cup teams to attempt to develop and groom young talent for future Cup rides. Hendrick Motorsports had Blake Feese and Boston Reid; Roush Racing employed Todd Kluever and Danny O’Quinn Jr.; a slew of “Hungry Drivers” piloted the Evernham Motorsports car. Teams like FitzBradshaw Racing and Brewco Motorsports were developing drivers instead of just hiring Busch Series lifers.

Then, something strange and unprecedented happened.

All of these drivers failed.

O’Quinn pops up from time to time in Nationwide races, but most of the drivers have moved on. Joel Kauffman’s career is over. Tracy Hines is back to USAC. Paul Wolfe is now a crew chief.

Worse, most of these drivers were fully funded by major companies. These failures helped instill a fear of committing to young talent in sponsors looking to join the series. Combine that with the oft-cited state of the American economy, and the sport is in trouble.

Fewer and fewer young drivers receive lucrative sponsorship contracts every year, even with the big teams, because these companies would rather only run a Nationwide race or two every year with Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Mark Martin than twenty with Kelly Bires or Brendan Gaughan.

So the owners found another way out: bringing in open-wheel talent that didn’t have rides for 2008. With the modest success of Juan Montoya at Ganassi Racing in 2007, it seemed like everybody with even a sliver of open wheel success was called over to make the jump. Sam Hornish Jr., Patrick Carpentier, Michael McDowell, Dario Franchitti, and Jacques Villeneuve all got the call.

None of them won the award, and two years removed, only Hornish still has a solid ride in Cup.

Unfortunately, because race teams are independent contractors, NASCAR can’t step in and try to make these sponsors commit to young talent and the future growth of the sport, instead of the same old talent. If NASCAR attempts to regulate double-dipping in Cup and Nationwide, the timing might kill the feeder series. The teams themselves may or may not try to sell these young drivers to prospective backers, but they can only do so much.

The only stroke of luck for NASCAR right now is that the rookie classes of the early and mid 2000s were so deep, and that many of those drivers will remain in the series for another 10 to 15 years.

Between 2001 and 2005, eight future Chase drivers, among them three future champions, joined the series. The 2006 rookie class was the deepest since 1994 in terms of talent, producing three Chase drivers and a few more Cup regulars, and 2007 wasn’t too shabby either, with all eligible candidates still in the series.

But unless teams and sponsors are willing to re-invest in the youth of the sport, we may see the same names and faces again and again, year after year, and the least accomplished rookie classes in Cup history.

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