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Top NASCAR Drivers Rooted in Dirt

In celebration of Athlon Sports' upcoming 10th annual Racing magazine, we've dug into the archives to uncover some of the most memorable features, profiles and Q&As that have graced our pages. Visit the site daily for more retrospective looks at NASCAR throughout the decade.

The following feature was originally published in the 2005 Athlon Sports Racing annual:

Jeff Gordon did it first. Then came Tony Stewart. These two dirt guys came through NASCAR like General Sherman burned through Atlanta. Gordon was a young, good-looking hot shoe in open wheel racing with the Indy 500 in his sights. Ford picked him up, and off to the Busch Series young Gordon went. The story is well-known: Gordon ran two years in the NASCAR Busch Series before Rick Hendrick stole him away from Ford.

Gordon moved up to the Cup ranks in 1993 and suffered through crashes and a steep learning curve before winning his first Cup race in 1994. That started an 11-year winning streak that has included four championships.

Stewart came along as the next hot driver pulled from the Midwest dirt tracks. Joe Gibbs made the call and put Stewart in the NASCAR Busch Series for two years. Stewart came close to winning a couple of races, and finally did so when he moved up to the Cup ranks in 1999 There, he won three races in his rookie year.

The success of Gordon and Stewart has put a premium on snatching young drivers off the dirt tracks in hopes of finding the next young star. As a result, the former breeding ground for the big-time NASCAR circuits has disappeared. Asphalt tracks like Hickory, Nashville and Birmingham no longer produce the top young talent.

The Search for the Next Star
The search for young talent landed at places like the Indiana State Fairgrounds (Hoosier 100), Illinois State Fairgrounds (Tony Bettenhausen 100) and the DuQuoin Fairgrounds (Ted Horn 100). Car owners were looking at the Silver Crown Series for drivers capable of following in the footsteps of Gordon and Stewart. Gordon won the USAC Silver Crown Series in 1991; Stewart won the 1995 title. With their success, open wheel dirt drivers began looking to Daytona instead of Indianapolis for the future.

Established Cup veteran Ken Schrader enjoyed an impressive career driving Sprint Cars, Midgets and the Silver Crown Series machines. Schrader moved into the Cup series in 1985 with a full-time ride with Junie Donlavey. After three seasons, Schrader signed on with Rick Hendrick and won just four races in 267 starts. His career has been lackluster since the early ’90s.

Dave Blaney has impressive credentials, including a World of Outlaws title and the 1984 USAC Silver Crown Championship. Bill Davis put Blaney in a Busch car for 20 races in 1998 and a full season in 1999, running the Gordon/Stewart plan. Blaney ran two full Cup seasons with Davis before joining the Jasper Engines team in 2002. The dirt track champion has produced mediocre results at best in the Cup Series. Blaney joins Richard Childress for 2005 in a competitive, fully funded effort. This year will determine whether Blaney is a success or a bust.

Mike Bliss owns 12 career Craftsman Truck wins and won the 2002 Truck Series Championship. Bliss has bounced around in the Busch and Cup Series in the last two seasons. Last year, Bliss claimed his one and only Busch victory and had a couple of great runs in a Joe Gibbs Cup car, including a fourth at Richmond. Bliss has signed a three-year deal with Gene Haas to run the NetZero Chevy, giving him his best opportunity in Cup racing to date.

Gibbs also went after ’98 Silver Crown Champion Jason Leffler. The plan was to follow in Stewart’s footsteps, running a Busch program for a couple of years to prepare the dirt track ace for the Cup level. Leffler’s credentials were impressive, as he came to Gibbs with two USAC Midget titles to go along with his Silver Crown title. In his first season in the Busch Series, Leffler won three poles and had one runner-up finish. Chip Ganassi offered Leffler a Cup ride for the 2001 season, which he took, but he was cut loose after 30 disappointing races.

Leffler made a NASCAR comeback with Jim Smith in 2002, making a couple of Cup and Truck starts in the Dodges out of Smith’s shop but failed to deliver a win. The next year, Leffler ran six Busch races in the Gene Haas Chevy and notched his first Truck win for Smith.

This season, Leffler will be back with Joe Gibbs for his second tour of duty in the Cup series. This time around he has enough experience to expect better results.

After losing Leffler to Ganassi in ‘01, Gibbs went after J.J. Yeley, who won the Silver Crown Championship in 2002 and the 2003 USAC Triple Crown. Yeley ran some Busch races and two Nextel Cup races in ‘04 but struggled to make the transition. All of the open wheel dirt track heroes who didn’t make it in Cup cars had less than two solid years of stock car experience before making the jump to Cup. This trend is undeniable.

Keys to Crossover Success
One reason dirt racers succeed on asphalt is that they have experience adapting to cars that change by the lap and track conditions that change even more quickly. The Silver Crown cars also run on asphalt at tracks like Phoenix, Richmond, Pikes Peak, Nazareth and Milwaukee, providing valuable experience.

Fuel capacity also makes a huge difference. Silver Crown cars hold 70 gallons of fuel (approximately 500 pounds) behind the rear axle. In a NASCAR Cup car, they haul 22 gallons (approximately 150 pounds) of fuel. Because of the heavy fuel load, Silver Crown drivers must nurse their cars so they don’t burn up the right rear tire. Once the fuel load burns down and lightens the load, it’s showtime.

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Last year at the Silver Crown race at Nazareth, Kasey Kahne ran most of the race in seventh to 10th place. With a quarter of the laps left, he came to the front and won by taking care of his tires and finding the best groove.

If you watch Kahne in his Cup or Busch car, he is constantly searching for the right groove on the track. Listening to his radio communication, he is constantly making adjustments to meet changing track conditions.

The NASCAR Cup, Busch and Truck guys fight changing track conditions throughout the race. As 43 cars lay down rubber and oil, the best of the best know how to fight these ever-changing circumstances by changing grooves as the track changes. Drivers with an asphalt-only background take longer to learn how to run with these changing track conditions.

There is a huge difference in racing grooves at dirt tracks. The race last September at DuQuoin is a prime example. When the race started, every car hugged the bottom groove. By the time the race was halfway over, cars were running the bottom, middle and on the cushion of the high side. Adjustments like those provide perfect training for stock cars.

Traditionally, stock cars have relied on the right front tire and suspension to turn the car. Entering a turn, the weight transfers to the right front, and the driver has to nurse the car to keep that tire from burning up. The opposite is true for the open wheelers; they are running cars as loose as they can stand.

On the Fox broadcasts, Darrell Waltrip constantly talks about the younger dirt trackers riding on the right rear in the turns. He is referring to the dirt track racing technique of pitching a car into the turn after a late apex and placing the weight load on the right rear. This is a driving technique asphalt drivers have not had to learn.

Success Stories
Roger Penske went fishing in the USAC waters to find Ryan Newman. His open wheel record is impressive: 1993 All-American Midget Series Champion and Rookie of the Year, 1995 USAC National Midgets Rookie of the Year, 1996 USAC Silver Crown Rookie of the Year, 1999 Silver Crown Champion and 1999 USAC Rookie of the Year.

In 2000, Penske set Newman up in the ABC (ARCA, Busch, Cup) program. Newman ran a limited schedule of ARCA races, winning at Pocono in only his second start. He followed that up with wins at Kentucky and Lowe’s.

Newman ran a Busch schedule and seven Cup races in 2001 before joining the Cup series full-time in ‘02. He brought his open wheel experience along with a degree in Vehicle Structural Engineering from Purdue University. His two years of stock car experience provided Newman a comfort level before making the jump.

Jack Roush has joined the dirt track fraternity with the addition of Carl Edwards. Roush found Edwards in one of his “Gong Show” try-out sessions. Edwards followed his father’s footsteps, dirt racing across the Midwest in the Silver Crown Series in 2001 and ‘02. He joined Roush for a run at the Craftsman Truck title in 2003 and won three races. Last season, Edwards won three more Truck races and ran a third of the Cup schedule. In his 13 Cup starts, he recorded five top 10 runs. With his short but impressive career in NASCAR, he looks like a keeper.

A “Can’t Miss” Who Missed
Soon after Jeff Gordon made his move from open-wheel dirt cars to become a star in NASCAR, Kenny Bernstein had a great idea. If a youngster could make it, why not one of the best the World of Outlaws had to offer? Bernstein grabbed Steve Kinser, whose only Cup experience had been in the 1993 Daytona 500 qualifying race, where he lasted only two laps before crashing out.

Bernstein had limited success with several drivers behind the wheel of his King Motorsports Cup team. After parting ways with Brett Bodine at the end of the 1994 season, Kinser got the job in a move hailed as genius. Kinser won an IROC race in Talladega the previous year, so many observers thought a stock car superstar could be found in all of the dirt and dust.

Kinser got off to a shaky start at Daytona, using a provisional to get in and lasting only 27 laps before crashing out. The next week, he used another provisional to make the race at Rockingham, where he finished 27th, 56 laps off the pace. The Cup Series went to the first short track of the season at Richmond, where Kinser qualified 36th and finished 28th. Things improved in Atlanta, as Kinser qualified 23rd but made only nine laps before crashing out for the second time in four races. The track too tough to tame didn’t offer much help; just 95 laps into that race, the motor expired, leading to a 40th-place finish.

The next two races were short tracks where conventional wisdom said Kinser would be a little more at home. Bristol resulted in a DNQ followed by another at North Wilkesboro. That was the final straw. Kinser was out and Hut Stricklin was in. Kinser went back to dirt track racing, where he remains.

Kinser went straight to the Cup Series from the dirt cars, with no Busch, ARCA or other stock car experience. He came into the sport when the test sessions were limited, and the number of tires was restricted during race weekend. He never had a chance.

There is a definite pipeline that leads from short dirt tracks to the Nextel Cup Series. Some, like Gordon and Stewart, have reached the pinnacle of stock car success. Some, like Leffler and Edwards, are still proving themselves, while others have dropped out completely. However, the fact remains that the experience gained from slinging mud is a perfect first step on the way to a successful stock car career.