Being a Sprint Cup “Rookie Of The Year,” as Forrest Gump would say, is like a box of chocolates. Fans never know what they’re going to get. For every Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart that wins the award, there are drivers such as Jimmy Hensley or the late Rob Moroso who also capture the prestigious honor. The last few years have been on the, well, less than stellar side of things. Last year saw Kevin Conway win the award, driving for three different teams and leaving a trail of unpaid sponsorship bills.
This year has seen Andy Lally, a driver who has only one top-20 finish on the season and was let go on Wednesday before the season finale at Homestead, win the award virtually unopposed. This begs the question why have the recent crop of rookies been such a disappointment? Could it be that the talent pool in NASCAR’s up-and-comer ranks has bottomed out? Could there be other issues afoot?
First off, it’s time to debunk the “lack of talent” theory once and for all. There are certainly talented drivers in the lower levels of NASCAR such as Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Trevor Bayne, James Buescher, and others who have been slowly, yet surely climbing up NASCAR’s ranks. The real issue has been “lack of sponsorship dollars.” Money often outweighs natural talent in the current racing climate, and as a result, these more talented, and even more deserving drivers are shunned in favor of less-than-capable drivers who only made it in NASCAR’s top level due to money.
Second of all, the amount of available rides in NASCAR right now are few and far-between. With the Red Bull Racing Team operation likely facing closure after Sunday’s race and the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford shutting down operations due to a lack of sponsorship dollars, the fact is it’s getting harder and harder for a rookie to break into NASCAR’s top ranks. Next year’s rookie crop looks to have possibly Josh Wise and Cole Whitt, but for both of those competitors, it all depends on sponsorship. Or, in the case of Whitt, it depends on if the Red Bull Racing Team even survives the 2011 offseason.
While many fans want to mock the past couple of Rookie of the Year winners, at the end of the day, the truth is that NASCAR rookies are a total crap-shoot. It’s hard to tell if they’ll be the next superstar or just start-and-park fodder. Hopefully with drivers such as Bayne, Dillon, and yes, even Danica Patrick climbing the ranks, the rookie battles just might get more competitive in the not-too-distant future. Question is, will it be too late for the fans to even care about a NASCAR Rookie of the Year Award?
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