That's History! NASCAR's Checkered (flag) Past, One Story at a Time · Amy Henderson · Monday December 4, 2006
Editor’s Note : Amy Henderson is off this week for That’s History. In place of a new column, please enjoy this timely piece originally written back in August, a gentle reminder that new blood is filtering into the Nextel Cup Series…Ready or not.
One of the biggest concerns in the Nextel Cup garage these days is a "lack" of Cup-ready talent in the Busch and Craftsman Truck Series. In the Busch Series, this drop in talent level is largely due to Cup owners scrapping driver development in favor of putting an already proven Cup driver in their Busch seat. But it's also due to a lack of patience on the part of Cup owners and sponsors - they want to win, and they want it NOW. Drivers more than ever before must be ready the second they step foot in a Nextel Cup car - their teams expect nothing less.
Since Tony Stewart came on the Cup scene and won three races as a rookie, the bar has been set even higher. No doubt, some of the very talented drivers who come through the ranks have still been more than ready for the jump. Most recently, Denny Hamlin has proved his readiness with two wins this season, and fellow rookies Martin Truex, Jr., Reed Sorenson, and Clint Bowyer have also shown they can be both patient and consistent. These four were clearly ready to step up to the next level. On the other hand, David Stremme is in over his head in Nextel Cup. Given the same equipment as fellow rookie teammate Sorenson and fourth year driver Casey Mears, Stremme has not shown the same patience, maturity, and ability as his rookie competitors. That's not a knock against him - Stremme simply needed more time in the Busch Series to learn. J.J. Yeley, meanwhile, is almost there. Improving each week, he is using his "double duty" Busch Series season to improve himself in his Cup car.
Scuttlebutt has Robert Yates Racing replacing two proven veterans with two young, inexperienced drivers. Stephen Leicht had a solid if unspectacular Cup debut at Pocono two weeks ago; David Gilliland shocked the world when his independent, unsponsored Busch team beat all challengers in Kentucky. Both are talented driversâ€¦but are they ready for Cup? Being ready doesn't necessarily mean they're going to go out and win three races as rookies. It means qualifying and finishing as well as, if not better than, the equipment provides for; showing patience in the race's middle and late stages, when the longer events usually begin to take their toll; and showing maturity to treat other drivers with the same respect as they give - sometimes more than that.
Well then, who among the Busch and Truck Series drivers of 2006 are really ready for Nextel Cup? Just my opinion, butâ€¦
Let's start with some veterans. Kenny Wallace, Johnny Benson, and Jason Keller could get in a Cup ride and do what the equipment is capable of. Wallace has struggled at times with the new Furniture Row Racing Cup team, but it's been largely Wallace who's responsible for the team making the field as often as it has. Along with a trio of runnerup finishes in Cup, Wallace has always used his equipment to perform at least to its potential, if not better. When he stepped into Steve Park's car in 2001, Wallace accrued the sixth most points from that race until the end of the season.
Benson, meanwhile, is a Cup winner already, with the "young gun" craze forcing him out of the series before he had reached his full potential. Keller, on the verge of his 400th career Busch start, more than once chose a competitive Busch ride over a mediocre Cup car, so he never truly got his foot in the door even though he deserved it. Although Keller has only raced part-time this year, he is still one of the best Busch drivers out there.
From the newer-to-racing set, David Gilliland does look to be the most ready. He makes the most of his equipment, shows a great deal of patience, and is able to overcome mistakes. In his Kentucky win, a slow pit stop put Gilliland back in the rear. Instead of becoming frustrated, David picked his way through the field cleanly, regaining the lead late and never looking back. Johnny Sauter is also at the ready point. More patient and in better equipment than his brothers, Sauter is an aggressive driver, but one who chooses his battles carefully and usually correctly. He does make mistakes, sometimes at the expense of others, but he's fast and confident.
In the veteran category, Todd Bodine, Mike Skinner, and Ted Musgrave could almost get in a Cup car tomorrow. But all three are better suited to the driving style of the Truck Series. Skinner never won a Cup race despite being in top-flight equipment, although he qualified well and led some laps. Musgrave, on the other hand, never had the right equipment to accurately assess his talent int Cup, but he's focused, clean, and able to get the most out of his Truck every week. Bodine has never quite had the patience for Cup, but his aggressive get-to-the-front-at-all-costs attitude has served him well in the Truck Series.
Paul Menard leads the younger set in this category. He's improved vastly since his debut in the Busch Series and only continues to get better. Given fast equipment, he can find speed with the best of them, but he's still an inconsistent qualifier, and sometimes doesn't save his equipment for that crucial last run. He could stay out of trouble in a Cup car, but hasn't shown he's ready to win in the top seriesâ€¦ yet. Also making the list from the "young gun" crowd: Jason Leffler and Jon Wood.
There are a couple of veterans in this category. Jack Sprague and Ron Hornaday have never duplicated their Truck success in stock cars. Despite top equipment (the No. 2 of Richard Childress Racing) in the Busch Series, Hornaday was never a serious title threat, and while Sprague never had great equipment in his Busch and Cup stints, he never showed the driving ability displayed so well. so often in Trucks. Both drivers are in a series where they have successful careers, and that should be enough.
Despite his solid run at Pocono, Stephen Leicht heads this list for the youngsters (largely because he's almost certainly making the leap to Nextel Cup regardless). Leicht's 19, and hasn't even run all of this season in the Busch Series. He has a great deal of talent, but his career will likely be more fruitful if he gets more seasoning before making the leap to the top. Having one or two full, solid Busch Series seasons of contending for wins will do more to ensure a long Cup career than a season of struggling. Another up-and-comer in this category is Aric Almirola. A Truck Series rookie, Almirola showed speed and promise at Milwaukee when he qualified an absent Denny Hamlin's car on the pole. Another fast, aggressive, talented driver, Almirola still needs to learn to take care of his equipment. Ditto for another very fast, very aggressive youngster, Steve Wallace. Once he learns to save his stuff, Wallace will work his way up the ladder. Rounding out this list from the younger set: Ashton Lewis, Jr. and Todd Kluever.
Of course, only a few drivers from the Busch and Truck Series are represented here in this type of conversation. Some will move up or down the list as they race more and learn more, while some of the veterans will get replaced with more youngsters in the coming years. But if a Cup owner is looking for a driver who is really ready for the pressure and grind of a full Cup season at the top, they could do worse then the guys at the top of this list.
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