The battle for the Rookie of the Year crown in 2002 was one of historic proportions. Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson battled each other for the crown, but they also battled all season for the Winston Cup championship. Until recently it was unheard of for a rookie driver to contend for the sport's most coveted trophy. However, a progressive shift over the past 20 years has allowed rookie drivers to not only compete for victories, but for the championship as well. More than ever, sponsors dictate driver choices. Whether a veteran or a rookie, a driver has a small window of opportunity to achieve success. And that window gets smaller every year.
For most of NASCAR's history, rookies entering the elite level had to prove themselves in lesser equipment. However, with the advent of multi-car teams things changed. Suddenly rookies were entering NASCAR's highest level with big dollar sponsors and proven race teams. Driving for the venerable Hendrick Motorsports operation, Jeff Gordon captured the rookie crown in 1993 and went on to establish himself as NASCAR's driving force. Twenty years ago, Sterling Marlin won the Rookie of the Year award. He lacked a major sponsor and made due with second hand equipment.
The year was 1983 and the Grand National (now Winston Cup) series had a different look. There were a handful of drivers with the resources to run up front-- Bobby Allison, Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty, Harry Gant, Dale Earnhardt, Ricky Rudd, Neil Bonnett, and Tim Richmond were weekly contenders. Behind them there were a handful of drivers, such as Bill Elliott and Buddy Baker, who could contend on an inconsistent basis. The bottom half of the field were filled by independent drivers and rookies. There were drivers such as Jimmy Means and J.D. McDuffie staging a race within a race. They couldn't compete with the sponsored teams so they had contests to see which one could finish ahead. And then there were the rookies.
Jimmie Johnson traveled to most tracks in 2002 in a private plane. Once at the track he stayed in a million dollar converted bus complete with DVD player, big screen TV, and climate control. His sponsor had paid upwards of $10 million to plaster their logos on his uniform and race car. In return the driver made appearances for the sponsor both at the track and at various retail outlets around the country. His race team works in a multi-million dollar edifice on the grounds of Hendrick Motorsports which resembles a sprawling college campus more than a traditional race shop. Upon entering the glass and steel structure known as JG Motorsports, an array of trophies greets visitors. A display car in the lobby sits above a panel with a catchy slogan: "Teamwork is the fuel that allows common people to achieve uncommon results." The complex is a mechanics dream. When Johnson was given a 25 point penalty for an illegal part on his car prior to a race at Daytona, he disagreed with the penalty. After all, it was the race team that put the part on the car. Johnson hadn't picked up a wrench all season. He felt that owner's points and not driver's points should be taken.
By contrast, in 1983 Sterling Marlin either paid his own way to the tracks or hopped a ride with the team when they came through Tennessee. Car owner Roger Hamby owned a small, dark garage in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. The team had secured sponsorship from Hesco Muffler Systems but the money didn't cover their expenses for the season. These days, the full season sponsorship money would hardly cover a team's expenses for one race weekend. Marlin's team ran the entire 30-race season on used tires and recycled engines. His pit crew was usually made up of local volunteers. When needed, Marlin would help the volunteer crew members work on the car. In 1983, Marlin's objective was to showcase his skills in the hopes that a top-tier team would hire him.
Sterling Marlin entered 30 races and his highest finish was tenth in 1983. He had 11 DNF's. "The way I look at it, next year (1984) one of three things will happen to me as far as my career in Winston Cup racing goes," Marlin said following the season. "I'll either stay with Roger (Hamby) and hope to put together a good sponsorship setup for 1984; I'll go with some other team and sponsor; or I'll find myself back in the hay patch with Daddy on a full time basis." If you think that third option was a joke, think again. Along with his father, Marlin was in the business of raising cattle and growing soybeans, alfalfa, and other crops. His goal was merely to pursue racing full-time and "stay out of the hay patch."
Marlin went on to bigger and better things. He drove for several independent teams over the next few seasons but received a break when Terry Labonte departed Billy Hagan's team to drive for Junior Johnson. Hagan tapped Marlin to drive his #44 Piedmont Airlines sponsored cars. Marlin showcased his talent and after a few more car owner moves, found victory lane in 1994 driving for Morgan-McClure Racing. He moved on to Felix Sabates' team a few years later and has been a contender for the Winston Cup title the past few seasons. An overnight sensation at the age of 45.
Nowadays the showcasing is done in ARCA, ASA, and the Craftsman Truck Series. Even the Busch Grand National series has gotten far too competitive and expensive for an independent driver without sponsorship to make the slightest mark. Once a young driver impresses enough, it's on to a season or two in the Busch series. Following that is the jump up to Winston Cup. What's that? You're over 30 years old and are looking for shot? Unless you have the skill of Dale Earnhardt and the PR persona of Jeff Gordon, it probably won't happen. In the era of sponsor-driven decisions, youth sells. At the end of 2002, three proven Winston Cup race winning drivers (Jimmy Spencer, Bobby Hamilton, Ken Schrader) have found their careers either on hold or in a backward slide due to the youth movement. The hot commodities are under 25. Can they out drive the veterans in similarly matched cars? Probably not. But the sponsors need a poster child. Shane Hmeil, Hank Parker Jr, and Casey Mears fit perfectly into a sponsor's marketing plan. Eventually they'll be rookies in Winston Cup. But they won't be driving for an independent owner on a limited budget. Things have changed for the rookie driver in a big way.
The downside to the rookie rush in Winston Cup are the drivers who are left out in the cold. Spencer, Hamilton, and Schrader are just three who found chairs with shaky legs when the music stopped at the end of 2002. Not unlike what happened to Morgan Shepherd and Geoff Bodine in previous seasons. Veteran drivers simply cast aside due to sponsor decisions.
Casey Atwood was labeled a "can't miss" prospect as he turned heads driving on the local Tennessee short tracks in the late-90's. Ray Evernham signed him to drive one of his Winston Cup cars in the latter stages of 2000. Atwood had been in the Busch series and had experienced only a modest degree of success. Nevertheless, he was a fresh-faced 20-year-old with talent. Evernham brought him into Winston Cup but Atwood struggled in 2001. He finished 26th in points. With pressure mounting from Evernham's sponsors to perform, a deal was struck. Atwood would drive for Jim Smith's team who would receive technical assistance from Evernham Motorsports. Jeremy Mayfield stepped into Evernham's #19 Dodge. Legally, Evernham was in a bind. He couldn't give up on Atwood when the sponsor wanted to. In 2002, Atwood was non-competitive in Smith's Dodge and was fired late in the season. Ironically, Mayfield finished 26th in points in 2002; the same position Atwood held in 2001. His future appears headed back to the Busch series.
When Atwood was introduced as the driver for Evernham's second team, expectations were high. However the expectations were both unreasonable and unattainable. Dodge and Ray Evernham asked Casey Atwood to perform at a level that the race team was not ready to perform at. In other words, the 21-year-old behind the wheel had to be the driving force behind the team. When the team struggled, crew chiefs were changed. For two years it seemed the crew chief position for Atwood was a revolving door. Chemistry couldn't be attained overnight. Nobody had a better understanding of that than Ray Evernham. For every success story like Johnson and Newman, there are several like Atwood-- a victim of the game. Combine a rookie driver with a start-up race team, an eager car owner still learning how to be car owner, and a "can't miss" promise to a big dollar sponsor and you have the recipe for failure on a grand stage.
Jason Leffler was another driver who was rushed into Winston Cup by an offer he couldn't refuse. Leffler had been driving for Joe Gibbs' Busch team but received an offer from Jim Smith (ironically Atwood's car owner a year later) in 2001 to drive his #7 Dodge. The 25-year-old Leffler struggled through most of the season and was replaced by Kevin Lepage. He wound up with Smith's Craftsman Truck team and had a strong season in 2002 racing in NASCAR's lower level.
For rookies entering Winston Cup racing today, starting with an established multi-car operation is a must. The most successful under-30 drivers to break into Winston Cup racing in the past five years have all been with established multi-car teams. In addition to Newman (Penske Racing) and Johnson (Hendrick Motorsports), the "young guns", as the media likes to say, all have the resources of the sport's largest multi-car operations. Tony Stewart (Joe Gibbs Racing), Matt Kenseth (Roush Racing), Dale Earnhardt Jr (DEI), Kevin Harvick (RCR), and Kurt Busch (Roush Racing) are some of the recent additions to the Winston Cup series who broke in with established organizations. Though Busch did begin the 2001 season without a primary sponsor, the deep pockets of the Roush organization were more than enough to keep his team competitive before Rubbermaid signed on midway through the season. Another key ingredient to success is chemistry. Earnhardt Jr, Kenseth, and Newman all drove for the same team with the same crew chief in the Busch series. After gaining experience, the entire team moved up to the Winston Cup series. Instant chemistry.
The motto for rookies entering Winston Cup racing these days is simple: "Get Hot Or Go Home." You cannot ride around just to gain experience as rookies did twenty years ago. The sad reality is that sponsors don't seem to be after the best race driver they can get-- they're only after the best demographic the race driver can bring them. This isn't 1983 anymore; times have changed. The learning curve for rookies has been accelerated. For better or worse.
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