As pool dries, youngsters soak up opportunities

Nextel Cup teams owners scramble to fill seats, forcing some creative approaches to finding talent.

Published August 25, 2006

Richard Childress sat in a director’s chair outside  Jeff Burton’s Nextel Cup hauler, elbows wedged against the arms, cowboy-booted heels hung onto the foot rest. It was well more than 90 degrees, but Childress didn’t sweat, just squinted behind stylish brown sunglasses.

His opinions — delivered succinctly but in a slow Carolina drawl — had a certain weight.

A man whose team had struggled since winning six championships with the late Dale Earnhardt finally had righted things with Kevin Harvick, Burton and rookie Clint Bowyer, but he wondered from where the next generation  would come.

The apparent shortage was such that he wanted to sign  David Gilliland, an unknown who produced one of NASCAR’s greatest upsets by winning the June 17 Busch Series race at Sparta, Ky., in an unsponsored car.

Childress had no place to put Gilliland  but  wished he had. At least Gilliland had done something to justify some faith. (The 30-year-old has since joined Robert Yates Racing.) Many will reach Nextel Cup in the near future on far less of a resume.

“I tell you,’’ Childress said, “right now the talent pool is pretty shallow .’’

The pool will be thoroughly plumbed the next few years if the incoming wave of new team owners is successful in translating ambition into race programs.

Consider: Toyota will make its  debut in 2007 with three teams and seven cars. Michael Waltrip Racing and Team Red Bull each have one seat  to fill.

MB2 Motorsports’ new owner, Bobby Ginn, wants to increase from two to four cars in four years.

Riley D’Hondt Motorsports, led by former RYR general manager Eddie D’Hondt, announced in early August a new team that he hopes will field four cars in five years.

Many  other teams hope to increase to Nextel Cup’s limit of four cars . Attention aspiring racers: Keep your cell phone ringer on “loud.’’

“I think there is obviously a shortage of drivers right now,’’ Harvick said. “With all the new teams coming in and other teams struggling to keep the  performance of their cars up, it makes it hard to keep quality drivers.’’

Some teams are using unconventional methods to find qualified drivers. Chip Ganassi brought in one of his former open-wheel champions — Formula One’s Juan Pablo Montoya —to drive the No.42 Dodge next season. D’Hondt said he, too, might look outside stock-car racing.

Demand could get Zephyrhills’ David Reutimann and Tampa’s Aric Almirola, both of whom drive in the NASCAR truck series, to the Nextel Cup level sooner than expected.

Reutimann, the 2004 truck series rookie of the year, will drive for Waltrip in the Busch Series next year. Almirola is scheduled to compete in that series  for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Almirola, like Cup rookie Denny Hamlin, began his career on the Late Models circuit. Hamlin, eighth in this year’s Cup standings, was discovered testing a car at Hickory, N.C., for his local team and Almirola thrived after earning a spot in the JGR diversity program.

Drivers who still compete at the grass roots level, like Tony Stewart, gush over the talent there. Owners are more wary.

“There is so much talent out there,’’ driver Carl Edwards said. “I’m telling you, I think it’s almost scary. I think there could be some really good race-car drivers out there right now that are 16 or 17 years old that no one has ever heard of. ’’

But there is a gap, and not just for drivers. Burton said the influx of new teams will impact Nextel Cup like expansion in Major League Baseball or the NFL.

“I don’t view it as a shortage,’’ Burton said. “I view it as a number problem, because I think that with the Toyotas coming in next year, we’re gaining a lot of teams. I think we have a real issue with the number of talented people because we have so many new teams coming, and that’s not just drivers, that’s everybody. That’s tire changers, that’s engineers, that’s suspension guys. That’s across the board.’’

Team owner Ray Evernham, whose Nextel Cup standout Kasey Kahne started in sprint cars, said teams must be elite scouts and developers, like Roush Racing and Hendrick Motorsports, to be elite in Nextel Cup racing.

“I think the experienced pool is probably low, but if you look, there’s guys out there,’’ he said “It may not be in NASCAR, but around the country, if you look, there’s guys like Denny Hamlin. Where’d that guy come from?’’

Owners, who have to convince sponsors of a prospect’s marketability and pay to fix or replace everything a new driver wrecks, scour the country hoping to discover the next Hamlin or Carl Edwards but also have to sort through the chaff.

Most teams  hone potential drivers through developmental programs before allowing them to drive in Nextel Cup programs that cost upwards of $20-million a season.

“I think it’s really hard for owners to find someone who has experience in an ARCA car or a Busch car or a truck who can just jump in and go fast right away,’’ Edwards said. “It takes a huge investment. An owner has to find someone who is at first talented, that a sponsor is willing to invest in for a good learning program.’’

Edwards worked his way off the Missouri dirt-track circuit with talent, personality and a box of business cards he distributed to everyone  he could find. In three years, he went from obscurity, to a truck series ride for Roush Racing, to winning four times and finishing tied for second in Nextel Cup points.

“ There are guys out there who I guarantee — I go and race local tracks around the country —  (they) could drive Nextel Cup and be champions. It might take them two years to learn how to do it, and people expect you to be fast right away.’’

In a sport that has become obsessed with the next young thing, age and experience have  become valuable again.
Ward Burton, 44, is negotiating  to return to the series after being fired by Haas CNC Racing in 2004. Kiss has had fewer farewell tours than Mark Martin, 47, who had hoped to retire after last season but is  considering at least a partial Cup campaign in 2007.

There are scores of drivers in the Busch and truck series who have some Cup experience, but there has been no run on that resource yet.

“It goes in cycles,’’ MB2 general manager Jay Frye said. “A couple of years ago there was more drivers than there were teams and now there’s more teams than there are drivers. Years ago, Benson and Ward Burton, they basically got removed, where today, they would have found another job like that.’’

Keep that resume updated.