Race Weekend Central

Nuts for Nationwide: 2014 Brings Rough Start for Many Rookies

Rookies. Those young guys who just don’t know any better. They’re the ones who tear stuff up and get in the way, yet everyone jumps to talk about how they’re the future of the sport. This year, the top two tiers of NASCAR are stacked with such talented drivers who are at the start of what, hopefully, will be long and successful careers.

The good news for the Nationwide Series is that it is once again grooming a full field of drivers who could one day head for the Sprint Cup Series, much like current Cup rookie contenders such as Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon and Parker Kligerman. All three graduated from the Nationwide Series and — in the case of Dillon, at least — left capable cars and teams in the hands of the newest crop of drivers.

Often though, young drivers forget that racing is a marathon, not a sprint — something certain racers may need to be reminded of, as it’s already been a frustrating few weeks. The adjustment each has made into the minor leagues, from wherever they’ve come from has been bigger than they might have dreamed.

Some, however, are handling it much better than others. To start, Richard Childress Racing’s No. 3, the team that won the championship last season with Austin Dillon, is again off to a steady start with his younger brother, Ty.

Ty Dillon is one of the few Nationwide Series rookies without major issues in 2014 — so far.
Ty Dillon is one of the few Nationwide Series rookies without major issues in 2014 — so far.

It’s always seemed like the younger Dillon has been the “forgotten child,” sitting in the shadow of his brother as the elder Dillon won championship after championship. Now, he’s trying to follow his sibling’s footsteps again, just as he did in the Camping World Truck Series, by taking over his championship car.

The only caveat? Dillon failed to win both rookie of the year and a championship during his Truck Series tenure. That’s not to say that he needs to accomplish everything his brother has, but if he wants to be considered as a similarly skilled driver, he needs to start taking advantage of the equipment that he’s in.

That said, winning the pole at Las Vegas is likely the first of many and a great baseline from which the team can branch off. Dillon currently sits the highest of the rookie class in driver points (third) and is tied for the rookie points lead with the driver who, arguably, is the most watched of the bunch.

Perhaps it comes with the name, but Chase Elliott is making it seem like he’s been here before. Elliott had never sat in a Nationwide car before testing at Daytona, but since then he hasn’t finished outside the top 10. His communication with crew chief Greg Ives proves him wise beyond his years, earning him comparisons to the likes of greats like Jimmie Johnson.

Elliott’s car control and patience blends him in with the veterans he’s racing — the same ones he’s keeping up with on a weekly basis and soon will be challenging for wins.

But while Elliott has kept his car in one piece, through four weeks of action, Ryan Reed has hit everything — during practice, qualifying and in the race. Reed has torn up quite a few Roush Fenway Fords already, and the latest, at Bristol, couldn’t help but prompt the question: how long will Reed last before he gets the Colin Braun treatment?

While team owner Jack Roush has had his share of young drivers — he’s quite fond of bringing them through the ranks and watching them grow into Cup stars, — he isn’t above using some tough love. Back in 2010, both Stenhouse and Braun were yanked from their rides and sat on the sidelines to think things over before Roush eventually put them back in his cars. While Braun became more of a footnote inNASCAR history, a light bulb went off from there for Stenhouse, sending him to rookie of the year honors and back-to-back titles two years later.

Reed brings that great, sad sense of déjà vu. He’s fast at times, but often fails to finish — and at this rate, it’s going to be a long, learning season. It’s all a bit disappointing, given that Reed only finished outside the top 16 once last year in the six starts he made for Roush Fenway.

Then again, there are few drivers in this crop that have proven what they’ve done in the past doesn’t mean anything now. Dylan Kwasniewski was the Kyle Busch of the K&N Series — both East and West — capturing wins left and right and was the first driver to win both the East and West championships in back-to-back years.

The Turner Scott Motorsports rookie has a lot of hype and attention behind him, reminiscent of teammate Kyle Larson in 2013. A pole at Daytona was a good start, as was bringing the car home in one piece, but Kwasniewski is another driver learning that this transition isn’t easy. He, too, has torn some stuff up — though he’s putting together solid finishes, too, which is the best way to learn.

What’s more: he showed, in Bristol after crashing in qualifying, how personal he takes everything. It’s refreshing to see a driver admit he cares about what other people think about him; he’s trying hard to impress and succeed. But quickly a fear is growing that Kwasniewski’s desire might eventually develop into a young driver being too impatient and doing more harm then good.

Kwasniewski is just one of many drivers who not only has the credentials to have his ride but could also make plenty of headlines. Dakota Armstrong and Chris Buescher, for example, are two of the silent but solid drivers — much like Matt Kenseth was early in his career.

Buescher won the ARCA championship in 2012 and, like teammate Ryan Reed, has the full support of Jack Roush behind him. Three top-16 finishes in three races has Buescher off a great start, as well as something to build on. Rain in Daytona kept him from qualifying for the season’s first race, so he’s behind when it comes to the rookie standings. But he’s also made the most of his on-track time. If that sounds familiar when it comes to a Buescher, it should, because he’s doing the same thing cousin James did in 2012 when he missed the first Camping World Truck Series race of the season and then came back to nearly win the championship.

Speaking of: while we can’t exactly call James Buescher a rookie, he can be lumped into this group too since he is running his first full Nationwide Series season — except Buescher has the most experience of any driver, with 62 career starts under his belt and a win at Daytona.

When it was announced late last year that he was moving up from the Truck Series, joining Toyota and RAB Racing, the pairing was definitely heralded as a solid partnership. But things haven’t gone as anyone would have expected. Seems that penalty in Daytona, when NASCAR ruled Buescher was tandem drafting, has set the tone early in the season. Buescher has yet to finish inside the top 10, and every week it’s like waiting for the next shoe to drop and something to take them out of contention. A driver and team that should have come out of the gate strong, putting themselves near the top of the points as title favorites now have a steep, uphill battle.

Such is the life, however, for rookies and all those embarking on a season of growing pains. And with such a high-profile class comes the attention of every move made. Four weeks in with these drivers, that next move is hard to predict.

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