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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

An Unlikely Battle for Rookie of the Year

The 2010 Sprint Cup rookie class is the antithesis of the usual suspects. There are no big time teams here. No development prospects, no young guns.

Instead, this year’s battle for the ROTY title comes down to a battle between a 30-something part-time Nationwide Series driver and a Truck Series veteran. Enter Kevin Conway and Terry Cook.

But despite their ages, the exuberance these two have for their shots as “rookies” would suggest the young teens and 20-year-olds that have characterized Cup rookies in recent seasons. And that’s despite the challenges that both face not just as new faces on stock car racing’s biggest stage, but as trying to succeed with limited resources against teams that can best be described as juggernauts.

For Cook, his rookie campaign is coming behind the wheel of a team that has existed for only a matter of weeks, with no major sponsorship and cars just recently acquired from Richard Petty Motorsports. He’s not locked into the Top 35, and has additional duties beyond that of a driver; he’s also the general manager of the new organization.

“All positions are still available,” says Cook of his new home, which has been flooded with resumes from a variety of racing professionals.

The plan for the No. 46 team is to contest the full Cup schedule and to run the distance in all those races. In speaking to Cook at the annual NMPA meeting in Concord, N.C., he mentioned that the team is already looking into ways to cut costs in running without sponsorship, from buying used tires throughout race weekends to having crew members double up in hotel rooms.

Cook, who ran a number of races for MSRP Motorsports in the Nationwide Series after HT Motorsports closed up shop, acknowledged that if sponsorship could not be found, the team would consider running start-and-park efforts as “opportunity races.”

“If it gets to that point, we’re not excited about doing it… but if it does come to that, we’re going to make sure that we’re only doing it to be sure we can get to the next race,” says Cook.

As for his competition, Conway, a whole different set of challenges presents itself. Conway is coming into a much more stable situation; Front Row Motorsports has long been a presence on the Sprint Cup circuit, sponsorship money is already present with Extenze signed for the season, and Ford is providing manufacturer support to the FRM operation. Further, Conway’s team has acquired owner points from a Yates entry, guaranteeing them a spot in the first five races of 2010.

But where Conway’s challenge lies is in the experience gap between he and Cook; Cook owns the record for the most consecutive starts in Truck Series history, while Conway has only 26 career starts across the Nationwide and Truck series (he failed to qualify for his first career Cup race at Phoenix this past November). Short of that attempt and a few short-track tests, he has very little experience in the CoT machine.

Still, Conway is locked into the field, and his team has a strategy in place to get themselves up to speed quickly.

“We’ve kind of broken down the season into thirds,” says Conway. “The first third of the season is all about making laps, getting seat time, finishing races. Second third, we’ve got to step it up, and by the time we’re going back to the racetracks at the end of the season, that’s where all of our expectations are stepped up.”

Conway is also working daily with a personal trainer to prepare for the physical demands of lengthy Cup races.

And while he is adamant that “there is nothing that is not challenging about the Sprint Cup Series,” Conway is also surprising confident in his ability to handle the equipment in these ranks.

“What I’ve driven throughout my career is high-horsepower vehicles, so in some ways I think it [the Cup car] is a little bit easier, because you can use the throttle to turn the car a lot more than in the Nationwide and Truck series since they put the tapered spacer on them.”

“It’s weird, because some drivers out there seem to adapt quicker to the Cup car. [And] for me, in the limited time I’ve had in the Cup car, it suits my driving style much more than the Nationwide Series car.”

New faces, big learning curves and plenty of confidence to go around nonetheless. Maybe this rookie class isn’t so different after all.