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Ingram: No Rookie Chase Sign Of NASCAR Times

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, January 17 2011

Trevor Bayne will be racing for the Wood Brothers in 2011 but how many times? (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

From the Monday Morning Crew Chief ™:

What do Blackie Pitt, Ken Rush and Shorty Rollins have in common? They were the first three rookies of the year in NASCAR’s premier series. Fast forward to the coming season and the candidates for the rookie of the year are… non-existant.

It’s the economy, of course, that has short-changed this year’s Sprint Cup rookie program. But timing and financial considerations have always been part of the ups and downs of the rookie award. Drivers such as Carl Edwards, Marcos Ambrose and Brad Keselowski never participated in the rookie program. They all lost their rookie status because it made more sense to them to exceed seven starts – the maximum under the rules – in the year prior to their first full season.

That seems to be the program this year for Trevor Bayne, the youngest driver to ever win three straight poles in the Nationwide Series. He’s going racing with the Wood Brothers as part of Roush Fenway Racing’s development program, but depending on sponsorship it remains to be seen how many races he’ll do this year.

It may be just as well not to have rookie candidates. Last year would have been one of those times because Keselowski, who oozes talent and fire, was the de facto rookie of the year and already a race winner. But he wasn’t eligible after accepting seven rides with Rick Hendrick in

Darrell Waltrip won a lot of trophies during his driving career but not the one for rookie of the year. (Photo by RacingOne/Getty Images)

2009 and then running three races once signing with Roger Penske, in addition to his five races with James Finch. As it turned out, Kevin Conway brought sponsorship and was the only driver who ran enough races to qualify for the award last year and therefore won it.

Conway was clearly a clinker. Still, it’s disquieting and a bit unsettling to have a goose egg in the rookie column. Looking back to 1999, the rookie winners have comprised a murderer’s row of talent and included future championship contenders as well as Sprint Cup winners. The only candidates who won the rookie title and who didn’t win a race were Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne and Regan Smith. (It should be pointed out that McMurray had already earned his first career victory the year before his rookie title in 2003 for Chip Ganassi and there are those who believe Smith beat Tony Stewart at Talladega in 2008.)

There have been years when the rookie race was best remembered for who didn’t win. Darrell Waltrip lost to Lennie Pond in 1973, for instance, at a time when the award was decided by a NASCAR-appointed committee, which scored the brash Waltrip poorly in the deportment category. The immortal Skip Manning bested Neil Bonnett in 1976, because the soon-to-be-forgotten Manning had a regular ride with Billy Hagan and Bonnett mostly had membership in the Alabama Gang, which was a short track phenomenon that didn’t apply to what was then known as the Winston Cup.

Three years later, Dale Earnhardt Sr. beat Terry Labonte and Harry Gant in a battle among three drivers who would eventually accumulate 116 career victories and nine Cup championships among them. Another “loser” in that 1979 group, Al Holbert, went on to win three Camel GT championships aboard Porsche 962 prototypes and finish fourth as a rookie at the Indy 500.

To take an example from the current era when NASCAR’s rookie award was based on performance, the year Matt Kenseth won the title in 2000 with one victory, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth contended for the Raybestos Rookie of the Year Award in 2000. Kenseth won. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

fell short despite two wins and two poles – because he had less consistency.

Is the lack of rookie candidates for 2011 a sure sign the world is no longer beating a path to NASCAR’s doorstep? More accurately, sponsors are no longer lined up in advance to back the next hottest young talent such as when Joey Logano announced his rookie candidacy for Joe Gibbs Racing not long after turning 18 years old. Bayne is already aging fast at 19 years old and is the top prospect in the eyes of every team owner in the Sprint Cup garage. But sponsorship is still lacking.

When it comes to drivers, the world evidently still finds NASCAR an attractive place to go racing. Brazilian Nelson Piquet Jr., the son of a three-time Formula One world champion and now finally clear of the Renault scandal, has committed to the Camping World Truck Series as his next career move. Danica Patrick has already put her IndyCar career on the line by working NASCAR’s Nationwide Series part-time with an eye on moving up to the Sprint Cup with JR Motorsports and GoDaddy.com. Canadian drivers continue to line up rides for the Nationwide race in Montreal while hoping to garner a shot at the Sprint Cup.

The key question concerns whether talented young people are attracted to motor racing as the best career when it comes to sports versus other opportunities such as football. NCAA football and its bowl games, although down in attendance and ratings this year, appear to be chipping

Jamie McMurray did win the Raybestos Rookie of the Year Award in 2003, but did not win a race that year. He edged Greg Biffle for the rookie award. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

away when it comes to glory and TV ratings for young athletes. And, after all, the NFL remains the ultimate destination for an athlete in the U.S.  Is stock car racing losing out to other means of climbing the social ladder when it comes to opportunities in sports?

These questions are best summed up in the person of Bayne. There will always be young and talented athletes like the former karting star who got an early taste of motor racing and realized that’s the only sport he wanted to pursue.

In the current era, what’s changed most about motor racing is how difficult it is for any candidate to start at the bottom of the social order and still find a way forward in motor racing without any financial help from the family or equipment provided from an existing family racing operation. That’s certainly not the case when it comes to football, which remains an everyman’s sport in the purest sense. Schools continue to provide all the equipment and opportunity that’s necessary.

One has to give credit to NASCAR for trying to broaden both its talent base and its fan base with diversity initiatives. In a sport where each individual has to earn his or her way, or get family help, trying to appeal to a broader base of future participants is important. As for those who see minority drivers and women as “automatic” candidates for sponsorship due to their unique status, well, the last few years have determined it ain’t so. It never was so at the major league level. Just ask Willy T. Ribbs, who got bounced out of rookie title contention when no sponsorship appeared at DiGard Racing in 1986.

For the moment, we live with no rookie candidates of any background. Even if that’s mostly a

The rookie class of 2004 was loaded with the likes of Brendan Gaughan, Kasey Kahne, Johnny Sauter, Scott Riggs, Scott Wimmer and Brian Vickers. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

formality given Bayne’s arrival – or Keselowski’s first full season – it’s an odd state of affairs after 54 consecutive seasons of naming the top rookie in NASCAR’s premier series, a list that goes all the way back to Rush and Rollins.They were immediately followed by a couple of guys named Petty and Pearson, so it’s just as well to leave some room for optimism.

Quote of the Week: “Everybody in the area pitched in to help us. We worked day and night over the winter to get the car ready. It was a great effort on the part of a lot of people for us to be there.” – Lennie Pond, recalling the effort by members of the racing community in the Petersburg, Va. area to prepare a Chevy for his 1973 Winston Cup season in pursuit of the Rookie of the Year title

See ya! …At the races.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, January 17 2011
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