As always this time of year, the Chase is gobbling up most of the press, submersing some controversial subplots for 2007 into the background while predictions for the championship and the constant twists and turns of each week distract us from the big picture of the sport. I’m just as guilty as anyone else in the media in this regard, so I promised myself I won’t get caught up in the Chase furor this week. Other topics need to be addressed, and Martinsville cleared my mind enough to bring one to light. Leave it to a bunch of yellow stripes to catch my attention.
That’s right; time to talk about rookies. Not this year’s crowd; despite some roller coaster experiences, the six remaining drivers competing for Rookie of the Year will survive until their sophomore season in their current rides, a testament to the improvement or potential each of them has showcased throughout the season. In fact, this year is history in the making for first-years, as Denny Hamlin not only made the Chase, but could become the first rookie in history to place a Nextel Cup trophy on his mantle before the year is out.
No, the 2006 rookie class is fine with me. What I’m looking towards is the rookie class for 2007, and I don’t like the sneak peak the NASCAR community’s been getting.
That preview was on full display at Martinsville on Sunday. Mark Martin‘s replacement in the No. 6 car for Roush Racing, David Ragan, started only his second career Nextel Cup race, sadly, that’s far less than the amount of crashes he caused. The No. 06 machine Ragan piloted and Roush provided acted more like a pinball than a racecar, the only way it seemed its driver could keep off the walls was by bumping into other cars.
Needless to say, the cars – and drivers – Ragan hit were not too happy. Ken Schrader‘s top-10 run was ended when Ragan simply “overdrove” it into the turn, spinning the No. 21 Ford hard into the wall while collecting Dale Jarrett in the process. Schrader was so livid following the incident he took a piece of the bumper bar and was looking to throw it at Ragan; luckily, he came to his senses just in time.
Honestly, I’m sure other drivers wish he did. A Ragan spin with a handful of laps left sent Kyle Busch into the outside wall trying to avoid his stopped car; the wreck easily ruined the Chaser’s day on what could have been an opportunity for him to climb back into the championship race. Ragan also found time to cut Tony Raines‘s tire, all while spinning around on his own in separate incidents; man, this guy was so busy it was hard to tell when he actually found time to race!
Tony Stewart couldn’t agree more.
“We had a rookie out there that was kind of a dart with no feathers,” said the Home Depot Chevrolet driver. “The best thing would have been to black flag the [No.] 06 and park him for the rest of the day and save half the cautions.”
Ouch. The best part was, Stewart wasn’t even INVOLVED with an incident with the No. 06 all day, and he could tell how bad Ragan was. That’s impressive.
Running close with Ragan most of the day was David Gilliland; technically not eligible to be a rookie in 2007, he might as well be one, since he’ll end up with only a dozen Cup starts before the year is out. One thing’s for sure; he’s a rookie now, and it showed. The difference was that Gilliland didn’t feel like being involved in his own spinout, really; he just took pride in threatening the good days of other people, like his bump-to-spin maneuvers executed on both Casey Mears and Ward Burton.
Now, there’s no doubt both Ragan and Gilliland have the talent to succeed in the Cup series, eventually. Whether they can right now is a different story, and it doesn’t really matter, anyway. Sponsors are paying millions for them to represent their products, they’re not really concerned with the quality of racing on the track or how many veteran careers they ruin while they get on their feet. They just want TV time.
While the public display of these driver’s current Cup abilities make them easy targets, they’re not the only rookies for next year that raise some question marks. Jon Wood will be running his first Cup races in the No. 21 car, despite not winning a Busch Series race in two years of competition. Ditto for Regan Smith, currently putting up just as unimpressive Busch Series stats. Bill Lester, who failed to even qualify for a Truck Series race this season, is a sponsorship away from a full-time ride in Cup. David Reutimann has yet to win a Truck or Busch Series championship, with only one win in 100 starts in both series, combined. Of course, the conversation hasn’t reached the open wheelers yet. With Juan Pablo Montoya signed for the No. 42 car and Champ Car star AJ Allmendinger headed for Team Red Bull, you’ve got drivers with exceptional talent – but no stock car experience and limited seat time in lower series before moving to Nextel Cup.
You see where I’m going with all of this. In a year where NASCAR will be implementing major rules changes – introducing an entirely new car, no less – the sport is being shelled with perhaps the least experienced group of rookies to ever dot the landscape of Nextel Cup at one time. Only Paul Menard seems competent enough to make the jump to Cup now with few questions asked. It’s a scenario that could lead to a lot of torn-up racecars – with a lot of veterans as innocent victims.
Knowing there’s not much they can do, those veterans seemed resigned to the fact they’ll be around – but that doesn’t mean they have to be happy about it.
“[Ragan] had a bad day,” said Raines upon exiting his car. “He ran into a lot of people, you just need to iron that stuff out before you get into this series.”
Due to sponsor obligations, money, and the youth movement, that type of “ironing out” is no longer possible in the sport. So, veterans like Mike Skinner and Johnny Benson will sit on the sidelines and race trucks, while youngsters get a chance to tear up equipment at an alarming rate. The bigger question is, how big and how bad will these mistakes be next year when they do happen? Spinning someone out at Martinsville is one thing, a booboo at Talladega is a different story altogether. People won’t just be mad; they could get hurt, all due to not enough experience to be a part of the series.
You’d dross your fingers and think the kinks in this rookie class will be ironed out by then, but more than likely, those restrictor-plate tracks will be an opportunity for the mistakes to come out in full force. And that’s a scary thought.