Win Now Or Else

Casey Atwood was moved from his regular ride. Jason Leffler was fired. Ron Hornaday was fired. Andy Houston didn’t last the entire year.

NASCAR is clearly not a place for patience, especially for rookies. Only Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch will be back in 2002 with the same teams they finished with in 2001. And only two rookies from 2000 – Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth – will be with the same teams with which they started.

There was a time in NASCAR when young drivers would be like minor-league baseball players. They were given a few years to mature, learn and develop before they were expected to win.

Now, though, you better win right away, or you’ll be on the sidelines. That might not be fair, but that’s the way it is in Winston Cup.

“It’s realistic,” said team owner Jack Roush, who fielded cars for Busch and Kenseth. “You take Kevin, he had a chance to get into a car that was in contention, with people that were senior and established with their chemistry all right. That’s a tremendous advantage.”

Not everyone has that advantage, of course. Atwood was a rookie driver with a rookie team. So was Leffler. And Hornaday was with a second-year team. But none of their car owners was willing to wait for them to develop.

Ray Evernham, Atwood’s car owner, is standing by his driver, just not in the same car. Atwood is moving from the No. 19 to the No. 7 team, in which Evernham bought an interest.

“I don’t know how many of you ever read ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu, but you put your best generals in the best places, and you also are building your army,” Evernham said. “Right now, I’ve got two experienced generals to help build the team, and I’ve got the next future Winston Cup champion over in training, without a lot of pressure on him.”

Evernham said Atwood was put in an awkward position, having to learn to drive Winston Cup cars while he was expected to offer feedback like a veteran.

“Right now, Evernham Motorsports has got a hole,” Evernham said. “We’re not as good as we need to be. At certain race tracks, it’s difficult to try and teach Casey and bring him along and not know whether our motors have the right power curves or our chassis are right or our bodies are right.”

But Atwood is lucky in a way. He’s still in Winston Cup, even if he’s with a farm team of sorts.

“I had a pretty good year this year, but everyone knows I’m only 21 years old and I’ve got a lot to learn,” Atwood said. “This is just another way to keep that going.

“I’m still with Ray, and I’m still with Dodge. It’s going to make everything better…he assures me that this is going to make everybody better. It’s going to make me better as a driver and it’s going to make his team better. I’m all in favor of it.”

He should be. He still has a ride. Leffler is moving down to the Craftsman Truck Series, while Hornaday’s plans are up in the air. The rookie class of 2000 is in flux, too. Dave Blaney switched teams after the 2001 season, while Stacy Compton’s team is on the verge of shutting down, and both Scott Pruett and Mike Bliss are out of rides.

“As the drivers get younger and younger, there are more issues around the personality, the driver’s maturity, his ability to be able to deal with all these things that go with the NASCAR circus,” Roush said. “Some of the guys may not be ready for that. They may not be at a point of maturity where they can deal with all those things and not have some consequence.”

Travis Carter needed to hire a driver for 2002, but he didn’t even consider a younger one. Instead, he opted for eight-year veteran Joe Nemechek.

“Our situation may be a little different,” Carter said. “We’ve been fortunate enough to have Kmart going into its fourth year with us, but (2002) is the final year of that agreement. Quite honestly, we’re put in a position to either convince them that they need to stay here and agree to stay with us after next year, or we’re gonna have to find some new sponsors.

“Sometimes when you step up with these young guys, it’s hard to perform well enough early. People aren’t beating your door down to bring money nowadays, so we have to do the best we can to perform well and entice them to stay with this team.”

That’s the bottom line: money. A team has to perform well to get sponsors to spend money, and then they have to continue to perform to keep those sponsors.

Of course, sponsors want to win, and win now. But with a rookie or other young driver, NASCAR can be a hard place to win right away.

“This is a real tough time for sponsors,” Roush said. “If a sponsor is looking for blue sky, and the requirement for it becomes more immediate, there may not be enough time to get the program where it needs to be for them to get the return on their investment.”

And that leaves teams – and young drivers – in a difficult position.

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