Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Monday April 10, 2006
20 years ago, that word meant everything to how a driver performed on the track. But does it really mean half as much as it used to?
Back in the day, asking about a rookie after a race would have been followed by a few choice curse words (depending on whose driver they wrecked that day), a couple of laughs, and a follow-up question of, "How many laps behind did that rookie finish?" Handed underfunded cars and outdated equipment, first-year drivers had to fight to just stay in sight of the experienced veterans surrounding them, hoping enough cars fell out during the race that they might be able to sneak their hunk of junk into the final box score with a Top 10.
Sure, there were exceptions to the rule every now and then. Morgan Shepherd and Ron Bouchard won races as rookies back in 1981. The late Davey Allison won a few back in 1987. But by and large, rookies were relegated to the back of the finishing order"¦where they would stay for a couple of years until they latched on to better rides.
Like a snap of the fingers, NASCAR’s growth changed all that. Jeff Gordon’s success in 1993, backed by both a well-funded team and organization in Hendrick Motorsports, not only thrust Gordon immediately into the spotlight, but proved young drivers could be successful if given the right opportunity. It took a few years, but Gordon’s experience laid the groundwork for drivers like Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jimmie Johnson, and Ryan Newman to come into top-notch rides with both the equipment and the support surrounding them to win races"¦not in a few years, but right away.
Which brings us to today’s crop of seven youngsters looking to take the Nextel Cup world by storm, from which five have stood out so far. J.J. Yeley. Reed Sorenson. Clint Bowyer. Martin Truex, Jr. Denny Hamlin. Names that a few years ago no fan in their right mind would have predicted as 2006 Nextel Cup winners, may now all be just a few races away from etching their names in the record books. Busch Series veterans, all aligned with solid Cup teams, all poised and positioned with the equipment and experience needed to take their cars to the front.
And take to the front they did on Sunday, with all five showing strength in what may have been the best day yet for this talented crop of youngsters at the Cup level. Only Hamlin and Truex were able to cash in on their strong performances with Top 10 finishes"¦but Yeley, Bowyer, and Sorenson each found themselves with a Top 5 car at some point throughout the day. At one point, as many as three of the five rookies were threatening to finish in the Top 5, a feat that hasn’t happened since Ward Burton, Joe Nemechek, and Jeff Burton stretched their fuel mileage to the limit to finish 2nd, 3rd, and 4th at Pocono back in June of 1994.
Funny that 1994 group should come up, because that really is the best comparison to this year’s rookie crop. That year was following the loss of stars Allison and Alan Kulwicki to helicopter crashes and produced a rookie boom to compensate, with no less than eight drivers competing for Rookie of the Year. Of those eight, five have gone on to win Nextel Cup races (Joe Nemechek, Ward Burton, Jeff Burton, John Andretti, and Jeremy Mayfield). That’s the highest number of drivers to visit Victory Lane of any Nextel Cup rookie class in the modern era. Ironically though, despite all that talent, none of them were able to break through and win a race in their first year.
At first, I didn’t think any of this year’s rookies would break through, either, but now that opinion has shifted from "if" to "how many." Hamlin has already won a non-points paying race in the Bud Shootout, and just posted a rookie-best 4th at Texas. With Phoenix coming up, a track where Hamlin won the pole and led in just his 6th Nextel Cup start, he may find himself a Nextel Cup winner before the end of April.
Bowyer, meanwhile, has been a model of consistency, leading the rookie points by posting finishes inside the Top 20 while failing to complete just 11 laps on the season. With the whole RCR team on a charge to the front, who’s to say some track won’t put him at the right place at the right time this season. Truex, two-time Busch Series champion, had struggled a bit getting out of the gate, but has the Tony Stewart-like effect of only getting better as the year goes on. Sorenson and Yeley have both been pleasant surprises for teams going nowhere throughout most of 2005"¦with the enthusiasm and energy those young kids have pumped into their programs, who’s to say Victory Lane is out of reach?
Of course, these five have advantages the rookies of 1994 would never have dreamed of. This year, testing is limited"¦but why test when four of the five are running the majority of Busch Series races on the side to gain experience? Qualifying can also make rookie drivers a nervous wreck, as not-so-lucky rookie Brent Sherman has proven recently with the dreaded DNQ"¦but why bother to get all worked up when you’re locked into the field automatically for the first 5 Nextel Cup races, a luxury handed to these five men before they even stepped into their race cars for 2006.
Now, is that fair? Debatable"¦but you can’t argue against teams and drivers just playing by the rules. Certainly, there’s one thing these men could never have been handed"¦.respect"¦and they’re earning it in record time. The best part about this year’s rookie revolution, too, is that all these drivers are under 30, nice guys with engaging personalities, long-term contracts, and veterans like Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. around to teach them the ropes. Point being, their cars will be beaming straight into your living room at the front of the pack for several years to come, and it’s not going to make you sick to your stomach when they hit Victory Lane.
So don’t be surprised if you see a rookie breakthrough this season. These kids are just living up to the new set of expectations that have developed around the cars with those yellow stripes on the back bumper.
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