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It’s Not Easy Being the New Kid

News came down this week that Bobby Labonte would be taking over driving duties for Kevin Harvick Inc.’s No. 77 Dollar General Chevrolet for the remaining companion events of the 2006 Busch Series season. This means that rookie driver Burney Lamar will have only one more run in the car in the Busch Series standalone event at Memphis. The reason given for the change involves the performance of the car or rather the lack thereof. It seems the team has not seen the progress or improvement they were hoping for and are putting a veteran behind the wheel to evaluate the program in an effort to see where they might need to make improvements for next season. Although he hasn’t technically been completely relieved of his driving duties, Lamar is basically the next rookie being sidelined.

Rookie drivers not making it through a season is nothing new. Some shine while others do not live up to expectations for any number of reasons. The sad reality of racing is that it is a sport that can chew up and spit out vast numbers of drivers every year. Sometimes it happens because one guy excels so greatly that it reflects poorly on the performance of the other drivers. They may have had a “typical” rookie year but it just doesn’t end up looking that way. It’s also possible that there could be a year where none of the rookies make the cut.

At this point you have to wonder, what is going on with the Busch Series rookies this year? Certainly it’s not one guy excelling and making the others look bad. To say it has not been a stellar year for any of the freshmen might be an understatement. When Mark McFarland was removed from his car a few weeks ago, it left only four of the 12 Raybestos Rookie contenders running full time.

Of those four, Lamar was ranked second. And technically, John Andretti, the guy leading for the title, is not a true rookie, so Lamar was actually the true lead “new guy” in the series. Lamar and McFarland were both taken out of the seat for performance based issues. Tracy Hines and Joel Kauffman were removed due to a combination of performance and sponsorship problems, while AJ Foyt IV was supposedly sidelined primarily by lack of a sponsor funding but if you remember his few appearances early in the year, you have to think he was just too expensive to keep in sheetmetal. David Gilliland, Stephen Leicht and Jorge Goeters did not have full-time rides lined up to begin with.

As mentioned, Andretti leads the rookie standings with 194 points. Lamar, Danny O’Quinn and Todd Kluever follow in that order but all are close, with Kluever only 14 points off Andretti’s lead with 180 points. No one is running away with the competition. If Lamar is not performing up to expectations, what does that say about the rest of the rookies? Really, it says that no one is having an outstanding rookie season. But why?

I have put forth the idea in the past that they just don’t have the funding or the equipment to keep up with the Cup teams and drivers but is that really true? If you include McFarland, who is still ranked fifth, all of the top-five rookies have full sponsorship on their cars. Andretti is the only one driving for an independent Busch team. Lamar drives for Kevin Harvick, who certainly gets support from his Cup boss, Richard Childress. Kluever and O’Quinn drive for Roush Racing while McFarland drove for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s new team. Only Andretti, the lead rookie in the gang, is likely going it alone with his Busch only ppc Racing team. So if you take funding and technical support out of the picture, what else is left?

In 29 races, the rookies have one win thanks to Gilliland, but other than that, they have only 13 finishes inside the top 10. Of course to be fair that one win ties them with the Busch veterans. On eight occasions the top-finishing freshmen have come home 15th or worse. I hate to drop it at the feet of the drivers, but what else is there?

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