Published February 04, 2010
The economy is bad, there’s no doubt, and it seems to be as hard on NASCAR as any other industry. But some things about a bad economy can bring about a breath of fresh air.
For instance, this year’s Raybestos Rookie of the Year battle in the Sprint Cup Series will be waged among drivers who are real rookies compared to the newcomers who have dominated the contest in recent seasons.
In previous years, when multi-car Cup teams were awash in money and spending lots of it on driver development programs, it was common for a rookie driver to start his Cup career with a team that was pretty much a proven winner. Or a driver with loads of experience in other forms of racing, like Juan Pablo Montoya, would take the rookie contest.
Just last year, Joey Logano ran his rookie campaign in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota that Tony Stewart vacated when he left to join forces with Gene Haas and become a team co-owner.
Even with the resources of Gibbs and the skills of Zipadelli, Logano didn’t quite live up to the “Sliced Bread” label that some tried to hang on him. Nevertheless he scored a gas-mileage-gamble win at New Hampshire and won the rookie title. But he was 20th in the final points standings, a disappointing position compared to some who had come before him in the rookie contest.
Those in this year’s rookie crop likely would do cartwheels if they wound up 20th , and the $100,000 rookie winner’s prize would mean relatively more to them than to a driver with Home Depot’s backing.
Kevin Conway, who is better known as a pitch man for Extenze, the male enhancement product, than for his race driving, is beginning his rookie campaign having run just 25 Nationwide Series races over the past five years, with an average finish of 26.8.
His only other announced competitor, Terry Cook, is a Camping World Truck Series veteran who like Conway has never made a Cup start.
Still, it was refreshing to hear Conway’s optimism and his positive outlook – as well as his realistic, modest goals – when he met with members of the media at Daytona recently.
“Our goal is to stay in the Top 35 and compete for the Raybestos Rookie of the Year title,” he said. “That’s our goal. It’s not doing anything stupid, earning their respect the hard way, by racing door-to-door with them, racing wheel-to-wheel with them and knowing that they can race with you and you’re not going to wreck them, you’re not going to make a poor decision that could cost them the championship or anything like that.”
Cook will drive for team owner Dusty Whitney with Buddy Sisco the crew chief.
The odds are that at some point this season, the two newcomers will miss races, but that shouldn’t be a huge factor in the rookie contest since only a driver’s top 17 finishes are counted.
In the Nationwide Series, the rookie contest will feature relatively inexperienced drivers in proven equipment. Two of them, Colin Braun and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., will wheel potent Fords from Roush Fenway Racing.
Braun will drive the No. 16 while Stenhouse gets the No. 6 in a year in which the only Roush driver running a team car in the Nationwide Series is Carl Edwards, who is running for the championship.
James Buescher is set to drive James Finch’s car, assuming the sponsorship is there as there’s some questions about the continued participation of the Miccosukee Indian tribe. And over at Braun Racing, truck series stand-out Brian Scott is moving up to the No. 2 circuit. And at Penske Racing, Parker Kligerman is a potential rookie candidate despite running just a partial schedule. Only the best 16 finishes are counted in the Nationwide rookie race.
In the Camping World Truck Series, Austin Dillon, driving for his grandfather Richard Childress, heads a class that includes Tim Bainey Jr., Justin Lofton and Tommy Joe Martin.
And as Jimmy White, publicist for the Raybestos-sponsored program points out, there often are some last-minute entries in the contest.
Rick Minter is a veteran, award-winning sports journalist who joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1991 covering motorsports as well as serving as a bureau chief. From 2000-2008 Minter focused on racing exclusively, traveling the NASCAR circuit as the paper’s motorsports writer. Rick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org