Without a doubt, the group of 2008 rookies in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series can be considered one of the most disappointing in the history of the sport. Despite winning Raybestos Rookie of the Year, Regan Smith started only 34 of 36 races, and he had a best finish of 14th and an average finish of 28.2 in those 34 starts. With less than one month remaining until the 51st running of the Daytona 500, it appears that only two drivers will compete for the 2009 Sprint Cup Raybestos Rookie of the Year title: Joey Logano and Scott Speed. Will these two drivers fare better than the 2008 rookies?
Entering last year’s Daytona 500, there were five rookie contenders with impressive open wheel backgrounds and Regan Smith, a promising up-and-coming driver from the Nationwide Series.
Jacques Villeneuve, a former winner of the Indianapolis 500 and the 1997 Formula One world champion, was on many people’s minds entering the 2008 season despite having run in only nine stock car races prior to the start of the season. Driving an unsponsored Bill Davis Racing entry, he crashed in the Daytona 500 qualifying race and failed to make the race. Villeneuve did not attempt another Sprint Cup Series race due to lack of funding.
Like Villeneuve, 2007 Indy Racing League champion and Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti had run just a handful of stock car races in 2007 and was unable to attract a full-time sponsor for the 2008 Sprint Cup Series. After only scoring one top thirty finish in the first eight races and failing to qualify for one race, Dario Franchitti was injured in a Nationwide Series at Talladega Superspeedway and sat out the next five races. When he returned, Franchitti attempted to qualify for four more races before Chip Ganassi Racing announced that they would shut down his ride due to lack of sponsorship.
Next to non-open wheel driver Regan Smith, former open wheel driver Michael McDowell had the most stock car experience of the 2008 rookie contenders because he had run full-time in the ARCA RE/MAX Series in 2007 and experienced success with 4 wins, 11 top 5’s, and 15 top 10’s in 23 starts before finishing 2nd in points. During the 2008 Sprint Cup Series, he was known more for being involved in two major crashes than his actual on track performance, in which he had an average start of 32.4 and an average finish of 30.2. Driving for the relatively new team of Michael Waltrip Racing, which also was struggling to find sponsorship for all of their cars, McDowell attempted to qualify for 21 races and was released from the team after failing to qualify for the Sprint Cup Series race in Kansas.
Entering the season without full-funding and a guaranteed starting spot, the most attention that former ChampCar and Indy Racing League driver Patrick Carpentier received revolved around his efforts to qualify for races. After a flat tire in the qualifying race cost him a spot in the Daytona 500, he would go on to miss two more of the first five races due to qualifying being rained out. Despite posting a pole midseason and some impressive qualifying efforts after struggling in practice, Carpentier would still fail to qualify for two more races and achieved little success with an average finish of 29.6 and a top finish of 14th. Without much stock car experience, Carpentier’s qualifying efforts were impressive, but he was released from his Gillett Evernham Motorsports ride with six races to go in the season because the team wanted a more experienced driver in the car to help attract sponsorship in the 2009 season.
Sam Hornish, Jr. entered the 2008 as a favorite due to his success in the Indy Racing League with three championships and a win in the Indianapolis 500. Prior to 2008, he had run thirteen stock car races in lower divisions of NASCAR along with a few ARCA starts. Much of the 2008 season was a struggle for Hornish in Penske Racing’s new #77 team. There was a period of races during the summer in which he and his team demonstrated success, including finishing 7th in the All-Star race, 13th in the Coca-Cola 600, and racing with Jimmie Johnson for the win at Michigan, but that success quickly tapered off and Sam Hornish, Jr. failed to qualify for two of the season’s final seven races before being beat by Regan Smith for Raybestos Rookie of the Year by a narrow margin.
When analyzing in retrospect, the only race that stands out for 2008 Sprint Cup Series Raybestos Rookie of the Year Regan Smith is the fall race at Talladega Superspeedway. Regan Smith passed race leader Tony Stewart by going under the white line on the final lap. Because of the no-passing-under-the-white-line rule, NASCAR reviewed the finish and eventually placed Regan Smith in the 18th position as the last car on the lead lap. Besides that controversial finish, Smith struggled during the remainder of the 2008 season and failed to finish inside the top 10, but it was enough to win him top rookie honors.
While they did show moments of promise, last year’s rookie class immensely struggled due to a variety of issues including their teams being outside of the top 35 in owner points, lack of stock car experience, lack of sponsorship, and the difficulty of driving NASCAR’s new car.
So will the 2009 rookies fare better than the 2008 rookies?
Enter Sliced Bread, also known as Joey Logano. When Joey Logano was 15-years-old, Mark Martin revealed to the NASCAR world that he thought Logano would be successful at the top level of NASCAR. Since then Logano has lived up to the hype. He competed in the USAR Hooters Pro Cup in 2005 and 2006 and won his first race in just his 2nd start along with winning the Camping World East Series Championship in 2007. In 2008, Logano competed in the Nationwide Series after turning 18-years-old and won his first race in his third start in addition to scoring 5 top 5’s, 14 top 10’s, and 3 poles in 19 races. He also ran partial schedules in the ARCA RE/MAX Series, NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and won his first ARCA race in just his first start. It can be said that some of his recent success is due to being in Joe Gibbs Racing equipment, but there are other top drivers that initially struggled despite running in great equipment early in their careers.
Then there’s Scott Speed, a 25-year-old who previously competed in Formula One. In his first year driving a stock car, Speed ran full-time in the ARCA RE/MAX Series in 2008 with 4 wins, 10 top 5’s, 17 top 10’s, and 3 poles in 21 starts before finishing 5th in points. He also ran a partial Camping World Truck Series schedule and recorded 1 win, 4 top 5’s, 9 top 10’s, and a pole in 16 starts. In 2009, Speed will be driving for Red Bull Racing Team, which was close to making the Chase in 2008 with driver Brian Vickers. If the final Sprint Cup Series race of 2008 is any indication, where he qualified 2nd and finished 16th in just his 5th start, it doesn’t appear that Scott Speed will struggle in NASCAR’s new car to the extent that the 2008 rookies struggled.
None of the problems that plagued the 2008 Raybestos Rookie of the Year class are apparent in Joey Logano and Scott Speed. They both have experience in lower levels of stock car racing and have experienced much success in those series. Entering the sport in fully sponsored, quality equipment, Joey Logano and Scott Speed are poised for success in 2009.