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Minter: NASCAR in Need of American Idols

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, June 29 2010

Ricky Rudd came up out of nowhere to become an American idol in the Sprint Cup Series. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

In racing, or anywhere else for that matter, money talks and everything else walks. It’s why a driver has to have a pocket full of money behind him to get a ride in one of the elite NASCAR divisions, and why there are start-and-park teams in Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck series.

The current state of affairs could be part of the reason fans aren’t watching races on TV in numbers that they have in the past and why there are empty seats in the grandstands at even the most popular venues.

Maybe what NASCAR needs is to borrow the “American Idol” format. I’m not a fan of the show – it’s not exactly my kind of music and I don’t care to spend much time in front of the TV – but I like the idea of an everyman or everywoman having a chance to make it to the big time.

It once was that way in NASCAR. People could leave jobs in textile mills and sawmills and farms and moonshine stills and become a racing star, relying only on their talents and a little luck.

And in later years, a veteran short-tracker like Jody Ridley could get in Junie Donlavey’s middle-of-the-pack Cup car and drive it to a top-five finish. Bill Elliott and Ricky Rudd could get noticed driving Bill Champion’s under-funded Ford.

Instead, today, we get newcomers like Kevin Conway. From an interview session or two over the past few months, he seems like a really nice guy. But from all indications, he got his Cup ride because of his ability to bring a sponsor.

He’s been good at avoiding controversy, but that’s about it. He’s 36th in the points standings, with an average finish of 32.5. His best finish, a 27th at Texas, came in a race where he finished five laps down.

The really disappointing part is that he’s the only rookie in Cup.

The situation in the Nationwide Series isn’t a whole lot better. Behind the Cup regulars who dominate the number two series are just two rookies, Brian Scott and Colin Braun.

Scott’s been commendable. He’s 13th in points, with three top-10 finishes. Braun has been a disappointment, like the rest of the young developmental drivers in the Roush Fenway Racing camp. He’s 25th in the standings, and he’s not even a full-time driver any more.

It seems that the youngsters that do get opportunities only are allowed brief flings. They wind up racing too hard, wrecking too often and being dumped in favor of a new face.

So what fans end up with is a constant shuffling of the same drivers among the available rides in the top NASCAR divisions. Past champions like Bobby Labonte and Bill Elliott remain in demand because they can get cars in races, either on qualifying speeds or when bad luck strikes, via their past-champion’s provisionals.

There are owners out there who probably would like to take chances on a young driver, but the stakes are too high. And with the current testing ban in place, it’s even harder to get a newcomer up to speed in a hurry.

So promising talent gets wasted, and the faces in the starting line-up each week continue to be familiar ones.

If the race fans of America got to phone in their votes like on American Idol, would they vote for the same old faces they see in Cup today, or would they give a top ride to someone like Burt Myers, the popular Modified driver from Bowman Gray Stadium, or a country boy Georgia short tracker like Bubba Pollard or a third-generation NASCAR racer like Jon Wood, who has proven in the truck series that he can win poles and races?

That question kind of answers itself.

– Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

Rick Minter | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, June 29 2010
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