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Article originally published in 2006 Athlon Sports Racing annual
Over the past decade or so, a steady stream of young drivers has made its way into Nextel Cup racing, giving birth to NASCAR’s Young Gun generation. Tony Stewart came along in 1999, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. arrived in 2000, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch got their starts in ’01, Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson in ’02 — and the list goes on. But in any one year, there were never more than one or two drivers moving into potentially high-impact jobs, rides with the sport’s top teams.
The rookie class of 2006 looks to be the deepest in NASCAR history. Of the seven full-time newbies, six have jobs with either Richard Childress Racing, Dale Earnhardt Inc., Joe Gibbs or Chip Ganassi. Not only is the two-time defending Busch Series champ, Martin Truex Jr., moving to Cup full-time, but so is Clint Bowyer, the man he edged out for the 2005 title. J.J. Yeley has a résumé that bears a remarkable similarity to defending Nextel Cup champ Tony Stewart. And Denny Hamlin, who ran seven Cup races last year (the maximum allowable for a driver to retain his rookie status), enjoyed three top 10 finishes.
The most intriguing member of the class is Truex, a 25-year-old who should bring stability to Dale Earnhardt Inc. Last year, the team was fraught with dissension. Nobody — drivers, crews — could get along. Earnhardt and Michael Waltrip had a series of on-track scrapes that led Dale Earnhardt Inc. director of competition Tony Eury Sr. to say “I don’t know what (Earnhardt’s) problem is with Michael, but it will be fixed ... I guarantee it. He acts like he’s friends with him, but every time he gets near him on the racetrack, he ends up wrecking him. DEI has enough problems. We don’t need that.”
Enter Truex, hand-picked by Junior in 2002 for a ride in the Busch Series. Truex was testing his Busch North car at Richmond at the same time Junior was practicing with his Busch car. A mutual friend introduced them, and they began talking about everything, it seemed, but racing. “I think our personalities go together really well,” Truex said.
Impressed with Truex’s character — not to mention his lap times — Junior offered to let him take his Busch car for a spin. Alas, the skies soon opened, but Earnhardt gave Truex quite a rain check: a ride for the Busch race at the track two months later. Truex ran near the front before an engine problem knocked him out of the race, but Earnhardt was impressed enough to give him a job in 2003 in the Chance 2 Busch car he owned with his stepmother, Teresa Earnhardt.
From there Truex waltzed to the 2004 Busch title, presenting the Earnhardts with a conundrum: Should they bump Truex up to Cup racing? Junior, who in 1999 decided to stick around and try to defend his Busch title, decided Truex should do the same. It ended up being a wise move. While everything went right in ’04 for Truex — he didn’t have a single DNF — 2005 provided him a lesson in perseverance. He was 348 points out of the lead after just nine races. Then he got hot, blew out to a decent-sized lead, and then held on for dear life. “We could not do anything right for the last two months,” he said after wrapping up his second title. “It’s been a rough year — up and down, up and down. This thing (was) three times as hard to win as it was (in ’04).”
So now Truex will enter his first full-time Cup season as not only a proven winner, but also as a driver who has proven he can be resilient when things get rough, which, Earnhardt learned last year, they often do at the Cup level. Over the past two years Truex and Junior have become very close; Truex lived on Earnhardt’s couch for a while before moving into another house on Junior’s property. They’ve spent countless hours playing video games or boating together. They’re both the sons of racers (Truex Sr. was a racer in New Jersey). Earnhardt is clearly comfortable with Truex — “There aren’t many people I’d let drive my car,” Earnhardt says — and Truex looks primed to make the jump from Junior’s protégé to his sidekick.
When Earnhardt made the move up to the Cup series in 2000, he was joined by one of his chief Busch rivals, Matt Kenseth. Truex will also have a familiar foe: Bowyer, who finished second in the Busch series and is moving into Dave Blaney’s old seat with Richard Childress Racing. Childress had planned to bring Bowyer — who two years ago was working in a Ford dealership in Emporia, Kan., when Childress happened to see him run an ARCA race in Nashville — along slowly, moving him to the Nextel Cup in 2007. But Bowyer was so good in his first full season in a Busch car, and Blaney was so mediocre, that Childress began rethinking his options: a 44-year-old with one career top 5 in 199 races, or a hotshot 26-year-old who finished two spots ahead of Blaney in his one career Cup. It turned out to be an easy choice. “I like his style on the track,” Childress says. “Clint’s pretty aggressive. He doesn’t wait around. When he gets in traffic, he gets the job done.” Historically, Childress has done well with such drivers: Bowyer’s RCR teammate Kevin Harvick isn’t known for his passivity, nor was the late Dale Earnhardt.
Bowyer got his big chance when Childress happened to flip on a TV during a rain delay. Hamlin’s break was almost as fortuitous. In 2003 he was racing late model cars around North Carolina and Virginia — and winning quite a bit. Joe Gibbs wanted to look at some drivers for his team’s diversity program at Hickory Motor Speedway in North Carolina. He needed a car, so he used Hamlin’s, since it was clearly quick. Hamlin half-seriously asked if he could run a few laps and show the Gibbs folks what he had. They said sure, and, in the words of Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs, he was “freakishly fast.” Gibbs put him in a truck for a few races in 2004, and late in the year gave him a one-time shot in a Busch car. Hamlin finished eighth at Darlington, so Gibbs hired him full-time.
With Jason Leffler struggling in Nextel Cup last year, Gibbs put the 25-year-old behind the wheel of the 11 car late in the season, and Hamlin promptly threw up three top 10s (and one pole) in seven starts. Keeping him in the Cup car for 2006 was a no-brainer. “He’s just so consistent and smooth on the track. He doesn’t get rattled,” J.D. Gibbs says. “He takes his time the first part of the race. He learns the track, he’s careful around guys, then he starts kind of picking up and moving.”
But Team Gibbs had another vacancy to fill when Bobby Labonte asked for, and received, an early release from his contract to join Petty Enterprises. The owner picked his other Busch driver, Yeley, a 29-year-old with a strong open-wheel résumé. In 2003 he became the second driver (Tony Stewart was the first) to win all three USAC national titles in the same season and was the youngest driver in the field in the 1998 Indy 500.
The prospect of having two of his three cars driven by rookies might make Gibbs a little skittish, but at least he’s got Stewart. Last year’s champion may not seem like the model team leader, but last year Stewart moved home to Indiana, getting away from the bustle of the Charlotte area. Returning to the small town in which he was raised mellowed him out significantly. In years past, he had trouble controlling his temper and butted heads with everyone — including, on occasion, Labonte. But last year saw a more mature Stewart, one who appears capable of being a pretty good mentor to two newbies. (He already has a great relationship with one of them. When Yeley won his USAC triple crown in 2003, he did it in a car owned by Stewart.)
Hamlin and Yeley aren’t the only pair of rookie teammates. Chip Ganassi promoted two of his Busch drivers to fill vacancies left by veteran Sterling Marlin and Jamie McMurray. Reed Sorenson is a 19-year-old who won twice in his first full Busch season; David Stremme, a high school classmate of Ryan Newman’s, has a slightly less sterling background. He has never won a Busch race and finished better than 36th just once in his four Cup starts last year. But Ganassi and his co-owner, Felix Sabates, weren’t getting much production out of Marlin and decided they might as well get a young, marketable driver in the car. Shortly after Stremme was announced as the 48-year-old Marlin’s replacement, Sabates told NASCAR.com, “This is a young man’s sport today. Unfortunately we all get old. Not that Sterling is old, but he’s not a marketing dream.”
Stremme and Sorenson are moving into decent cars; Ganassi has been competitive but hasn’t won a race since 2002. (The seventh member of the ’06 rookie class, Brent Sherman, will drive the 49 car, a perennial also-ran.) In any other year, they’d be frontrunners for top rookie honors, but not in 2006 — a year that will showcase the most promising rookie class the sport has ever seen.