CUP: Small Field Doesn’t Tarnish Top Rookie Award

One of the drivers being honored during Champion's Week in Las Vegas isn’t exactly a household name.

In fact, a lot of NASCAR fans might scratch their heads and ask, “Kevin who?’’

The name is Kevin Conway and the 31-year-old driver from Cornelius, N.C., is the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Raybestos Rookie of the Year.

It wasn’t a particularly triumphant effort. After the early part of the season when equally unknown Terry Cook contested for rookie honors and failed to qualify for eight of the first 14 races, Conway had things all to himself. He beat Cook 227-55 in the rookie points.

Not that anybody was paying much attention.

This was certainly not the story of Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart or Kyle Busch or Kasey Kahne or Juan Pablo Montoya or Joey Logano – all rookies of the year in the past. The list of first-year honorees is almost a Who’s Who of NASCAR stars.

So maybe that bodes well for Conway, who seems somewhat in shock over his honor.

“Well, it’s been a crazy year, both on and off the race track, for me,’’ he said. “(I) started off definitely getting thrown into the deep end of the pool, but it’s been a year that it’s been unforgettable and it’s been a year where I feel like I’ve really grown a lot as a race car driver and as a person off the racetrack.’’

Conway began the year driving for Front Row Motorsports and, with only 25 races in the Nationwide Series over a five-year span, the intention was the have him continue his learning curve by driving full-time in 2010 in the second-tier series.

But, along came sponsor ExtenZe and the team owner, Bob Jenkins, decided to move Conway right into Cup. Conway, the team’s only fully-sponsored driver, struggled, rotating through three different team cars to keep him in the top 35 before finally parting ways with Front Row late in the summer.

But ExtenZe decided to stick with the young driver and moved with him to Robby Gordon Motorsports, where Conway finished out the season.

In all, he drove in 28 of the 36 Cup races and had a best finish of 14th in the July race at Daytona – also the best finish in the five-year history of Front Row Motorsports. Otherwise, the season was hardly distinguished. Still, he turned a lot of laps and gained a lot of valuable seat time.

“It’s been an awesome opportunity and privilege, and driving with teams that kind of goes back to the old days where it seems like you’re driving for smaller independent teams clawing their way trying to make their stronghold in the sport,’’ Conway explained. “And, when you combine that with a rookie driver, (it) makes for a steep learning curve.

“I had some awesome people around me this year and a lot of support and people that helped to make this possible, and it’s certainly been a dream come true, for sure.’’

Conway hopes to drive for Gordon again next season and the team is working on sponsorship. They plan to announce their plans after the big awards weekend in Las Vegas.

If things go the way Conway would like, he will run both Nationwide and Cup in 2011.

“The more seat time we get, the better,’’ Conway said. “We’re hoping to be able to announce our plans soon and I’m excited to get going again in Daytona (in February).

“I guess a lot of people were surprised that we won Rookie of the Year, but it’s something that we can really build on in the future.’’

Meanwhile, Conway should enjoy rubbing elbows with NASCAR’s elite this week. There’s no guarantees that he’ll pass this way again.

On the other hand, who would have guessed Conway would be celebrating with the big boys in Vegas this year? Who knows? This could be the start of something big.

Mike Harris was the long-time auto racing beat writer for the Associated Press and is now a frequent contributor to Harris can be reached at