The Frontstretch: That's History! NASCAR's Checkered (Flag) Past, One Story at a Time: Rookie This by Amy Henderson -- Thursday November 10, 2005

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A lot has changed since I became a NASCAR fan. Drivers and racetracks have come on the scene, replacing others in their twilight. New fans have jumped onto the bandwagon overnight. Some of the changes have been nothing but good for the sport; others have done nothing but hurt. One such change in recent years has been a study in contrast: while the age of young drivers entering NASCAR’s top levels drops, expectations for these “young guns” continues to rise.

The status and role of the rookie racer at the Nextel Cup level has changed dramatically in just the last ten years, let alone the course of racing history. Not that a spectacular young driver didn’t come along occasionally and make headlines; Dale Earnhardt won races in his rookie year, as did other up-and-coming drivers. But that was the exception, not the norm, and certainly not the expectation. Take Jeff Gordon. An exception in the Cup ranks already because of his tender age, Gordon nevertheless had what was then a fairly strong rookie campaign in 1993: no wins, eleven top ten finishes to go with a matching eleven races not finished and a pole. Gordon finished fourteenth in points and won the Rookie of the Year award over Bobby Labonte. Gordon was as likely to tear up a car that year as to record a top finish, yet his Hendrick Motorsports team did not give up on they youngster, and today Gordon is a four-time Cup Champion and Hendrick Motorsports’ senior driver.

Fast forward ten years, and the trend changed dramatically. Beginning with Tony Stewart’s stellar 1999 rookie campaign, the stakes have gone up exponentially even as the relative experience level of some drivers has gone down. (Note, I said relative; many of today’s drivers have been racing something since before they were old enough to go to school, but gained the majority of their experience in something other than stock cars.) Stewart’s rookie season, the one that changed everything, saw three wins, 21 top ten finishes, and just one DNF. Those numbers were good enough to put Stewart fourth in driver points at the end of the year.

And since that year, the expectations and role of a rookie driver have been forever changed. A respectable rookie season is no longer enough to give that driver time to grow and mature in the driver’s seat, as there are ever more young drivers waiting to fill that seat. Just nine years after Jeff Gordon’s debut, two more rookies came onto the scene and made their own attempt to rewrite the record books. Ryan Newman was the 2002 Rookie of the Year on the strength of a win, fourteen top-fives, 22 top-tens, and six poles. Newman won the pole more often than he failed to finish a race, which he did just five times. The runner-up that year was Jimmie Johnson, a model of consistency even as a rookie, became the first rookie in Cup series history to lead the point standings. Johnson finished fifth in points that year, Newman sixth. Gordon, by then a veteran on the circuit, finished fourth in points on the strength of 13 top-five finishes and only 3 DNF’s, had one less top-ten than Johnson, two less than Newman.

The expectations-and often the results-of rookie drivers have continued to be more on the level of Stewart, Johnson, and Newman’s freshman campaigns than even on the respectable numbers put up by Gordon just a dozen years ago. Though competing in ten races last fall makes Carl Edwards not a true rookie, in his first full year on the Cup circuit, has four wins and sits third in points with two races remaining. In addition, Edwards is car owner Jack Roush’s best shot at a third championship. History is being rewritten for the young drivers coming into NASCAR racing these days. Past accomplishments and progress sometimes go hand in hand, making that history.

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