Talent pool lacking in NASCAR

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 But in the case of Buescher and Braun, they've been replaced by more Cup drivers, men with nothing to prove in a feeder series except to stomp on the rest of the competition like big bullies.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. More at SI.com

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