Tom Bowles
Thursday March 12th, 2009

As Joey Logano tore through NASCAR's lower divisions last year, he picked up the nickname Sliced Bread. But as Logano transitioned to NASCAR's top division, that bread turned stale.

Four races into the Sprint Cup season, the big story remains the freshman class' continued struggles. While it's early still, Logano has yet to record a top 10 finish, and he's languishing at No. 33 in the standings while racing for a team that won two championships in the past seven years behind Tony Stewart. From the start of Daytona Speedweeks, he's struggled to keep his car under control for a full weekend, wrecking in at least one practice -- if not the race itself -- in three of the four events run to date.

Tucked in behind Logano, rookie rival Scott Speed sits just 37th in points without so much as a top 20 finish to his name this season. If the No. 82 Toyota doesn't pick it up next week at Bristol, the former Formula 1 driver will be forced to live up to his name, needing to qualify on speed at Martinsville and beyond once his team loses its "locked in" status as part of the starting lineup.

"It just takes time," Logano said after registering the best run for all freshmen to date -- a 13th at Vegas -- a little more than two weeks ago. "That's part of being a rookie."

The problem is, with NASCAR ratings down significantly this year (13 percent in metered markets), time isn't on anyone's side. Last year, zero new drivers made the Chase for the first time in its five-year existence, causing the sport to experience stagnancy at the top. Sure, it's nice to see a refocused Jeff Gordon climbing to the head of the Sprint Cup standings, but at 37, he's been there and done that plenty of times before. As with any sport, an influx of successful rookies injects new energy, fresh competition and new opportunities for sponsors to market potential superstars. Most important, in a sport where loyalty runs deep from a driver's first season, strong rookies provide teams a chance to win over new fans and hold onto the ones still struggling with the recent retirements of old fan favorites like Terry Labonte, Rusty Wallace and Ricky Rudd.

But though the old guard has slowly made its way out to pasture, the new guard hasn't shown up to replace it yet. It's now been a good year and a half since any rookie scored a top 10 finish in the Cup Series, and no freshman has won a race since Juan Pablo Montoya scored a victory at Infineon back in mid-2007. To make matters worse, these drivers have typically failed to improve in their second and third seasons on the circuit. Montoya has yet to win a second time and no one else in that '07 rookie class has broken through. In fact, it's been 60 races since the sport welcomed a first-time winner into its ranks, the longest drought in well over a decade.

The problem runs deeper than just the sport's top division. In the Nationwide Series last season, not a single rookie won a race he entered and the two top contenders for rookie honors (Landon Cassill and Bryan Clauson) remain rideless one month into 2009. And just two Truck Series freshmen cashed in on Victory Lane in 2008: Speed and Donny Lia, who went back to local short track racing this season after -- surprise, surprise -- he wasn't able to find a full-time driving gig to continue in NASCAR.

So far this season, rookie candidate Brendan Gaughan has tried to reverse the trend in the Nationwide division (he's fourth in points), but there's just one problem -- he's already made it to the Cup Series once before, trying and failing as a rookie with Roger Penske back in 2004. That's not exactly the new blood the sport has been looking for. By and large, the flow of young talent from lower divisions that was a part of the series earlier this decade -- when superstars like Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Greg Biffle and others shined in the minors en route to Sprint Cup success -- has suddenly stopped.

Part of the problem is the sport's two minor league divisions have been suffering from a case of major league overload. Kyle Busch has won three of six races in NASCAR's Nationwide and Truck Series divisions, often a proving ground for younger drivers to strut their stuff. In all, he's won an astonishing 16 of the last 60 races held in the sport's "AA" and "AAA" divisions, a winning percentage of more than 25 percent. Overall, Cup drivers have won 32 of the past 38 Nationwide Series events.

Every Busch trip to Victory Lane pushes the young drivers looking for their shot at glory further down the list, and when they're out of sight, they're out of mind for potential sponsors. With Cup drivers allowed to race in these lower-tier divisions, sponsors would rather take a chance on them scoring an easy victory than spend years developing a young driver running 20th every week who won't get the company the millions it's paying for in exposure.

As its lower divisions watch their talent pool break apart, the sport has been reaching out to other types of racing series to discover the next generation of driving talent, a move that's led to mixed reviews at best. For the past few years, open-wheelers have been trying their hand at stock cars, with everyone from IRL champ Dario Franchitti to Formula One titlist Jacques Villeneuve trying their hand at NASCAR. But those experiments have many times turned into colossal failures. Villeneuve's stint in the Cup lasted just one race last year, while Franchitti never scored a top 10 finish before running back to the IRL with his tail tucked between his legs. There's been a few exceptions -- Montoya, A.J. Allmendinger, Sam Hornish, Jr., and Speed are still around -- but none of them are even close to contending for the Chase. For whatever reason, the learning curve from IndyCars to stock cars has been far steeper than expected, and with the reunification of Champ Car and IRL early last season, the optimism surrounding that series has turned off defection; No open-wheelers chose to make the transition to NASCAR last offseason.

Now, the sport appears to be looking to Motocross as the next breeding ground for future talent. AMA champ Ricky Carmichael has been set up for a Truck ride with Kevin Harvick this season, and sources in the garage say Bubba Stewart is in line for a NASCAR ride later this season or in 2010. But while those men are talented in their own right, it would seemingly be easier to develop guys who have driven stock cars all their lives. But at this point, NASCAR's stuck in an awkward Catch-22, as sponsors in tough economic times are only willing to bet on well-known names to succeed. It's a rare case of a sport getting so expensive, it's out-pricing its own future.

And that brings us to Logano, who's aligned with one of the sport's higher-end sponsors but has yet to deliver expected results. There's still plenty of time for the 18-year-old to turn it around, and with drivers like Mark Martin calling the kid "the next great superstar," others see that upward potential.

But NASCAR can't necessarily afford to wait for that payoff. And if that's the case, it's unclear where the next "great superstar" will come from.

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