Second Fiddle : Around The Busch Series · Thomas Bowles · Thursday March 22, 2007
At 6’5” and nearly 250 pounds, Danny O’Quinn has never been the type of Busch Series driver that gets lost amongst the crowd. So it’s a bit of a funny thing when a man so large in stature should find himself as far from the limelight as possible, hidden within the corners of a far off garage area. Yet, when O’Quinn strolls through the metal gates of Bristol, that’s exactly what he should be expecting. Between the Cup Series’ Car of Disaster and the Buschwhacking brigade preparing to make this concrete half-mile their personal playground, the driver of the No. 56 Mac Hill Motorsports Chevrolet making his 2007 Busch debut will be little more than a blip on the radar screen at best. Written off in only his second season, the man who one year ago seemed destined to fill a seat in a Jack Roush Nextel Cup Ford now simply looks to find any empty seat in a car with four wheels. Promise has turned to regret, potential into survival, and patience into desperation.
In short, Danny O’Quinn is the story of what’s wrong with the Busch Series.
Such a bold statement makes you a little surprised this is the type of story that is often ignored. For O’Quinn, though, ignorance isn’t a surprise to him; sponsors have left him by the roadside, keeping him from competing in the series full-time after winning a hard-fought Rookie of The Year battle in 2006. An organization which once promised to give him the ride of his dreams now sits idly by in the nice part of the garage, with the cars, the resources, and all the right things O’Quinn fears he might never have again. Here instead with an underdog team running a limited schedule, the 21-year-old is merely hoping to secure a run solid enough to gain him the attention he no longer receives.
The situation couldn’t have been more different for the Virginian this time last year. Running the Bristol race with a fully-sponsored Roush-Yates powered Ford, O’Quinn finished a career-best 11th, landing the finish needed to jumpstart his rookie season. In the end, a little more than that was needed to fulfill what appeared to be unlimited potential; but by the second half of the season, O’Quinn was scoring a handful of Top 10 finishes for Jack Roush’s No. 50 car, enough to remain in contention to win the rookie title.
In finishing up front in those races, O’Quinn wasn’t just accomplishing some growth as a rookie; he was beating the likes of Edwards, Hamlin, Yeley, and Harvick, Cup drivers with far more experience and practice time at their disposal. But more often than not, those drivers made O’Quinn look like the inexperienced label drivers come to the Busch Series to shed. The rookie, eager to learn, would have been challenging for much better finishes without a dearth of Cup regulars running in the starting lineup; instead, he had to live with the mantra of “best finishing Busch driver” much more often, even if that meant a 14th place run.
Of course, 14th place would never be good enough to please sponsors interested in visiting Victory Lane, and despite a come-from-behind performance that earned him that Rookie Of The Year trophy, O’Quinn has nothing to show for his efforts. The sponsors bailed following one Top 5 and five Top 10 finishes in season one, and with Roush tapping fellow youngster David Ragan for a Nextel Cup ride ahead of O’Quinn, room at the inn quickly changed to no vacancy. Sponsorship deals evaporated, Roush focused attention elsewhere, and suddenly, the train left the station without a ticket for one Danny O’Quinn.
Looking around him, O’Quinn quickly realized he wasn’t alone. Names of rookies in need of patience but dealt pink slips instead were rummaging through the station looking for scraps. Mark McFarland. Burney Lamar. Auggie Vidovich. These men were built to be part of NASCAR’s future; but too many veterans and too little time quickly disposed of them as part of the past. The years of development that drivers like Labonte, Martin, Kenny Wallace, and others received in the Busch Series has now turned into months, perhaps just a few races; if you don’t grow up quick, you’re thrown away even faster.
Of course, putting these drivers in the trash heap is the ultimate problem. Without the young drivers to develop into future stars, the Busch Series loses an identity it may never again serve to recreate. At best, the aspiring youngsters share a ride with a Nextel Cup veteran; but spot appearances don’t turn drivers into fan favorites or marketing tools for a series in need of a kickstart. It’s bad enough the Busch Series veterans have been left sitting on the bench; with more and more young drivers sitting right along with them, how long will it be until there’s no one left running full-time?
While some of the other young drivers mentioned are still simply waiting at that train station, O’Quinn got lucky enough to be offered a ticket. It’s not the best seat in the house, by any means; but it’s an opportunity to put his name out there, hoping against hope for the perfect setup on a lucky day that gets him the finish he once thought would become a weekly occurrence in top notch equipment.
No, nowadays O’Quinn is just lucky enough to have that chance. Too bad the Series isn’t healthy enough to support him.
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