Rookies Leading Revolution In NASCAR
May 31, 2000 | 12:00 A.M. EST
The current batch of NASCAR young guns -- fuzzy-faced and hot-blooded -- aren't supposed to be playing chicken with Winston Cup veterans. Surprisingly, the veterans are the ones blinking and hollering uncle.
The rookie revolution is underway.
By the time the Winston Cup circuit hits Dover Downs this weekend, it will be more than a month since anybody but a rookie has won a race. Dale Earnhardt Jr. won at Richmond, then the NASCAR series took off for Mother's Day. Little E then won The Winston All-Star race, with Matt Kenseth following up with a victory in the Coca-Cola 600.
If you don't think this is unusual, consider these historical tidbits. From 1988, the season after Davey Allison won two races as a rookie, the Winston Cup went 333 races and a decade without a rookie driver winning. The last time two rookies won in the same year was 1981, when Morgan Shepherd and Ron Bouchard each won a single race.
Kenseth's victory, in fact, means that rookies have won five of the last 15 Winston Cup races. And that doesn't include Earnhardt's victory in The Winston. In addition to the current streak, Tony Stewart won two of the last three races in 1999, and Earnhardt won the first weekend in April at Texas Motor Speedway. In addition, Earnhardt is the only Winston Cup driver to have won more than one race in 2000.
Why this sudden youth movement?
Like any revolution, the issues are complicated. But like any successful coup, passion is important and perhaps pivotal. Here's an oversimplification. The youngsters will live on the edge, push the limits. They really, really want to win.
The veterans, meanwhile, have grown soft as NASCAR has boomed in popularity and the stakes have risen. Many of the veterans can just stroke it and literally make millions of dollars.
Jeff Gordon actually started this youth movement, and there is no doubt he took aggressiveness to a new level on the Winston Cup circuit. He didn't bang and bash the way Dale Earnhardt Sr. did on his way to winning seven champions. Gordon simply drove every lap on the verge of breaking loose and flying into the wall. His ability to drive almost out of control came from his days on dirt, sending sprint cars and midgets slipping and sliding around little bullrings across the country.
Gordon won the first Brickyard 400 in 1994, but it was the second one that showed just how on the edge he could drive. Gordon won the pole for the race despite brushing the wall coming out of Turn 4. That's where Gordon took his car -- to the wall and back.
At the same time, Earnhardt Sr. stepped back a notch, lost his aggressiveness enough that he doesn't qualify well. Oh, the Intimidator can still send a driver spinning out of his way, just ask Terry Labonte. But what Earnhardt now avoids are the laps on the edge, right to the point where the tires are about to lose their grip on the concrete.
And who can blame him? When you are making eight figures every year through commercials and souvenir sales, why put yourself in position to occasionally slap the wall?
But Earnhardt is good enough that he still has a reason to be aggressive on occasion, and he can still drive a car faster than its setup. Many of the veterans in the back of the pack make a good living by just taking the car as fast as it goes, playing it safe and sound.
Meanwhile, Little E and Stewart are blowing right past them.
Sure, the rookies have more going for them than just an aggressive approach to getting a stock car around an oval. But it is this fearlessness, combined with the other developments, that makes them threats to win every time out.
These hot shots might be young, but they are already experienced. No doubt Gordon gets credit for starting the youth movement with his legend of driving at age 4, but Stewart started racing when he was 8. Kenseth first drove at 15 and Little E at 17.
Some of this experienced was gained on the Busch Grand National Series, the next best thing to Winston Cup racing. The Busch circuit has another advantage in that many of the races are at the same tracks as the Winston Cup events.
But the biggest factor is that these youngsters are racing with legitimate powerhouses, multicar teams that everybody in Winston Cup would be proud to drive for.
Once again, Gordon broke this ground, hooking up with Hendrick Motorsports in his early 20s. Stewart drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, which has challenged for a title with driver Bobby Labonte. Earnhardt Jr. races for his father's team, Dale Earnhardt Inc., which also fields cars for Steve Park. Kenseth races for the juggernaut Roush Racing team, which fields five cars.
In the past, most rookies had to learn how to drive with back-of-the-pack, underfunded teams. Often, they drove junk that simply wasn't good enough to let them show how talented they were. They had to be daredevils and magicians just to finish the race on the lead lap.
Of course, there's one thing that veterans know that the rookies are just starting to grasp. Winning a race isn't that important if your goal is to win the Winston Cup title. It is better to finish in the top five every race, taking the occasional victory that falls in your lap, than to put all your focus into winning races.
Week after week, drivers such as Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett rarely take chances. They hang up front, content to let the rookies take away from them. Aggressiveness is a double-edged sword. Sure, these rookies have been winning races, but where are they in the point standings?
Stewart is 10th, Kenseth 13th and Earnhardt Jr. 16th. Both Kenseth and Earnhardt have finished in the top 10 just four times in 12th times. Hold the revolution, maybe these old guys have something going for them after all.
Wasn't it that great racing commentator Winston Churchill who once said, "If a young man isn't liberal, then he doesn't have a heart. If an old man isn't conservative, he doesn't have a head."