Tom Bowles
Thursday May 13th, 2010

For years, NASCAR has undergone a seamless transition at the top. In the '90s, Dale Earnhardt was king, followed by Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and now four-time champ Jimmie Johnson. So it's only natural that the next young superstar coming up the ranks to challenge Johnson is ...

Who? Having no up-and-coming talent is a scary thought. But in NASCAR, it's a stark reality as the economy, combined with bad driving and a failing minor league system leaves the sport looking for someone, anyone to flash signs of future potential.

Much has been made of the awful Cup Series rookie class of 2010, where Kevin Conway's "pay-to-play" ride leaves him the lone candidate. Backed by ExtenZe sponsorship, Conway's a marketing genius, but has yet to finish a Cup race on the lead lap, let alone break the top 25. If he fails to last the season, it'll be the first time Raybestos won't have a full-time rookie competitor to win its award.

That's a stark contrast from the stick 'n' ball crowd who, with college and their minor league systems, enjoy a steady pipeline of promising talent. On paper, NASCAR would seem to have the same structure in place, with its main feeder series, Nationwide, pumping out drivers like Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano in recent years.

But a quick look at the current Nationwide standings is all you need to enter crisis mode. Seven of the top eight drivers are Cup regulars, with only Penske's Justin Allgaier holding a shot at the season championship. Further back, five Rookie of the Year candidates (plus Danica Patrick) have combined for four top 10s and 18 DNFs. That's left them facing the firing squad, with drivers like James Buescher and Colin Braun released or "benched" for poor performance. Others, like Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., will join them within the next few weeks unless finishes dramatically improve.

To some degree, the rookies are to blame; it's impossible to keep a driver who's destroying your race cars three times a month. But in the case of Buescher and Braun, they've been replaced by more Cup drivers, men with nothing to prove in a feeder series except to stomp on the rest of the competition like big bullies. NASCAR's "Big Boys" have won 40 of the last 45 races in the series (89 percent) while taking up a quarter of the starting grid during any given weekend. That's a far cry from a decade ago, when they won only half of 32 events in spot appearances, while no Cup regular contended for the season championship.

It's hard to believe, but a turning point for the feeder series came through the death of Dale Earnhardt. When Kevin Harvick replaced him at the Cup level, car owner Richard Childress wanted the rookie to keep running the Nationwide Series full-time to gain additional experience. The plan worked, as he wound up winning the championship that year while placing ninth in Cup points, a shocking result that opened sponsors' and drivers' eyes to how financially lucrative running both series can be. In an economy where money is scarce, marketers get Cup sponsors to jump on board at the associate level while offering them primary exposure in Nationwide.

It's good for the sponsor, who goes from a small place on the side of the Cup car to a prominent spot on the hood elsewhere. But the drivers also enjoy the no pressure, slim pickins' atmosphere of competing for wins at lower levels. With the most experience, it's no surprise they dominate -- there's a reason they call them "minor" and "major" leagues -- but it's squeezed out opportunities for young drivers to showcase their talents.

It's slightly better at the Truck Series level (think AA baseball), with 29-year-old prospect Timothy Peters leading the points. But the rookie race is undergoing the same type of self-destruction, with only Childress' grandson Austin Dillon scoring top-10 finishes in the first five events. And even he has set the stage for a handful of rookie mistakes, causing a multi-car incident on the opening lap of the season's first race at Daytona.

So what's the answer? During the past few years, NASCAR's reached out and pulled from other series like open-wheel and motocross to grab fresh talent. But for every Juan Pablo Montoya, there's been three Dario Franchittis whose transition has left them flat on their face. Drivers are left scared to make the jump, and there's also no place to put them in Nationwide's financial wasteland. A sad side plot to the whole developmental mess is that while the Cup Series owners are dabbling in Nationwide, the smaller, blue collar teams who used to bring drivers up through the ranks are now all but out of business.

With the sport backed into a corner, it's a critical time for NASCAR to step up to the plate and create those opportunities for youngsters. In a world where attention wavers until the next best thing comes along, keeping the product fresh is key to keeping fans tuning in. That's something the sport's already struggling with after Johnson's four straight titles have left fans searching for new blood. And with no new drivers for the disenfranchised to hang their hat on, they'll only stick around for so long before deciding to move on to something else.

• The NASCAR Hall of Fame made news this week for falling short of its sponsorship goals. My question is, since when is a major sports museum for-profit? I understand the millions the sport must pay back to the city of Charlotte, but the stick 'n' ball sports all run their museums as non-profit organizations. Considering the financial problems rampant within NASCAR, wouldn't those sponsor dollars be better spent funneled towards teams in need of funding to compete?

Rick Hendrick made news this week by saying Joe Gibbs Racing "has lapped him" in the competition department lately. With JGR winning four of the last six races with Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch, you can understand why HMS is under the gun. But remember, this organization prides itself on using the regular season as an experiment for when the racing really counts: the Chase. Considering all four Hendrick cars are inside the top 12, don't be fooled; that's the main goal from now until September, and right now they're right on pace to achieve it.

• Keep an eye on Phoenix Racing's potential sale. With Kasey Kahne needing a Hendrick-supported ride for 2011, sources had him pointed directly toward Stewart-Haas. But the surprise announcement that Old Spice won't return to Stewart's car next season has put a financial strain on the program for possible expansion. Having a Hendrick-supported owner (Mark Martin, anyone?) buy Phoenix Racing would be a good backup option. Or maybe Stewart-Haas could purchase the team outright to get the equipment it needs. It's notable that replacing the fired James Buescher in the team's Nationwide car this week is Stewart-Haas driver Ryan Newman.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.