Toni Montgomery · Thursday August 25, 2005
Poor Tyler Walker. He is the latest casualty in the Busch Series, losing his ride in the No. 38 Great Clips Dodge as of this week. It's more or less the usual story. Walker is a rookie, and as such, he used up a few cars. That's nothing new really. It's what rookies tend to do and on occasion you'll have a car owner who just can't afford all that sheet metal. What does strike me as unusual is Doug Stringer's admission to that. Even after watching a driver crash or finish poorly every week, the reason for the release is usually couched in pleasant, indirect phrasing that gives no specific reason and looks like it's not blaming the driver while it actually is.
Rookies get released all the time and usually the reasons are performance related, but the owners don't generally go into specifics and tend to say something to the effect that the performance wasn't what they were hoping for or the team just lacked the chemistry they hoped to have. It's sort of those easy things to say that kind of makes it no ones fault. It's kind of sort of waffling mostly. Stringer wasn't absolutely blunt. He still phrased his comments in a euphemistic way but he did manage to say what he meant which is that he just couldn't afford to break a rookie driver in. He wished Walker well, spoke highly of his potential, said he'd like to see someone give him a chance, but added that it should be someone with more funding than he has.
Stringer may very well have been sincere in his comments about Walker's potential. I'm sure he's aware that some of the best drivers tore up their share of cars in their early years. Jeff Gordon was notorious for it and even Rick Hendrick began to seriously wonder if he could afford to keep Gordon during his first year in Cup. As it would turn out, Hendrick got his lost money back and then some when Gordon went on to win four championships to date.
Unfortunately no matter what the given reason, it is always the driver who tends to suffer, especially rookie drivers. Other owners are hesitant to take on a driver who was released because of performance issues. Often there are issues within the team but when the driver is released, suddenly all of the blame is placed squarely on his or her shoulders. They may become branded as not good enough. That makes it tough to find another ride.
In this case, Walker's tendency to crinkle up cars was the given reason and I assure you other car owners, even those with deep pockets, are likely to think long and hard about whether they want to take on that expense. Walker might as well sew a scarlet "C" on the front of his driving suit. "C" for crash that is. Not that Walker is the only rookie to crinkle some cars this season. Brandon Miller, Blake Feese, and Boston Reed come to mind as being a bit of an expense to their team owners but those owners happen to be Richard Childress and Rick Hendrick. They can probably afford to be a little more patient with rookie drivers.
On a deeper level there's a little bit of a conundrum for Busch team owners here. The Busch Series has traditionally been a training ground for upcoming drivers, meaning that many teams would be looking at bringing in rookies. That rookies can be expensive is nothing new but the overall expenses of running in the series have been rising, making it more and more costly to go through the cars it sometimes takes until a rookie gets his or her feet under them. Busch independents like Stringer are going to be less and less likely to be able to afford rookies or to keep them in the car as long as they need to for them to be successful. Even well funded Cup owners might become hesitant to endure the costs. The result is disposable drivers. If owners start releasing drivers after less than a full season because they can't afford damaged cars, they will be chewing up and spitting out these young drivers with potential faster than they can find the next one.
Imagine what could fall through the cracks if this happens. Imagine if Jeff Gordon never made it out of the Busch Series because his team owner couldn't afford to support his learning curve. There are a number of more recent examples. Stringer's other driver, Kasey Kahne, didn't come out of the box winning. Paul Menard is on an amazing roll of nine top tens in the last ten races and has been climbing steadily through the top ten in points but before that amazing run, DEI faced a torn up race car just about every week. J.J. Yeley has finally caught on but it probably cost Joe Gibbs a pretty penny until that happened. These drivers who had the patience of their team owners behind them until they figured it out will become the exception I think.
I keep wondering why Cup owners seem to sign a never-ending stream of drivers to development deals. Where are all of them supposed to go? Why do they need to be developing three or four guys when they don't even have openings on their Cup teams or at the very least will never have that many open seats? I'm afraid the answer is that times have changed and owners can no longer afford to have the patience for the rookie learning curve that they once had. If drivers don't show them results quickly, they will just move on. After all, I'm sure there are plenty of other hopefuls waiting in the wings to get their shot. They just better recognize that they need to be careful with those fenders and concentrate on good results.
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