Rookies Rule NASCAR

 by Frank Ryan
February 2, 2001

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In Winston Cup, the term "Rookie of the Year" has become synonymous with "Future Winner". Over the last 15 years, the Winston Cup Points Championship has been won by a former "Rookie of the Year" no less than 11 times, and with names like Tony Stewart (1999), Jeff Burton (1994), Jeff Gordon (1993) and Dale Earnhardt (1979) on the list, Victory Lane gets crowded fast. But what does it take to win Winston Cup's Raybestos "Rookie of the Year" honors, and what driver will rise to the occasion to become the next shining star? 

NASCAR defines a Rookie as a driver who has raced in no more than 7 Winston Cup events in any previous year. This year the qualified drivers who will compete for the Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors include Casey Atwood, Kurt Busch, Ron Hornaday, Andy Houston and Jason Leffler. While none of the aforementioned rookie drivers have a pedigree quite as rich as Dale Earnhardt Jr., we learned last season that it takes more than a racing family to win the Rookie of the Year title. It takes consistency, a good team, a willingness to learn from the other drivers, and perhaps a bit of luck.

Before we look at how the rookies earn their points, lets look at the favorites competing for Rookie of the Year in 2001.

Casey Atwood

Hand picked by Ray Evernham, Casey Atwood may be destined to become the next Jeff Gordon, but the road will be more uphill than downhill for Atwood this year. Atwood steps up from the Busch Grand National series where he had 32 starts and 8 top 10 finishes. Atwood started three Winston Cup races last year, with a 10th place finish in Homestead being his best effort. Even with as much promise as Atwood shows, it could be a long year driving the Evernham Motorsports Dodge Intrepid R/T (#19). With the Intrepid being "new in the box" for nearly every track, expect the second half of the year to be stronger than the first half. Since rookie points don't count every single race, Atwood has a legitimate shot at winning the Rookie of the Year title, and perhaps even a race win later in the year. 

Atwood also had thoughts on winning Rookie of the Year. "It's great to get this kind of attention before the season begins, but I've got a lot to prove. One of our goals is the Rookie of the Year title, but it's going to be tough. With guys like Ron Hornaday, Kurt Busch and Andy Huston, our Dodge team going to have to work hard. We want to go out and get experience with the team and be the best we can be. But Rookie of the Year isn't our only objective. We want to win."

Kurt Busch

Kurt Busch steps up from the Craftsman Truck Series to take over Chad Little's vacated ride (#97) at Roush Racing this year. Busch, who will step right over the Busch Grand National series, was a phenomenon last year. Busch finished the CTS season in 2nd place behind Greg Biffle and en route picked up 4 wins and 16 top 10 finishes in 24 events. But perhaps just as impressive were his Winston Cup starts last year as he replaced Chad Little in the John Deere Ford Taurus for 7 events. Busch had a 6th place finish in the Cracker Barrel 500 at Atlanta and had top 15 finishes in the six other events he entered, with one of those events being the road course at Watkins Glen. Remember, it took an experienced Chad Little 30 races to find five top 15 finishes in the same car. 

If there were a missing link in Busch's rookie campaign it would have to be the lack of sponsorship on the Taurus. John Deere is gone as a primary sponsor, but Jack Roush has vowed to finance the team himself to keep Busch behind the wheel. Expect Busch to find a sponsor in the first few weeks of the season, maybe even for Daytona. Don't be surprised if Busch gets an early lead in the rookie points, and with Matt Kenseth as a teammate, Busch just might not relinquish that lead.

Ron Hornaday

One of the most successful drivers in the CTS and BGN series finally gets his shot at running Winston Cup. Ron Hornaday takes over the driving duties on AJ Foyt's Conseco Pontiac (#14) for the team's sophomore year in Winston Cup. Hornaday's reputation as a fierce competitor is second to none. Hornaday, a two time Craftsman Truck Series champion, moved to Busch last year and finished in 5th place, collecting two wins in the process. Hornaday had 5 Winston Cup starts last year, earning an 8th place finish in Pocono and a 10th in Dover, with his worst finish a respectable 13th in the Pop Secret 400.

While all of these factors point to success, one has to wonder if Hornaday will even have his ride at the end of the year. Foyt is a demanding owner, and has squarely placed the responsibility of the success of the team directly on the driver's shoulders. But if Hornaday can start out strong, he will not only secure his ride, but also become a favorite to win Rookie of the Year.

Andy Houston

Driving for Cal Wells in the McDonalds Ford Taurus (#96), Andy Houston can be considered an underdog of sorts to win Rookie of the Year. Last year, Houston's sophomore year in the Craftsman Truck Series, he raced to 18 top 10 finishes and also won 2 races. Houston also raced in five Winston Cup events last year, showing promise, but failing to crack the top 10.

Houston's Winston Cup team is essentially the #97 Busch team that Cal Wells fielded last year. As with any team new to Winston Cup, the learning curve can be steep, and expect Houston to suffer his share of setbacks along the way.

Jason Leffler

Among all the rookies, Jason Leffler may just be the wild card that every team is looking for. Leffler takes over what was Kenny Irwin's BellSouth ride for Team Sabco, but the team will sport a different manufacturer, sponsor and car number, as Leffler will drive the Cingular Dodge Intrepid R/T sporting the number 01. Leffler's is a three time USAC Midget Champion, and USAC Silver Crown Champion. Last year Leffler ran in 31 Busch events in the Joe Gibbs Racing owned ride, finishing the season in 20th place with four top 10 finishes.

Some open wheel racers have had great success, the latest being Tony Stewart. Leffler might be expected to follow a similar path; but the when you throw the new Dodge Intrepid R/T into the mix, all bets are off. I would expect Leffler to be competitive on some tracks, but with only one year in BGN, his inexperience in a full-bodied stock car might start to show through early.

How about Buckshot Jones? Unfortunately, the 7-start rule effectively eliminates Buckshot Jones and his Georgia Pacific sponsored Dodge from the competition, as Buckshot had 10 starts in 1999 before returning to a full time Busch ride last year. 

Now that the drivers are accounted for, just how do the rookies earn their points?

Of the 34 Winston Cup point events on last years schedule, the 17 best finishes by a rookie are used to help calculate their rookie points for the years. In any race, there are a number of ways a rookie earns points.

One (1) point is earned for attempting to qualify for a WC points event. A driver is given a point even if they do not make the starting grid.

For every race, points are awarded based on how the rookies finish the race in relationship to each other, the highest finishing rookie would earn ten (10) points, the second highest finishing rookie would earn nine (9) points, the next would earn eight (8) points and so on.

If a rookie finishes an event in the top 10, they earn additional points. Finishing in first place garners ten (10) points, second place gains nine (9) points, and so on to one (1) point awarded for a tenth place finish.

If a rookie enters an event, is the highest finishing rookie, and also finishes in 4th place overall, a total of 18 (1 + 10 + 7) rookie points are earned for that event.

Hornaday, seen here filling in for the injured Terry Labonte, talks to last year's Rookie of the Year runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr.

In addition to the standard rookie point scoring for races, Bonus Points are awarded four times during the racing season. By roughly dividing the season into quarters, NASCAR awards points based on the driver's performance for the first three quarters of the season, and again at the end of the year based on the final Winston Cup point standings. The top rookie for each quarter is awarded ten (10) bonus points, the second best is awarded nine (9) bonus points, and so on. In the 2000 racing season, bonus points were awarded after race numbers 10 (California), 20 Indianapolis), 30 (Talladega) and again at the season finale in Atlanta.

As a final measuring stick, NASCAR offers a 50-point year-end bonus to the rookies. Eligible candidates are judged on three specific issues not necessarily related to their on track racing performance. They include the driver's personal appearance and conduct with the media, the driver's interaction with track officials in the garage and pit area, and also the driver's conduct and accountability on the track. Point scoring here is similar to the other areas with all of the rookies competing and being judged against one another for the bonus points.

Not to be confused with any other vote recounts, last year Matt Kenseth bested Dale Earnhardt Jr by a score of 316 to 274 in rookie points. 

The author can be contacted at frankr@autoracing1.com

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