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Often times in NASCAR’s top division a driver will begin their career with a lot of media attention. From the time their rookie status is announced, and continuing all throughout testing at Daytona, these drivers are hyped up to be the next superstar in the sport. While it is rare for drivers to find instant success at the start of their career, it is becoming even rarer for new drivers in Nextel Cup to find immediate success on the track. Drivers are entering the series at younger and younger ages these days, and in many instances these drivers are leaving the sport much quicker than they made their debut.
There are two perfect examples of how quickly tides can turn in the sport. Last season Johnny Sauter began piloting the 30 car for Richard Childress, and received much of the media’s attention during the early stages of the season. However, he was quickly removed from the car, and found himself without a ride for the second half of the Nextel Cup season. Earlier this year, Jason Leffler entered Nextel Cup racing for Joe Gibbs Racing, and with teammates like Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart, many people thought Leffler would become a great name in Nextel Cup. Now, with the season just past halfway, rumors are already swirling that Leffler will be out of a job in the coming weeks.
Scott Wimmer, Brian Vickers, Casey Mears and Bobby Hamilton, Jr. all entered Nextel Cup competition with ample attention from the media, but have yet to earn a win. Aside from a few strong runs, these drivers have yet to show they can earn consistent top finishes. It’s a common theme in NASCAR nowadays…a “young gun” driver will be the center of the racing world at Daytona, yet will find himself struggling to remain in the drivers seat by the halfway point of the season.
There are actions that can be taken to ensure that these rookie drivers will have a strong start to their career. Perhaps team owners should not be so quick to release their drivers when they don’t have stellar performances. For example, Greg Biffle didn’t break many records in his rookie year, and didn’t earn Rookie of the Year honors despite winning a race. Roush didn’t release Biffle because of all his struggles, and now Greg Biffle is second in the points standings and is contending for his first championship.
Perhaps drivers are being brought into the series too quickly. Many high quality rides are open which may intimidate or influence a young rookie driver, or perhaps it is just too sudden a move for a driver to adapt to. If I were a team owner bringing a rookie into the series, I would give him a part-time ride beforehand, allowing him to gain experience before being placed in a full-time ride contending for the championship.
But for the time being, it seems as if “young guns” moving up too soon will become a growing trend in NASCAR. NASCAR is a sport that demands constant success if a championship is to be won, and full-time drivers who can’t find that simply don’t have anything to offer to an owner with no patience. Today there are two types of rookie drivers; those that will find fame and success almost immediately, and those that will find themselves struggling to retain their ride in Nextel Cup.
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