Editor’s Note: Regular columnist Tommy Thompson has this week off, so Frontstretch rookie Doug Turnbull filled in for this edition of Turn 5. Look for Tommy to be back next Wednesday.
Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Elvis Presley and Martin Truex Jr. A flurry of names have been sailing in the rumor clouds as a result of the Stewart-Haas Racing partnership. Newman and Penske Racing’s announcement that they will part ways after this season adds further strength to the rumors that he will be Stewart’s wingman for the revitalized organization, with primary sponsorship soon to follow his switch from Dodge to Chevrolet. And let’s not even start with that list: Office Depot, UPS, Jack Daniel’s and Bass Pro Shops are among several companies rumored to fill the role. The anticipation of such news has many in the sport on the edge of their seats, waiting for the next steps to be made public as soon as Indianapolis in two weeks. One name, though, that has not been mentioned at all in relation to this huge Silly Season domino is the lone full-time driver remaining for the two-car team – Scott Riggs.
When you look at the stats, there may well be good reason that the fifth year Cup driver has been forgotten – because there’s nothing to write home about. Indeed, Riggs and his No. 66 State Water Heaters team has struggled mightily, falling outside the Top 35 and failing to qualify for the July Daytona race after a crippling 150-point penalty back in May. And unlike some hard-luck drivers, Riggs has not even had very many good runs foiled by bad racing luck – instead, he’s simply stunk. Riggs has led only eight laps this season and had only four top-20 finishes, also failing to qualify the No. 70 car for his team at Sonoma during a one-race switch from the No. 66.
Unfortunately, the driver’s struggles this season were not unexpected to many – and they only show as another example of the potential that the Bahama, N.C. driver never quite reached. After a span of three seasons in the Craftsman Truck and then-Busch Series, where he won a total of nine races, the 2002 Rookie of the Year Award (Busch) and came close to winning a Busch championship the following year, the then 33-year-old driver seemed poised to make the jump to the next level. Picked up as a rookie in the Cup Series for 2004, he was a favorite to win top-rookie honors – even where the fad age for freshmen was approximately 10 years younger.
Riggs spent his first two seasons in the No. 10 Valvoline Chevy for MBV Motorsports, a team that struggled through most of its existence. Though he had a few good finishes, like a fourth place in the 2005 Daytona 500, the team’s constant difficulties in competing against the sport’s highly-funded teams led him and Valvoline both to believe they could only achieve success if they moved elsewhere. But ownership thought enough of Riggs and his crew chief Rodney Childers to insist that the two be a part of the package that traveled to Evernham Motorsports, becoming the operation’s third team during an ownership acquisition in the offseason of 2005. It was the move that every driver dreams of – and the one expected to propel Riggs to the highest level of success.
Indeed, many saw the Evernham-Riggs partnership as a perfect match, as a good driver was finally getting the chance to perform in good equipment for a team that had one car in each of the first two Chases. Unfortunately, the new No. 10 team had no owner points from the previous year, so it had to qualify on time for the 2006 Daytona 500 or race in through the Gatorade Duels. The task seemed easy enough, but a freak mechanical failure in Riggs’s qualifying run – followed by a pit-road error during the Duel race – forced the newly-formed, well-funded team to miss the very first event it entered. It was a shocking turn of events; and in hindsight, it was the writing on the wall for Riggs’s tenure at EMS.
But you wouldn’t have thought that early on. 2006 was not a total failure for the team; Riggs managed to drive himself into contention in several races while climbing to 20th in the points, ahead of many drivers that ran every race that year. His rebound from failing to qualify for Daytona led many to believe that 2007 would be his breakout season – especially since the No. 10 was guaranteed a spot in the first five races.
Unfortunately, that prediction could not have been further from the truth.
2007 ended up being a nightmare for not just Riggs, but all of EMS. The entire team struggled, eventually dropping outside the Top 35 and being forced to qualify on speed. Riggs failed to qualify for five races and was replaced by Patrick Carpentier initially for Watkins Glen and then for the final few races of the season. Evernham and new part-owner George Gillett decided not to retain Riggs for 2008, and his bags were packed.
Just six months later, Riggs likely will be packing his bags again. But although he has a decent resume – five top fives and 15 top 10s in 150 Cup starts – it pales in comparison to the likes of the names being mentioned to be replacing him at Haas CNC. So, what does the future hold then for this unofficially “lame-duck” driver?
Unfortunately, the pickings look slim for Riggs next season. He likely will not remain at Stewart-Haas, even if sponsorship money is found for a third team. Jamie McMurray and Reed Sorenson both had been rumored to be on the outs from their organizations, but those rumors have since died and Sorenson may even be working on an extension with Ganassi. Of course, there are other top level rides available – but Riggs is nowhere near the top of the list to replace Stewart at Gibbs, Newman at Penske, Truex at DEI (if he leaves), or for the fourth Childress team. Even if Yates Racing finds sponsorship, it is likely to retain drivers David Gilliland and Travis Kvapil – not add Riggs.
So, what’s left for the veteran? Not much. Michael Waltrip Racing may have a vacancy or two if drivers Michael McDowell and David Reutimann decide to drive for other teams. If sponsorship arises, this could be a good situation for Riggs to turn his career around. Riggs could also end up at another Toyota operation as the driver of the No. 23 team that Bill Davis Racing plans to run next season; and if Dave Blaney does not re-sign, he could wind up behind the wheel of Davis’s No. 22. In a worst-case scenario, Riggs also may end up running for one of the also-ran and has-been teams, like Furniture Row Racing, E&M Motorsports, Front Row Motorsports or BAM Racing.
But the most appropriate destination for Riggs may be a further step back. Certainly, he should pay some attention to how once “washed-up” drivers are running in the Craftsman Truck Series. Ron Hornaday, Jack Sprague, Todd Bodine, Ted Musgrave, Brendan Gaughan and Mike Skinner are among the veterans who steal the series headlines each week after going through dreadful experiences in Cup. If I were him, I’d start knocking on those hauler doors on the other side of the garage if no one answers on the Cup level. It may be a great place for Riggs to protect a legacy that began in this very series in 2000 – and restore confidence in a career that has recently hit a downward spiral.
Scott Riggs’s tenure in the Cup Series has been defined by five years of bad luck and thwarted potential. Parts failures, team struggles and other people’s crashes robbed him of what could have been a decent Cup career. But this veteran driver should not disappear into purgatory, just as the likes of Jeremy Mayfield, Ward Burton and Casey Atwood did. Instead, he needs to simply take a couple of steps back – and once that happens, his legacy should be back in position to take a giant shove forward.