Thomas Bowles · Sunday February 5, 2006
As the 2006 season dawns and cars get ready to roll into Daytona, there’s a last-minute touch being added to the back of many Nextel Cup cars: the dreaded yellow stripe.
That’s right. After a lean year where only a handful of qualified Nextel Cup rookies entered the fray, "˜06 brings a banner year of youngsters not often seen, even in the new era of "young gun" wheelmen. No fewer than seven drivers with full-time, sponsored teams have entered the race for Rookie-of-the-Year, the highest official number of ROTY candidates at this time since 1994.
Unlike the class of over a decade ago, though, this group of rookies comes in with serious support, aligned with top-quality teams and cars capable of winning a race sooner rather than later. Owner names like Childress, Ganassi, Earnhardt, and Gibbs give these men immediate credibility and opportunity in a world where "winning now" as a rookie is increasingly expected.
In taking an in-depth look at each rookie driver and their qualifications, all seven possess some type of Busch Series background, with differing results. Drivers such as Martin Truex, Jr., Clint Bowyer, and Denny Hamlin made the logical transition to Nextel Cup after successful seasons in the "junior circuit," while others such as J.J. Yeley and Brent Sherman made more questionable decisions to move up after disappointing seasons in that same series. But as Tony Stewart proved in 1999, you don’t have to be a winner in the Busch Series to become highly successful at the Nextel Cup level, and very quickly at that.
Let’s take a look at each rookie’s resume heading into 2006, their prospects for a win, and most importantly, their odds to take home this year’s Nextel Cup Rookie-of-the-Year Trophy:
#1 "" Martin Truex, Jr. "" Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet
Owner: Dale Earnhardt, Inc. (Teresa Earnhardt)
Earned His Opportunity By"¦ Winning both the 2004 & 2005 Busch Series Championship.
Nextel Cup Stats to Date: 9 Starts, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s.
Best Nextel Cup Finish: 7th, 2005 Coca-Cola 600 (Lowe’s).
Analysis: After 2 championship-winning years in the Busch Series, Truex finally gets his chance at racing’s top level, teaming up with good buddy Dale Earnhardt, Jr. to form the new 2-car Dale Earnhardt, Inc. (Paul Menard will run with a third team in selected races). Brought up slowly but surely in the same fashion as his mentor (Earnhardt was the ’98 and ’99 Busch Champ before getting the nod for Cup in 2000) Truex has shown both consistency and maturity during his stint in Busch, winning at every type of track from the winding road course at Mexico City to the restrictor-plate drafting monster of Talladega. Calm and collected on the track, Truex is not known for the rookie shortfall of tearing up equipment, and his Busch team remains almost completely intact in his move up to Cup.
Truex will win ROTY if"¦ The chemistry between himself and crew chief Kevin Manion continues as the two transition into Nextel Cup. One of the most underrated crew chiefs in the business, Manion is on his way to being ranked with the likes of Knaus, Zipadelli, and Fennig within the next few years. Add Truex’s usual consistency, what you need to win a rookie-of-the-year battle, and this team will be very, very tough to beat.
Bumps in the road if"¦ DEI’s equipment is not up to par. Truex is driving for an organization that won just one race last season, failing to put either car in the Top 10 in points for the first time in history. The equipment won’t get better overnight"¦also, Truex being with good buddy Earnhardt every weekend in the wild world of Nextel Cup could be a potential distraction if the two do too much partyin’ and too little racin’. Overall, though, it’s difficult not to label him the favorite.
Best Shot to Win a Race: Dover. The hometown track for Truex, who grew up in nearby Marietta, NJ, he has finished no worse than second there in his past four Busch Series starts. Expect a similar performance in Nextel Cup.
Odds to Win 2006 ROTY: 3-1.
#11 "" Denny Hamlin "" Fed Ex Chevrolet
Owner: Joe Gibbs.
Earned His Opportunity By"¦ Finishing 5th in 2005 Busch Series Points while performing above expectations in a late-season call-up to Nextel Cup.
Nextel Cup Stats to Date: 7 Starts, 0 Top 5s, 3 Top 10s, 1 Pole (Phoenix).
Best Nextel Cup Finish: 7th (Texas).
Analysis: Truex may have the championships, but Denny Hamlin enters the 2006 Rookie race with the most momentum. Not only does Hamlin drive for 2005 Nextel Cup Champion car owner Joe Gibbs, but the native Virginian backed up a late-season promotion to the #11 Fed Ex ride in 2005 with instant results. Three Top 10s in seven starts, including a pole and 23 laps led in Phoenix, were easily the best finishes for a program that struggled to even snag a finish in the Top 25 with former driver Jason Leffler earlier in the year. That performance, combined with a solid rookie year in Busch in which Hamlin had only 3 DNF’s in 35 starts, earned him the ride full-time for 2006.
Hamlin Will Win ROTY if"¦ He catches fire in the first few races of 2006. Momentum is everything in this sport, and Hamlin certainly has it"¦if this team comes out of the box with 3 or 4 Top 10s in the first six races, they could be unstoppable.
Bumps in the Road if"¦ Hamlin gets knocked down a peg early. The team has yet to deal with adversity in Hamlin’s seven stops on the Nextel Cup tour, and don’t forget Hamlin has just one Top 5 in the Busch Series and less than 50 races in Busch or Truck to his credit. The soft-spoken young man was put in a no-pressure situation in 2005, and with an intense rookie battle and raised expectations, he could be feeling the heat if he falls behind.
Best Shot to Win a Race: Phoenix. Hamlin won the pole and led 23 laps early in November before inexperience set in, sending him into an on-track spin and a 13th-place finish in the final rundown. Doubt he’ll make the same mistakes this time around.
Odds to Win 2006 ROTY: 6-1.
#07 "" Clint Bowyer "" Jack Daniel’s Chevrolet
Owner: Richard Childress.
Earned his Opportunity By"¦ Finishing Runner-Up in the 2005 Busch Series Standings to Martin Truex, Jr.
Nextel Cup Stats to Date: 1 Start, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 22nd (Phoenix).
Analysis: After Dave Blaney performed the worst of Childress’ 3 drivers in what was a mediocre season at best for his Nextel Cup operation, Childress gave Blaney the boot, paving the way to give his Busch Series sensation Bowyer a shot at Nextel Cup. Certainly, the young man looked ready by the end of ’05, making a spirited charge at Truex in the standings with a win and 4 Top 10s to close out the year, falling 68 points short of the title. With 2 wins and 12 Top 5s, Bowyer showed the all-important consistency he lacked in a half-season during 2004 in which he crashed in his first Busch Series start and nearly didn’t survive the year. A virtual unknown entering 2005, he came out of nowhere to become a contender; can he take it to another level with raised expectations in ’06?
Bowyer Will Win ROTY If"¦ He continues to stay out of trouble. Bowyer recorded just one DNF in 35 Busch Series starts during ’05, remarkable for a series known for young drivers who get overaggressive and tear up equipment. Consistency is half the battle in the ROTY race, and simply finishing all 36 races will give Bowyer an advantage perhaps no one but Truex can match.
Bumps in the Road If"¦ Bowyer’s Busch Series cars were top of the line, but the ride he inherited by Blaney is anything but. The car was driven to just 2 Top 5s through all of 2005, and Childress’ third team has never seen Victory Lane since its inception in 2001. Not only that, but none of Childress’ three teams made the Chase in ’05"¦and #1 RCR driver Kevin Harvick is rumored to leave at the end of ’06. Not exactly the perfect situation to start your Nextel Cup career.
Best Shot to Win a Race: California. Bowyer has adapted quickly to the largest track out West, winning a Busch pole there in 2005 and posting a 4th and a 3rd place finish in 2 starts.
Odds to Win 2006 ROTY: 10-1.
#41 "" Reed Sorenson "" Target Dodge
Owner: Chip Ganassi.
Earned his Opportunity By"¦ Finishing 4th in the 2005 Busch Series Standings, and staying put when Ganassi’s other drivers left or got kicked out.
Nextel Cup Stats to Date: 2 Starts, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 28th (Homestead).
Analysis: Early on in 2005, Reed Sorenson was the year’s hot young stud, sharing space with Carl Edwards as the sport’s newest star to watch. An early Busch win at Nashville in his 11th Busch start was followed by one at Gateway in midseason, vaulting the 19-year-old into contention in the Busch Title race. But one August day at Bristol, tires were soaked, Reed’s team was caught, and crew chief Brian Pattie found himself sitting on the sideline for a month. Both Sorenson and the team struggled after that, leading just 18 laps in the last 10 races of the Busch season; however, with two of Ganassi’s three Nextel Cup drivers leaving the fort in 2006, Chip and Felix Sabates still thought the best course of action was to promote from within, giving the Georgia youngster a shot at the next level at the ripe old age of 20.
Sorenson Will Win ROTY If"¦ He finds the form he showed early in the 2005 Busch Series, where he was the driver to beat throughout much of the first quarter of the season.
Bumps in the Road If"¦ Sorenson fails to gel with new crew chief Jimmy Elledge. Not only that, but the 20-year-old faces an organization with another rookie driver in David Stremme, a manufacturer struggling with major aerodynamic issues in Dodge, and a team that has yet to reach Victory Lane since it was established in 2002. Too many obstacles to overcome, it seems.
Best Shot to Win a Race: Hard to see it happening, but if it does, Texas will be the spot in the Fall. Ganassi cars always run well there, and Sorenson had 2 Top 5 finishes at the track during 2005.
Odds to Win 2006 ROTY: 25-1.
#40 "" David Stremme "" Coors Light/Lone Star Steakhouse Dodge
Owner: Chip Ganassi.
Earned his Opportunity By"¦ Performing admirably for several years in the Busch Series under Chip Ganassi’s watch.
Nextel Cup Stats to Date: 4 Starts, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 16th (Chicagoland).
Analysis: After bouncing around in the Busch Series for several years, Stremme finally gets his big break, replacing Sterling Marlin in the Coors Light/Lone Star Steakhouse Dodge for 2006. After 87 starts in the Busch Series, Stremme has yet to win a race, but hasn’t necessarily been with the top-tier Busch teams either, landing with the Braun Racing and FitzBradshaw efforts the last two seasons. He had a reasonable 2005, posting 10 Top 10s in the Navy Dodge for FitzBradshaw while finishing a modest 13th in Busch points. The 2003 Busch ROTY, the 28-year-old Stremme actually finds himself one of the older rookie contenders, putting him in the unenviable position of "one-and-done" should he struggle in the Nextel Cup ranks. He’ll need that motivation, and then some.
Stremme Will Win ROTY If"¦ Ganassi has a miraculous resurgence in both equipment and personnel, and Stremme and new crew chief Jeff Vandermoss hit it off instantaneously.
Bumps in the Road If"¦ Sterling Marlin’s former team continues to resemble what it was the past two seasons, a shadow of the former championship powerhouse it once was. Stremme also has the tendency to wreck, suffering 7 DNF’s due to accidents in Busch in 2005, as well as 3 accident DNF’s in 4 Nextel Cup starts. If that type of record transitions into Nextel Cup full-time, Stremme won’t stand a chance.
Best Shot to Win a Race: Don’t See It Happening.
Odds to Win ROTY: 75-1.
#18 "" J.J. Yeley – Interstate Batteries Chevrolet
Owner: Joe Gibbs.
Earned his Opportunity By"¦ Being One of Joe Gibbs’ Top Two Development Drivers When Bobby Labonte Decided to Leave for Petty Enterprises.
Nextel Cup Stats to Date: 6 Starts, 0 Top 5s, 0 Top 10s.
Best Finish: 25th (Dover).
Analysis: After one-and-a-half seasons in the Busch Series, Yeley found himself at the center of a tough decision by president J.D. Gibbs: should he keep J.J. in Busch despite subpar success in the Series, bringing him up to Cup with no wins and an 11th-place finish in the points in 2005 despite solid support? Or, with J.J. likely a year away from being ready for the big-time, would he promote him to Nextel Cup and suffer during Year 1 instead of hiring a veteran to act as a one-year stopgap in the wake of Bobby Labonte’s departure? Gibbs chose the latter, hoping Yeley’s performance in the Busch Series meant as much as Tony Stewart’s 1998 Busch Record before he busted onto the Nextel Cup scene in 1999.
Yeley Will Win ROTY If"¦ He simply pulls a Tony Stewart, adapting quickly and efficiently to the Cup car, leaning heavily on the 2-time Nextel Cup champion’s support and advice to take his driving to the next level, surprising everyone on the Nextel Cup tour.
Bumps in the Road If"¦ Yeley can’t keep the car off the wall. That’s the difference between Yeley and Stewart"¦Stewart’s first Nextel Cup start came in the 1999 Daytona 500, while we’ve already got 6 glimpses of Yeley in a Nextel Cup car. Four of those six starts have resulted in accidents, including twice in a month when Yeley was auditioning for Gibbs’ #11 Nextel Cup ride. Add to that this team is the worst supported financially of the 3 Gibbs cars, one which lost confidence early due to a weak start Yeley is likely to provide again for them in ’06, and J.J. could have a tough learning curve ahead.
Best Shot to Win a Race: In a one-off event with the USAC Silver Crown Series.
Odds to Win 2006 ROTY: 100-1.
#49 "" Brent Sherman – Schwan’s/Serta/Hickory Farms Dodge
Owner: Beth Ann Morganthau.
Earned his Opportunity By"¦ Bringing Sponsorship Money to the Team.
Nextel Cup Stats to Date: None.
Best Finish: None.
Analysis: Clearly, Sherman enters the year the biggest underdog of the seven rookies. The only rookie in the race past his 30th birthday, Sherman will drive for a single-car team that simply struggled to be competitive during the past two years with Ken Schrader. Sherman does have 27 Busch starts and a runner-up finish in the ARCA Championship back in 2004 to his credit. But he has yet to win a race in either series, and clearly has the least experience of any of the rookies, which doesn’t bode well for a team already behind the 8 ball.
Sherman Will Win ROTY If"¦ The six other candidates all withdraw.
Bumps in the Road If"¦ By bumps in the road, we’re talking about finishing the season. With the increase in full-time teams, staying inside the Top 35 in owner points will be critical for qualifying purposes in 2006. The 49 team does have a guaranteed spot for the first five races, but a slow start puts them out of that position and brings up the possibility of a DNQ. Hope Brent has his sponsors prepared for that possibility"¦there may be a few Sundays sitting at home before 2006 is over.
Best Shot to Win a Race: None.
Odds to Win ROTY: 1000-1.
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