The Frontstretch: Going By the Numbers: Despite Newcomers, Debuts Drop Off in 2013 by Kevin Rutherford -- Tuesday September 17, 2013

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Going By the Numbers: Despite Newcomers, Debuts Drop Off in 2013

Going By the Numbers · Kevin Rutherford · Tuesday September 17, 2013

 

This weekend, Kevin Swindell will make his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut, driving Swan Racing’s No. 30 at New Hampshire.


With drivers like Justin Allgaier making their Cup debuts on 2013, you’d think there were more rookies to be found. You would be wrong.

Swindell is slated to become the eighth different driver to make his Sprint Cup debut in 2013, following in the footsteps of Justin Allgaier, Ryan Truex and a bevy of drivers who debuted on one of the road courses, including Alex Kennedy, Victor Gonzalez Jr., Justin Marks, Paulie Harraka and Owen Kelly.

He’ll join Jeb Burton as the two drivers making their debuts this week. Burton will start his first Nationwide Series race at Kentucky for Turner Scott Motorsports.

Overall, Swindell and Burton’s debut will mark the 49th time a driver will have made his or her debut in one of NASCAR’s top three series in 2013. Of those, 29 are complete newcomers, having never driven in Cup, Nationwide or Camping World Trucks before this season.

With two months to go in the season, that’s not exactly a huge number.

These days, NASCAR is lauded for finally pumping some new blood into the sport. This season’s Cup rookie battle is the first actual, you know, battle in years, and the trend is expected to continue in 2014, with at least two rookies joining the series. A number of other newcomers have joined the NASCAR ranks recently, from the recent Cup debuts of drivers like Swindell and Allgaier to the highly successful maiden voyage for Erik Jones and Chase Elliott in the Truck Series.

But in total, there are 22 races left across the top three series, providing an increasingly shrinking window of opportunity for racers to make the jump to a new circuit. Two months may seem like a hefty amount of time, but just as this season as a whole has done, it will fly by.

Consider, in comparison, the previous five years of NASCAR racing. In 2008, a driver made his or her debut in one of the top three series 65 times. That number jumped to 69 in 2009, and then to 72 in 2010. The following year saw a substantial drop, with only 57 debuts occurring. Last year saw another increase — 65 overall.

In order to match 2012’s amount, 15 different drivers will have to make their series debut, or a lesser amount if one competitor, say, races for the first time in two different series — something not totally uncommon, as is the case of Chad Hackenbracht in 2013. Getting this to happen 15 times isn’t unreachable, but it is a tall order. This weekend, Swindell and Burton are scheduled to be the only driver in the Cup or Nationwide series running for the first time, unless the preliminary entry list for either race changes by raceday.

So while it’s true that a good crop of newcomers have been ascending the NASCAR ranks, the overall amount of new drivers has actually taken a dip in 2013, barring an onslaught of rookies before the end of the year.

Even the amount of true rookies has declined. Last year, 36 drivers raced in NASCAR’s top three divisions for the first time, coming from other established series such as ARCA or regional NASCAR touring circuits. Among the most high profile of these newcomers were Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney and Darrell Wallace Jr., all of whom have made significant contributions to the Nationwide and Truck series this year. In order to match that number, seven drivers will have to come out of the woodwork for the first time. One of those spots could be filled by the impending debut of John Hunter Nemechek at the Camping World Truck Series event at Martinsville next month, barring his qualification into the race. Mike Senica is also supposed to debut for Mike Harmon Racing later this season.

Getting a substantial amount of newbies in races before the end of the season would actually fill NASCAR’s more recent quota; 33 drivers were true rookies in 2011, so the number has hovered in the lower 30s in recent years. However, 2010 and 2009 actually supplied 48 and 46 new drivers, respectively. There is still a ways to go.

The decreasing numbers reflect one big problem with the three major series in NASCAR: lack of variety.

Think about it. In the Sprint Cup Series, the same 44-46 teams tend to come out every week. There’s actually very little shakeup; the Wood Bros.’ No. 21 and Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 are the only major part-time teams, while Xxxtreme Motorsports, Brian Keselowski Racing and a second Circle Sport Racing car are the only other teams around. Some of the larger organizations, like Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske Racing, have supplied extra cars in choice races this season, but that’s few and far between.

Same goes for the Nationwide and Truck series. Many of the teams one sees racing are around each week, with the occasional part-time organization thrown in for good measure. Some teams even split an entire number, like R3 Motorsports and Rick Ware Racing (No. 23) in the Nationwide Series.

Years ago, things were different. There was a better chance of a one-off car or an upstart organization coming out to race, especially in the lower series. Oftentimes these cars would be piloted by local guys and girls, or perhaps young up-and-comers trying to make a name for themselves against the big guns. While that still happens on occasion in NASCAR, it’s not nearly as prevalent as it once was, owed on a grand scale to the rising costs of competing in NASCAR.

Consider also the diminishing allure of putting a young, fairly unproven driver in peak equipment. This weekend’s Nationwide race is interesting in that there are no Cup drivers entered — not even in the Nos. 22, 33 and 54. That hasn’t been the case for much of the season, meaning that rides that could have gone to developing talent instead are given to Cup drivers who have already proven themselves in the series.

As a result, the amount of debuts drop. Drivers who were either given a shot in the past or straight-up made their own shot happen are struggling to reach that point. Last year may have been a bright spot in comparison to fairly disappointing returns recently, but the total of 36 drivers who had never run a Sprint Cup, Nationwide or Truck race before 2012 just isn’t the number one should be proud of. Reaching that point, let alone the 65 debuts in all made in 2012, is a tall order indeed for NASCAR to finish out 2013.

The ascent of Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, the Dillons, Erik Jones and more are not to be discounted. They are among some of the brightest young stars NASCAR has had in a long while, and the fact that we’re talking about any young talent at all is a marked improvement.

But the pool could be larger. Sure, for every promising talent, you get a backmarker that doesn’t do anything their entire career, however brief or long it might be. Still, though new faces are entering the sport, things aren’t at the point they need to be just yet. 2013 has shown that.

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Russ
09/18/2013 08:22 AM
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As the sport continues to contract there will be fewer and fewer opportunities for young drivers. There is nothing on the horizon to indicate that that will change.