It’s no surprise that at the end of this season, legendary drivers will be leaving the sport, and several high quality rides will be opening up. It’s been a growing trend in NASCAR’s top division; veteran drivers are slowly being phased out of the sport by "young gun" drivers. Sometimes these rookie drivers will have no problem finding success and stardom, as was the case with Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, and even Jamie McMurray. But other times, rookie drivers will find themselves unable to meet the standards of competing in Nextel Cup competition, and soon find themselves out of a ride. Such was the case for Johnny Sauter in 2004, when he began the season in Richard Childress’s 30 car, but was replaced at the halfway point.
So what do team owners look for in rookie drivers? What exactly is the next big thing in NASCAR? There was a time when all a driver needed to do was race a car and do their best to find victory lane. Today, drivers need to make media appearances, sign autographs, and a have enough personality so that they may fulfill a superstar-like appearance. Today’s drivers need to be concerned more about appearance and political correctness for the media, and a driver that cannot master those skills can never become a NASCAR legend.
For many seasons, it has seemed that success on the track and success with the fans are inversely related. A rookie driver will either have great racing skills and a relatively strained relationship with the fans, or a rookie driver will be a fan favorite driver with little success on the track. Take Kasey Kahne, for example. Kahne is one of the most loved drivers on the circuit; however, after nearly a year and a half on the circuit he has only one win to his name. and has yet to solidify a position in the Chase for the Championship. Another example could be Kurt Busch. Busch had a strong start to his Nextel Cup career, however a controversial incident with Jimmy Spencer cost Busch the respect and admiration of several NASCAR fans.
Often times team owners must make the decision to hire a successful driver, or a driver with incredible charisma and media skills. The sponsors need to see their team win races, but fans that are dedicated to their drivers will be supportive of the sponsor as well. Only rarely will a driver appear on the circuit that can possess skills for winning races and winning over fans. Carl Edwards, for instance, has two wins this season and a growing list of fans that want his autograph and sponsors that want to support him. He seems to be the only young driver on the Nextel Cup circuit that has both attained success and support from the fans.
So what does this mean for drivers and teams today? Basically, it shows how a team will either be a consistent contender on the track, or the spotlight of the cameras. NASCAR’s next big thing will be a driver that can contend for race wins while gaining support from the fans. A rookie can win every race in the season, but it will mean very little if they do not have fan support. NASCAR is a highly competitive sport that is fueled by the fans, so in order for a driver to become the next legendary name, they need to win championships and maintain a fan base. Has the next legend made their start in Nextel Cup competition already? If not, when will they make their first start in the top division? These are all excellent questions that are open to debate, however, only time can tell which driver will master both the sport and the fans, and stand out among all the others several years from now.
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