Cup Rookies Raising The Bar

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With the way rookies have performed the past few years in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, Jimmie Johnson feared he would be the exception.

The only thing he had hoped for was to not fall flat on his face. Johnson has done anything but that.

As a matter of fact, with the way he’s going, he may well set a new standard for first-year drivers before the season is done. After 11 races, all he’s done is win a race, earn two pole positions and seven top-10 finishes.

He’s seventh in the Winston Cup points standings and could very well be a bit higher if not for an accident in the late stages of the Pontiac Excitement 400 at Richmond a week ago, a race in which he was winning.

So, is Johnson ‘raising the bar’ even higher for rookies?

“I guess,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I’ve watched from Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. to Matt Kenseth to Tony Stewart to Kevin Harvick, and all of those guys have, quote, ‘raised the bar’ each and every year.

“It seems like every year the rookies have stepped up, and I thought, ‘oh no, the buck’s going to stop with me. I’m going to be the guy that this doesn’t happen, or something bad happens.’ And here, we’ve risen to the occasion, and it’s all because of the equipment I’m sitting in and the people I’m surrounded by.”

Those people are the people at Hendrick Motorsports, including Johnson’s team co-owners, Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon, and crew chief Chad Knaus, as well as the No. 48 Lowe’s team they’ve assembled around Johnson.

And then there’s Lowe’s, Johnson’s sponsor, who has put a great deal of its marketing efforts around the handsome young, talented driver. The combination of all of that certainly has produced the desired results.

“It’s just a matter of being in the right situation, surrounded by great resources and having the chemistry,” Johnson said. “The executives at Hendrick Motorsports have nailed this combination with me and Chad (Knaus) and this entire team. We’ve got the right sponsor, and we’ve got the right environment.”

Earnhardt Jr. had the right environment. So did Kenseth, so did Stewart and Harvick. Earnhardt Jr. won a pair of races, and The Winston, and finished 16th in the Winston Cup points standings during his rookie campaign in 2000. He’s now a perennial championship contender.

Kenseth won a race – the longest race of them in, the Coca-Cola 600 – and finished 14th in the points that same year. He had a tough season a year ago, but has already won two races this season and is second in the Winston Cup points standings.

Stewart won three times during his initial Winston Cup campaign in 1999 and finished fourth in the points. In three years-plus on the circuit, he’s never finished worse than sixth in the points and has 14 career victories.

And then there’s Harvick, who won in only his third career Winston Cup start, in 2001. He wound up with the season with two victories and finished ninth in the points, all the while winning a Busch Series championship.

Prior to Stewart, the last rookie to win a Winston Cup event was Davey Allison, who won two races in 1987.

Johnson won at California in late April, in only his 13th career Winston Cup start.

And then there’s Ryan Newman, Johnson’s chief competitor for this year’s Rookie of the Year Award. Newman hasn’t won a race yet, but he’s shown flashes of future brilliance. Many predict it won’t be long before he gets to victory lane and that could get there often this season.

“His performance today I thought was awesome,” Stewart said after the Pontiac Excitement 400, in which Newman finished second. “He’s probably the smartest, most calculated young driver we have in the series today, and he’s not even got his wind yet.”

Newman, driving the No. 12 ALLTEL Ford for Roger Penske, is 13th in the Winston Cup points standings. He had a rough stretch in May where engine problems befell him, but he still has three top-five and five top-10 finishes this season.

“You watch how well Ryan (Newman) ran last year in the Busch car and in his limited amount of Cup races, and you just knew that we were going to be battling each other tooth-and-nail for the Rookie of the Year deal,” Johnson said.

Newman, who has won a Winston Cup pole and has come close several other times to winning one, said he hopes he’ll be able to stay with Johnson and contend for the rookie award.

“I wanted to be the first one to win a race as a rookie this year in the battle, but, at the same time, I was happy for him,” Newman said. “I think we’ve got a pretty good relationship where we’re happy when each other does well. We want to see each other do well because we’ve got the best opportunity of lives. It’s one of those things where you can’t let it bother you, but, at the same time, it shouldn't bother you, it’s just another person out there.

“We’ve got great equipment and we’ve got great people (at Penske South Racing). It’s been a learning rollercoaster for me, and it’s the opportunity of a lifetime for me. Hopefully we’ll pick things up and we’ll get into the win column soon.”

If he does, then he’ll be right there with Johnson – once again ‘raising the bar’ for Winston Cup rookies.

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