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The following feature was originally published in the 2004 Athlon Sports Racing annual:
For years, almost all of the fish swam into NASCAR’s biggest pond through one main channel. These days, that entryway seems more like a river delta.
The traditional path to Nextel Cup racing — running from a hometown short track to a regional series and then through NASCAR’s Busch Series — still works. Today, however, those experiences are not necessarily prerequisites. Talent is now flowing into stock car racing from all directions. Cup drivers of today, and most certainly those of tomorrow, are coming from open-wheel racing and off-road series; from California, the Southwest and the Pacific Northwest; and from all ports and points where people learn how to drive fast.
While NASCAR’s growth has made its gravitational pull quite strong, the stars don’t always come to NASCAR on their own, however. More and more, car owners and the manufacturers who support them make it their business to identify and develop racing talent as an investment in their teams’ future. “A great deal of our success tomorrow will depend on how well we recruit today,” team owner Ray Evernham says. “If you are going to be a viable organization for the future, you have to start thinking about and recruiting talent just like any other professional sports team.”
Evernham will field a team for 23-year-old Kasey Kahne in 2004, joining virtually every other major multi-team operation in having a young driver in its system.
Hendrick Motorsports will put 20-year-old Brian Vickers, who won last year’s Busch Series championship, in Cup in 2004 and will also run Kyle Busch, the 18-year-old brother of Roush Racing driver Kurt Busch, in the Busch Series this year.
Kurt Busch is only 25 himself, and Roush Racing also has Carl Edwards and Jon Wood coming up through its ranks. At Penske Racing South, star Ryan Newman is just 26.
Richard Childress Racing will have Johnny Sauter, who is 25, in its No. 30 Chevrolet. Childress also signed Clint Bowyer, a 24-year-old short-track whiz from Kansas, to share time with Kevin Harvick in a Busch car in 2004. Joe Gibbs Racing went to the U.S. Auto Club ranks to hire J.J. Yeley for a mixed schedule in 2004 that is designed to lead to a full-time Cup ride the next year.
Chip Ganassi Racing already has two young drivers, 2003 Cup Rookie of the Year Jamie McMurray and Casey Mears, in Cup rides and has plans to run Reed Sorensen, the 2003 Rookie of the Year in the American Speed Association at age 17, in some Busch races this year. And Dale Earnhardt Inc. will run Martin Truex Jr. in a Busch car and, perhaps, selected Cup events.
“When I started 20 years ago, it was almost like there was a pecking order,” Rick Hendrick says. “Junior Johnson would take the driver he wanted from one of the mid-level teams, and that team would replace him with a guy from a lower-level team. Those teams would then look at a guy who’d been running in the Busch Series, and even if you showed promise you had to wait until you were 30 for your chance.
“Today, you have to be looking at Indy cars and sprint cars and late model tracks all over the country. And that’s good news and it’s bad news. The good news is that the pool of driver is enormous now that we’ve realized it’s out there in a lot of other places. The bad news is that you’ve got to commit to a guy so early and spend a lot of money to bring him along. If you guess right, it’s a home run. But if you don’t guess right, it takes a while to regroup.”
There is no time to waste in the racing recruiting business. Hendrick says he has approached young drivers in the past only to learn he’s the third or the fourth owner to make contact. With all of the interest buzzing around them, the most highly regarded young drivers are no longer waiting for opportunities. So car owners must quickly evaluate the potential stars and develop an instinct for making the right decisions that have a long-term impact on the success of their teams.
“You can see talent,” Hendrick says. “If they have that, then you’ve got to figure if they will work within your organization. I call it the fit factor. It’s the whole package. Can they work with a sponsor? Can they fit into the system you have in place? How mature are they? It’s all of those things. And you have to sort some of that out before you even put them in a car for their first test.”
In an ideal situation, of course, car owners with teams in the Cup, Busch and Truck series would line up drivers in a logical progression so that as an older driver retires or moves on there’s a successor ready to take over. But things are rarely ideal.
When 2003 began, most people in racing assumed that Kyle Busch was heading for a Truck Series ride at Roush Racing after reaching his 18th birthday. That would eventually lead him into a Cup ride as his brother’s teammate. Hendrick figured that was what was going to happen — until he got a phone call from Kyle Busch’s representatives.
“I thought Kyle was hooked up, but they wanted to talk,” Hendrick says. “We didn’t have a spot for him, but we made one. You just can’t have enough A-plus players.”
In February 2001, following the death of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt in a crash at Daytona, Richard Childress had an instant need for a Cup driver who could keep a competitive team running at or near the front.
“We wouldn’t have had Kevin Harvick to put in that car if we hadn’t had a young driver sitting out there in the wings,” says Childress, who is now plucking Bowyer off of dirt and asphalt short-tracks in Kansas and bringing him to race for a team that, with Harvick and Sauter sharing the driving duties, won the owners’ championship in the Busch Series in 2003.
Everybody is looking for talent. As Bill Elliott cuts back to drive a partial Cup schedule this year, he also plans to race his own cars on short tracks around the country. While he’s doing that, Elliott will also be scouting for new talent for Evernham.
It was Mark Martin who recommended that Jack Roush hire Matt Kenseth, and Kenseth won last year’s Winston Cup title. Greg Biffle, who won Busch and Truck series titles for Roush, came at the recommendation of Benny Parsons, who saw Biffle race in a winter series in Arizona.
But Roush can’t totally depend on the observation skills of others. He has people who scout for young talent, and when he’s needed to fill openings in his Truck Series teams, he has staged full-blown auditions — nicknamed “Gong Shows” — to give some of those young drivers their shot at the big time. Kurt Busch, in fact, auditioned along with four others at a track in Toledo, Ohio, in October 1999. He got a call-back to a second round in Phoenix later that year and did well enough to get offered a Truck ride. And now, he has eight Winston Cup race victories.
Busch stepped over the Busch Series, moving straight from trucks to Cup cars, and Brendan Gaughan will attempt to make that jump this year. While there are those who’ve clearly benefited from the experience gained in the Busch Series — Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are past Busch champions and Vickers has that title under his belt as he moves up to Cup this year — that no longer appears to be a required stop along the way.
“Right now I would not suggest to any young person to go into the Busch Series and try to run every race,” car owner Joe Gibbs says. “I don’t think it’s geared for that.
“Generally, the people you’re going to find successful in Busch right now are the people that drive one of the six cars that have been there for 10 years. Or, it’s going to be a Winston Cup guy that comes down and cherry picks the races.
“In the Busch Series, you get about two hours to get ready to qualify, and in that two hours you’ve got to change over to qualifying trim, which takes about 25 or 30 minutes. So at a number of those races you get 17, 18, 19 laps if you’re lucky. Then you turn around and qualify a car; sometimes at one of the fastest places without ever having tested there because you only got seven tests.
“It’s rushed. You get a small number of laps, and almost every week there was either wrecks, seeping race track, late inspection, which also cut into the two hours, and so you do not get practice time. Then you’re shoved out there to qualify. Then you have one hour of happy hour, and the bottom line is you’re going to go up against guys in the Cup series that have had not only that practice time, but three hours in a Cup car.
“If you put a predominantly rookie team out there and try and put a rookie driver in the Busch Series and go week to week, I think you’re asking for a heartache.”
That’s why J.J. Yeley’s 2004 schedule will include about 10 to 12 Busch races, seven to eight races in Automobile Racing Club of America stock cars, as well as two or three Cup races this year. Yeley is a 27-year-old native of Phoenix who won championships in the U.S. Auto Club’s three major series — sprints, midgets and Silver Crown — during a record-breaking season in 2003. That USAC “triple crown” had been done only once before, by Tony Stewart, who won the 2002 Cup series title driving for Gibbs and who was the car owner for Yeley’s sprint car team last year.
“Right now I think stock cars are the best fit for a guy coming from USAC,” says Yeley, who in 2003 broke the USAC single-season record for victories previously held by the legendary A.J. Foyt. “A lot of people think that because you run open wheel that you should go Indy car racing, and 50 years ago that might have been the case. But technology has surpassed what we do in USAC racing, and to make that jump (to NASCAR) now is a lot easier.”
The path from USAC to NASCAR is certainly well-traveled. Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Ryan Newman, three of the biggest stars in the Nextel Cup Series, came up through its ranks.
“There are a lot of similarities between the way the cars handle,” Yeley says, “the way they slide around a little bit on the race track, and the way the cars change throughout a tire run or fuel run. I know the ins and outs of all three race cars that I ran in USAC, and I don’t necessarily with stock cars. It’s just going to be a matter of doing a lot of testing. I’ll spend a lot of time at the shop trying to figure out exactly what kinds of changes will fix the attitude of the race car. I think that’s just going to be the biggest challenge for me right now.”
Stewart agrees with that assessment.
“He has a lot to learn,” Stewart says. “He’s driven cars primarily that were 1,600 pounds and lighter, and now he’s going to jump into a car that’s twice as heavy and has tires that are half as wide, and dealing with a radial tire that he’s never been exposed to other than the IRL.”
Yeley may lack experience, but like a lot of the younger drivers who’ve made their mark on stock-car racing in recent years, he does not lack confidence. “If I’m as good as I think I am or I hope to be in the amount of effort that I’m going to give it, I think I can accomplish the same things that those guys have done,” Yeley says of USAC products like Stewart, Gordon and Newman. “If you look at the records from what we’ve done in USAC, everything is very similar.
“But it’s going to be very tough. This is the top of auto racing. This is where the best of the best are going to be, so you just have to stand up and give it full effort and see if you can compete.”
Gibbs likes that confidence — a trait the NFL coaching legend calls “athletic arrogance.”
“We know how good he is in (USAC). We know he’s good enough to dominate over there,” Gibbs says. “That’s opposed to somebody who kind of came up through the Busch or Truck series and maybe didn’t get a bunch of wins or has a background in winning a bunch of real pressure situations. A guy like J.J. has a phenomenal background in having been in very competitive stuff, having to produce championships, and he’s won a lot. He thinks he belongs. He’s been there. He’s won.”
Hendrick is familiar with that kind of confidence in young drivers, too.
“With all of their hearts, they believe that if you give them the same equipment they would go out there and beat the pants off Jimmie Johnson,” Hendrick says, speaking of another of his drivers who at age 28 finished second in the Cup standings.
That confidence must be tempered, Hendrick says, with a willingness to learn and with an ability to handle the rest of what comes with being a driver at NASCAR’s top level.
“If you get a renegade in there it can mess up your whole operation,” Hendrick says. “I can’t speak for any other car owner, but personally I don’t think there’s anybody out there who’s that good. You work too hard to have good chemistry within your teams and you don’t want to mess that up.”
In that regard, Hendrick has a veteran like Terry Labonte and a driver like Gordon, who has won four championships and faced just about every kind of off-track challenge a celebrity driver could come up against, to show his younger drivers the tricks of the trade. But the car owner has a role in shaping a driver for success, too.
“I spend a lot of time with the guys,” Hendrick says. “Brian (Vickers) spent a week with us in Florida after winning the Busch championship, and we talked about how sponsors react to things and about how it’s important to sow the seeds and be a good citizen within NASCAR and the things they ask of you.
“These guys are so young and if somebody doesn’t help them think about how to invest their money wisely and watch out for places they shouldn’t be spending it on, they’re not going to know. It’s in my interest to see them do well, because when those things are going well they can focus on the car and the results are better for the organization.”
It’s not always sunshine and roses in the racing business, though, as Kurt Busch found out in 2003. Although he was the one who got punched by Jimmy Spencer following the previous week’s race at Michigan, by the time Busch won the Sharpie 500 at Bristol in August he was being booed lustily by almost everyone in the massive crowd at that track.
“Kurt has learned things the last three years that he didn’t know and things he didn’t know he needed to know,” Roush says. “He’s becoming wiser day by day and we’re just working our way through it. Kurt is incredibly talented. He’s incredibly skilled and he’s got great instincts on everything except maybe on some occasions the way he handles something that goes on between his ears. He’s getting wiser on that too.”
Hendrick has a line he uses with his drivers to explain how quickly a driver — one of any age — can change the way he’s perceived in the grandstands.
“You only get one audience with the Pope,” Hendrick tells them. “You don’t want to be hated by everybody. It’s one thing to have half the crowd wearing your jackets and hat and the other half booing because they don’t want you to win all of the time, but it’s another thing to have everybody hate you.”
For all of the pitfalls and pressures the trend presents, however, there’s no question that Nextel Cup racing is becoming a younger driver’s sport. The average age of a Cup race winner in 2003 was 32 years old, and the top seven drivers in the final standings were all 32 or younger. In 2001, the average race winner was 35.5 years old and as recently as 1993 he was 37.8.
Former Cup champions Elliott, Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace and Terry Labonte, meanwhile, are all in their late 40s. Elliott won a race at Rockingham in November 2003 at age 48. Only four drivers in Cup history — Dale Earnhardt, Geoffrey Bodine, Morgan Shepherd and Harry Gant — won races at an older age.
The rewards for and the demands on star drivers keep increasing, too, so the career span of the sport’s elite may very well shorten. Gordon and Stewart, for instance, have both said they can’t imagine themselves driving until they’re nearly 50.
That means car owners have to be ready. They have to be looking down the track to find young drivers with the potential to follow in the footsteps of those who grab the spotlight today.