As the dust settles from NASCAR's Silly Season and Sprint Cup teams turn toward 2011, a funny thing happened when I tried to find a list of the sport's next rookie class.
I couldn't find it.
For the second straight year, NASCAR's major leagues appear headed into an upcoming season without so much as one Rookie of the Year candidate. Kevin Conway remains the lone freshman on the docket for 2010, jumping on board in January before earning the trophy the same way you get a badge for attendance in 1st grade: just one top-15 finish in 22 starts hasn't exactly entrenched his name on the sport's future Hall of Fame list. Unless there's a shocking reversal of fortune, we'll end this year without a rookie scoring a top-10 finish for the second time in the last three years, Regan Smith's Talladega win-turned-yellow-line-penalty notwithstanding from 2008.
Just imagine that for a second: your favorite stick 'n' ball sport without so much as a draft or a first-year impact player. Who would the NFL's Rams start at quarterback without Sam Bradford? How could the NBA's Washington Wizards rebuild without John Wall? And how could the NHL come up with 17-year contracts without rookies to bestow them upon?
But that's the current crisis in NASCAR: Father Time stopping in his tracks as driver development comes to a screeching halt. Part of it comes as a backlash after the sport churned out a burst of young talent in the early 2000s: Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch to name a few. Since all of them entered the sport in their early-to-mid-20s, you can't expect them to give up the driver's seat anytime soon -- especially when paired with the rides they've held since the "young gun" era left them cakewalking into the Cup Series with high expectations and top-tier equipment.
At the same time, it's not like there's zero rides available for youngsters, even in this ugly NASCAR era of addition by contraction. Fifty-four-year-old Bill Elliott is entered in Atlanta with the Wood Brothers, and 53-year-old Terry Labonte will return to the circuit next week as an owner/driver. No disrespect to these men -- both former series champs -- but you'd think their time in the limelight would have ended long ago. How are they still surviving?
The ugly truth is there's no qualified drivers that owners can take a chance on replacing them. For every Joey Logano, there's been about 10 Landon Cassill who have seen their career stall in the sport's lower levels.
For Cassill, it seemed like a dream scenario when he was signed by GM Racing's Driver Development program in 2006. Placed with Hendrick Motorsports, Cassill, it appeared, was being groomed as Jeff Gordon's replacement through a program that led to Cassill taking the Nationwide Rookie of the Year Award in 2008. But with the influx of major league drivers running in the minors, Cassill's talents were squashed in the face of Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer and Carl Edwards moonlighting elsewhere, as he failed to score a single top-5 finish against them. And when Gordon chose to continue his career instead of retiring following the 2010 season, Hendrick had no reason to develop Cassill anymore with NASCAR's four-team limit. He has so many drivers, Kasey Kahne has to be on loan to Red Bull next year.
So Cassill's been sidelined, floating around like so many others simply trying to survive. At best, he start-and-parks for James Finch and other Cup operations without a new owner to pair up with. That's the other hidden story in NASCAR driver development: how often would you see a driver come up through the ranks with a car owner making money along with him? Paired with a sponsor, they'd start at the Truck level, then move through Nationwide before trying their hand at Cup over a three-to-five-year plan.
But those new owners are nonexistent in a world where it's not economically viable for them to make a profit. As it is, remaining single-car teams have to get all their engines and chassis on loan from the four-car giants at Hendrick, Roush and Penske simply to make it to the track. In the past, those small teams would become the NASCAR middle men, combining with up-and-coming owners as a place for young drivers to hone their skills before other top-level programs eyed the talent and snatched them up.
But with even going the distance in Cup becoming a far too expensive proposition, those owners die a slow death in the Nationwide Series or become dependent on veteran talent to ensure their fleet -- often start-and-parked -- simply pulls into the garage sitting in one piece. That leaves the climate for new opportunities exclusively dependent on when rides at the big teams open up, leaving some drivers starving in what's bound to be up to a decade-long wait. Take Joe Gibbs Racing as the latest example: you think 20-year-old Joey Logano, 25-year-old Kyle Busch, or 29-year-old Denny Hamlin are going anywhere anytime soon?
JGR is one of the handful of teams that could expand under NASCAR's four-car limit, but who exactly has the resume to label themselves a rookie worth pursuing? Only Justin Allgaier, Aric Almirola and Austin Dillon are first-time winners within the Nationwide and Truck Series this year (Elliott Sadler doesn't count), sharing time on the podium with Cup interlopers Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and several others. The consistent success of the major leaguers in AAA and AA NASCAR hasn't been lost on the corporate world, either, now refusing to sponsor up-and-coming talent when there's a more famous alternative that's already equivalent to a sure thing.
That adds up to a world in which we're stuck with the same old faces in the same old places. Even within the Sprint Cup circuit, there are no first-time Chasers in a field of 12 -- nearly 30 percent of the field each week -- for a second straight year. For now, fans cling onto the revival of longstanding rivalries, NASCAR hyping up the Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, and Brad Keselowski sandwich for as long as fans are willing to bite into it.
It's just after awhile, if you keep that bread on the counter long enough the mold will grow and the wheat will eventually begin to go stale. What is it that Charles Darwin said about evolution?
"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change."
Someway, somehow, the sport needs to find a way for its one-time driver merry-go-round to start adapting and evolving once again.
-- All eyes are on Atlanta's Labor Day attendance in year two of the latest experiment after NASCAR ripped the Southern 500 from Darlington in 2003. Facing a cutback to one date in 2011, the track struggled to draw this spring, but put 111,300 in the seats for last fall's race that was better across all fronts: competition, weather and off-track marketing. Can President Ed Clark use the momentum from Sunday's Montreal thriller combined with the holiday weekend to sell tickets?
How a track responds to a cutback often determines its future in the sport: Darlington's soul was sold, yet track officials saved themselves in getting locals to rally around their cause, their lone Mother's Day date well-attended the past several years. At least AMS is taking pure economics out of the equation; college students can get a ticket for just $19 this weekend, while adults can snag one for as cheap as $39.
-- While Clint Bowyer should be a lock to make the Chase, don't be surprised if Jamie McMurray puts a little pressure on at Atlanta. The No. 1 car was running in the top 5 on old tires before crashing during a green-white-checkered finish, and ran second at a similar intermediate, Charlotte, this spring. Clint Bowyer, on the other hand, finished 23rd but shouldn't be all that worried: his last career win came at the final track on NASCAR's regular season schedule at Richmond.
-- Keep an eye on Denny Hamlin this weekend at Atlanta. Coming off a mechanical problem at Bristol, he's got just two top-5 finishes in the last nine races to go along with 35 laps led since winning Michigan in June. That's caused him to publicly complain about the depth of his No. 11 fleet, alarming for the Joe Gibbs Racing camp despite Kyle Busch's Bristol sweep two weeks ago. While main championship rival Jimmie Johnson has a history of summer slumps, Hamlin's often follow him into the playoffs, which mean back-to-back top-5 runs here and at Richmond are imperative to right the ship.