Racing to the Point · Brett Poirier · Tuesday June 25, 2013
A few weeks back at Stafford Motor Speedway (Conn.), I spoke with one of this year’s NASCAR’s Next stars, Ryan Preece, about the Nationwide ride he secured with Scott Lagasse Racing/Tommy Baldwin Racing at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Preece, 22, the current NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour points leader and winner of the last two races, compared his phone call with Tommy Baldwin with the infamous one Steve Park had in 1996 with Dale Earnhardt. For those of you who don’t know the story, Park — the Whelen Modified Tour points leader at the time — hung up on Earnhardt when he called because he thought it was one of his friends playing a prank.
It wasn’t, and the next year Park was racing for the championship in top-flight equipment for Earnhardt in the Nationwide Series. One year later, he was driving for Earnhardt in Cup. That was how quickly things came together.
Preece and Park were both at the top of the same developmental series and both received surprising phone calls from NASCAR owners, but that’s about where the similarities end. Park was given a year to race for Rookie of the Year and the Nationwide title in 1997, while Preece was given one race with a team that hasn’t attempted to race since Las Vegas. Oh yeah, and of course Preece had to find some sponsorship to bring with him.
Preece is ecstatic about the opportunity, by the way, because it is just that, an opportunity. Those have become exceedingly rare these days. It seems it’s harder than ever for a young, talented driver such as Preece to break through.
Martin Truex Jr’s victory on Sunday reminded me of that. Dale Earnhardt Jr. plucked Truex Jr. from the K&N Pro Series (the Busch North back then) to race on his Nationwide team in 2003. There hasn’t been a whole lot of plucking out of that series since then. The only two drivers who really made their marks in that series and remain in Cup, Nationwide or Trucks today are Joey Logano and Darrell Wallace Jr. That’s over a 10-year span.
And no, I’m not including Travis Pastrana, who used money and his fame to get into the Nationwide Series, not his driving talent in the K&N Pro Series. The K&N Pro Series certainly isn’t the only developmental series for potential NASCAR drivers. It’s a big country and there are lots of forms of racing to get noticed in, but the development in one of NASCAR’s premier developmental series has been alarming.
This is also alarming: out of the young drivers coming up the ranks, how many are doing it without the help of their last name — Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliot, Jeb Burton, Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon — or without sponsorship that will follow them anywhere — Brian Scott, John Wes Townley, Eric McClure, Paul Menard, Danica Patrick?
My point isn’t to say that any of these drivers don’t belong because most of them have proven that they do. I’m just trying to show how difficult it is for someone that doesn’t have the name or extreme sponsorship support to get there.
When young drivers outside of that box do get opportunities, it’s often for one race like Preece or maybe a handful of races. It has to be difficult for NASCAR owners to decipher exactly what they have in such a small sample size. Imagine Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was only given that long with Jack Roush or Tony Stewart was only given that long with Joe Gibbs Racing in Nationwide. It took them both a while to figure out the cars like it does most drivers. If those drivers were only afforded the opportunities many of today’s young stars are afforded, they surely wouldn’t be where they are today.
It’s a tough landscape even at the top, and there is no bigger proof of that than the recent Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year contests. It used to mean something to win that award. Jimmie Johnson (2002) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2000) each won two races in their rookie seasons and didn’t win the award. That’s how competitive some classes were. That is the thing of the past.
This year, we have our most competitive race in recent memory — it’s between the happy couple, Stenhouse Jr. and Patrick. Whoever wins it will have their names etched in the annals of time alongside the likes of Andy Lally (bagging groceries at Stop & Shop) and Kevin Conway (Subway sandwich artist).
Those drivers won because there was no one else. Development has hit a bit of a standstill in NASCAR, and it has to be frustrating for the talented drivers out there who are taking all the right steps, winning all the big races, and still aren’t getting noticed. Preece’s story certainly has some similarities to Park’s, but because of changing times, Preece would almost need a miracle to reach the heights Park reached, and it’s a shame because he just might have the talent to match.
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