New Kids On The Block

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Talk about a tough act to follow.

Candidates for NASCAR Winston Cup Rookie of the Year in 2001 find themselves in the unenviable position of trying to live up the performance of last year’s class of first-year competitors, which included the likes of Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Kenseth won the year’s longest race (the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway) and finished in the Top 15 in the Winston Cup points standings on his way to rookie-of-the-year honors with Roush Racing. All Earnhardt Jr. did was win two races, as well as The Winston all-star event, and finished 16th in the points driving a car for his father at Dale Earnhardt, Inc.

Even Dave Blaney, who suffered through growing pains the first half of the season, had some strong runs in the second half and finished up on a high note.

Those facts and statistics alone put 2001 rookie-of-the-year candidates Casey Atwood, Kurt Busch, Jason Leffler and Andy Houston on the hot seat this season. But Kenseth and Earnhardt say these rookies can be just as competitive.

“Every year there’s a lot of good rookies that come in, and this year will be good too,” Kenseth says. “There’s a lot of talent in the rookie pool this year, too.”

“There are not a lot of things you can’t prepare for, so those guys just have to take it in stride and take one day at a time and one week after the other,” Earnhardt Jr. says. “The thing that was most difficult for me to deal with was the pressure of having a top-of-the-line sponsor and wondering what expectations your team had of you and your sponsor had of you. I would just tell those guys to keep your chin up and try to maintain a positive attitude, so everybody sees that, and not to put your head down.”

Atwood, who finished eighth in the NASCAR Busch Series points standings a year ago, has a bit of added pressure on him. The 20-year phenom is the hand-picked protégé of Ray Evernham, who helped lead Jeff Gordon to three Winston Cup championships at Hendrick Motorsports.

Atwood will also drive an un-proven Dodge Intrepid in his first year of Winston Cup competition in 2001, but neither of those factors have intimidated him.

“What a great opportunity this is, to be driving for Ray Evernham,” Atwood says. “Considering what he’s done with Jeff Gordon - with the 47 wins and three Winston Cup championships – I know this is the right situation for me. It’s incredible what Ray knows and what he can teach a young driver. Everything he says, I try to soak up and learn as much as I can from him.”

In preparation for his rookie season, Atwood made three Winston Cup starts in 2000 – finishing 19th at Richmond, 25th at Martinsville and 10th in the Pennzoil 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November – in Fords prepared by Evernham.

Atwood’s crew chief will be Patrick Donahue, a longtime associate of Evernham’s who helped start Gordon’s Busch Series team, which competed on the circuit in 1999 and 2000.

Busch’s ascent to the Winston Cup Series has been a meteoric one to say the least. After less than one season in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series – a season in which he won four races and finished second in the overall points standings on his way to rookie-of-the-year honors – Busch was chosen by team owner Jack Roush to drive his No. 97 Taurus in 2001.

“It’s been a tremendous ride the past year for me,” Busch says. “Who knew that I’d go from running out West to the truck series and perform that well, and then Jack would tell me that he wanted me to run his Winston Cup car. It’s really been amazing.

“What I’ve got to do now is to not let Jack down. I’m going to go out there and run as hard as I can and give it 100 percent. I’d like to win the rookie deal, but I know it’s going to a challenge. There are a couple of other good rookies out there that we’re going to have to beat.”

After being named to replace Chad Little in the No. 97 Ford, Busch made seven Winston Cup starts in 2000, finishing worse than 25th just twice. His best finish was 13th at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in October.

Roush has not found a sponsor for Busch’s car, which Busch says that could be both a help and a detriment to him.

“On the one hand, if you’re running without a sponsor, there’s not going to be a tremendous amount of expectations surrounding you,” Busch says. “People won’t expect a lot out of us, but we’re going to expect ourselves to run well.

“On the other hand, if you don’t have a sponsor, the pressure is on you to go out there and run very well so that you can get a sponsor for your team. Nobody will want to come and sign with you if you’re not running well. So we’ve got to put the pressure on ourselves to run well early and attract a good sponsor.”

Kenseth says he’s still getting used to having Busch as a Winston Cup teammate, but is looking forward to having him around in 2001.

“He’s got a lot of talent,” Kenseth says of Busch. “Kurt and his crew chief, Matt Chambers, are bringing some new ideas that they’ve done in the truck series that maybe are things we would not have thought of or never tried. In the long run, it will make both teams stronger, and, hopefully all four Roush teams stronger.

“So far, I don’t know Kurt real well, but he doesn’t seem real overwhelmed. He seems pretty easygoing and not real nervous. I hope we can work together well.

“There are a lot of positives going on in the shop. We’re building the same types of cars and we’re putting the same bodies on them, so they’re all looking the same and they're all built the same. So, hopefully, we’ll be able to run the same types of setups and both learn together.”

Houston made his mark in the Craftsman Truck Series the past couple of years, enough to impress Cal Wells to put him in a second car for PPI Motorsports for 2001. Houston will drive the No. 96 McDonald’s Ford and will be a teammate to newly-acquired Ricky Craven, who will drive the No. 32 Tide Taurus.

Houston, however, feels as if he has to prove himself to the Winston Cup world, having spent just three years in the NCTS before moving on to NASCAR’s highest level. He ran five Winston Cup races for Wells in 2000 with limited success. His best showing was a 26th-place effort in Charlotte.

“A lot of times you probably feel you need to prove yourself more than you really do,” Houston says. “I’m sure most of the guys I raced against have watched me race in the truck series and other divisions growing up. You know you have to start somewhere and everybody had to make that first race (at Michigan).

“When I came in late in the year and there was a points battle going on, I just tried to learn all I could and tried to stay out of the way and not race the guys that are battling hard for the points. I just tried to keep my nose clean. I feel we did that pretty well. That’s just part of being a rookie, and that’s what I’m going to have to go through this year.”

More and more in recent years, Winston Cup team owners have begun to snatch drivers from the Craftsman Truck Series to drive their cars – a case in point with Busch and Houston.

“The truck series… I feel like some of the owners have started looking at that and realizing that some of the guys can be put in a Cup car and run pretty good and be competitive,” Houston says. “Really you can take guys from a lot of different series and give them some time and they’re going to be pretty good.

“I don’t believe the Busch Series fully prepares you for Winston Cup, and I don’t believe the trucks fully prepare you for Winston Cup. The biggest things are getting there, running races and getting all the experiences you can, and learning all that you can. After a season, you get the confidence and move on.”

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2001

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