VIEWS FROM THE GRANDSTANDS
Newbies have invaded NASCAR, boding well for the sport’s future
The talk of the 2012 NASCAR Nationwide Series will be Danica Patrick. But she is not the sport’s future. Not to be rude, since I’m a woman of a certain age myself, but at age 30, Patrick is too old.
The real health of NASCAR, both at its Nationwide development level and the top-tier Sprint Cup, lies with the sport’s young guns.
Here are a few to keep an eye on.
Timmy Hill — yes, he refers to himself as Timmy; maybe the name change to Tim will come when he’s no longer a teen – was the 2011 NASCAR Nationwide Series rookie of the year. At 18, the Rick Ware Racing driver was the youngest competitor ever to win the rookie title.
While waiting for the 2012 NASCAR season to start, Hill took a turn at the wheel of Ware’s GT Class entry in the 50th annual Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway. He also finished first, third and eighth in three Legends Pro races in January.
Now that Hill has climbed back into the No.15 Ford Mustang for the 2012 Nationwide season, look for this young gun to take his car to the front.
Cole Whitt sounds like a screenwriter’s moniker for a race car driver. That’s fitting since this year the 20-year-old is getting a chance that seems like a too-good-to-be-true Hollywood tale.
Last year, Whitt finished ninth in the Camping World Truck Series with an underfunded team and also qualified for two Sprint Cup races. This year, Whitt is piloting Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 Nationwide car.
It’s a big jump to the high-profile JR Motorsports stable, where Whitt is a teammate of Patrick. But Whitt is excited about taking the seat that Aric Almirola drove to fourth place in last year’s Nationwide standings.
Whitt’s spotlight-grabbing teammate might even help. As a rookie herself, Patrick won’t be able to offer many on-track tips. But with her garnering most of the attention, Whitt should be able to focus on driving without the distraction of being an employee of NASCAR’s most popular driver.
Johanna Long is driving the No. 70 car in Nationwide competition this season. That’s right, there is another woman in NASCAR. (And, yes, I know that Jennifer Jo Cobb also races in the series, but at age 38 she misses our young gun cut-off.)
Jo, as Long is known, began racing late model cars across the Southeast at age 14. A year later, the Pensacola, Fla., native became the youngest, and first, female champion in her hometown Five Flags Speedway’s history when she took the Pro Late Model title. When she turned 18 in 2010, Long jumped to the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. She’ll celebrate her 20th birthday in May and hopes one of her presents is giving the guys in the Nationwide series a run for their money in 21 races this year.
Austin Dillon is a legacy ride if ever there was one, but with one big exception. He wins. Regularly. After earning Rookie of the Year in the truck series in 2010, Dillon won the truck championship in 2011. At age 21½, Dillon was the truck series’ youngest ever champion.
You say you don’t recognize the Dillon name? Maybe his grandfather’s name is more familiar: Richard Childress.
Dillon has been driving for his legendary grandpa in the truck series and is piloting full-time the No. 3 Chevrolet Impala in the Nationwide series. Significantly, this is the first time that the iconic black (you expected another color?) Chevy is back on a NASCAR track full-time since Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s death.
Not only is the kid good behind the wheel, Dillon was voted by truck series fans as their favorite driver last year. That’s the kind of draw the NASCAR hierarchy likes.
And Dillon’s got a head on his shoulders. He’s attending High Point University in North Carolina, but his smartest move is promising his granddad he’ll graduate from the college in 2013.
You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the usual suspects. These guys are a little older, relatively speaking, but they’ve also got lots of good years ahead:
Ricky Stenhouse, age 25, was the 2011 Nationwide series champion.
Brad Kesolowski, 28, was 2010 Nationwide series champ and a 2011 Sprint Cup chase contender.
Kyle Busch, 26, holds the modern-era record for most race wins (24) in a season across the top three NASCAR series.
Justin Allgaier, 25, was 2008 ARCA RE/MAX series champion and 2009 Nationwide rookie of the year.
Trevor Bayne, 21, was 2011 Daytona 500 champion and still counted among the young racing elite. Unfortunately, he’s a victim of NASCAR economics, driving for the venerable, but fiscally subpar, Wood Brothers team.
Don’t count any of these young men and women out. They’re already winners, and they are NASCAR’s future.
Kay Bell is an Austin, Texas-based writer. When she’s not yelling at her television during NASCAR races, she writes about financial topics and blogs about taxes at Don’t Mess With Taxes (www.dontmesswithtaxes.typepad.com).
| Memorable moment | As part of its 25th anniversary celebration this year, Roush Fenway Racing asked the NASCAR media to select the top moment in company history. The winner: Matt Kenseth’s 2003 Sprint Cup championship.
After four runner-up finishes over its first 14 years, that season-long title was the first for Roush Racing, which Jack Roush founded in 1988. The most memorable aspect of that season was the No. 17 team’s amazing consistency — they spent a record 35 weeks inside the top 10 in points and easily clinched the title even before reaching the final race.
Kenseth only won once that year, though, and it came very early. And, partly in response to his runaway, NASCAR switched to the current Chase format immediately after that season.
| Put a lid on it | Legendary driver and team owner Don Schumacher is actively lobbying the NHRA to make a radical change to its Top Fuel dragsters — put a full canopy over the cockpit to help protect the drivers’ heads during their 300+ mph runs.
NHRA officials are interested in the 25-pound, $15,000 lid Schumacher has developed. Before they approve it, however, they want to determine the aerodynamic effect it might have and, more important, whether it would make it tougher for rescue workers to extract a driver after an accident.
The canopy isn’t Schumacher’s first major safety innovation. He also pioneered the effort to add roof escape hatches to NHRA funny cars in the 1970s.
| Anti-popularity contest | If you’d asked me who the most disliked person in motorsports was, I’d have instantly guessed Kyle Busch. According to a recent Nielsen survey of public attitudes toward pro athletes, however, Kyle’s big brother Kurt holds the dubious crown of racing’s most disliked person.
Kurt, remember, got fired by Penske Racing at the end of last season after a series of temper tantrums culminating in an obscenity-filled interview on ESPN at Homestead. The good news for Kurt, though, is that he finished only 10th on the despised athlete list.
Above — if that’s the correct word — him on the list are No. 9 Alex Rodriguez, No. 8 Terrell Owens, No. 7 Kobe Bryant, No. 6 LeBron James, No. 5 Kris Humphries, No. 4 Ndamukong Suh, No. 3 Plaxico Burress, No. 2 Tiger Woods and No. 1 Michael Vick. Compared to most of those guys, Kurt is practically Mr. Congeniality.