By Dan Beaver
The Sports Xchange
In recent years, the NASCAR Rookie of the Year battle has been one of Sprint Cup's major storylines – for good or bad – and 2009 will continue that trend.
The last three years have showcased what may well be the most enduring rookie class in NASCAR history as 2006 produced Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Reed Sorenson and David Stremme — all of whom enter the 2009 season driving for a major team.
NASCAR has also seen the most disappointing class of all time as most of last year's heralded rookies suffered through a dismal season.
The Class of 2008 might well have had more raw talent than any that preceded it. Numerous championships and major race wins in other series – primarily the Indy Racing League and Formula One – were brought to the table by Jacques Villeneuve, Dario Franchitti, Patrick Carpentier and Sam Hornish Jr.
But only one of these racers remained in his ride through the end of the season — and Hornish finished the season outside the top 35 in owner points.
Even though his resume coming into NASCAR included three IRL championships and an Indianapolis 500 victory, Hornish was upstaged by another rookie.
It was Regan Smith who took top freshman honors last year, only to lose his ride when Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing merged nearly two months ago. As a result, Smith starts this season driving for a part-time team that is being funded out of owner Barney Visser's pockets.
This year's rookie class features only two full-time drivers, 18-year-old professed teen phenom Joey Logano, and shall we say, the slightly eccentric Scott Speed, who likes to walk around with painted toenails.
Brad Kesolowski and Max Papis are also considered eligible, but because they'll compete in less than half of this seasons races, it would take a complete implosion by both Speed and Logano for either of the other two drivers to have even a longshot chance.
Yet despite the sparseness of overall numbers, it may very well turn out to be one of the most competitive battles we've seen in many years.
While last year's class produced a resume of racing that read like a who's who list, this year's top contenders have relatively little experience in racing's senior series, but they both move into strong rides. Better yet, both have shown an ability to rapidly adjust to new situations.
In 2005, still only 15 at the time, Logano won a USAR stock car race at Mansfield Motorsports Park in only his second start in that series. As amazing a feat as that was, he was already a seasoned racer at the time.
"When I moved to Late Models, maybe I wasn’t quite ready at 12-years-old," Logano said. "I think that has made me improve and made me better. Racing against someone that is better than you is the only way that you’re going to learn."
And learn he did. In 2007, NASCAR lowered the minimum age to compete in their development series to 16. The rule change came largely in response to lobbying by Joe Gibbs Racing so they could get seat time for their budding star and prepare him for this year's Rookie battle. He won in both his Grand National West division debut at Phoenix (Ariz.) International Raceway and one week later in his East debut at Greenville-Pickens (S.C.) Speedway.
Logano also won in his ARCA debut, a 500-kilometer race on the tough Rockingham (N.C.) Speedway last May.
Shortly after that, Logano debuted in the Nationwide Series immediately after turning 18 — the minimum age for NASCAR's Big Three divisions — and won from the pole in only his third start at Kentucky Speedway.
Speed has proven to adjust nearly as quickly. After a brief career in Formula 1 that witnessed a best finish of ninth in the 2007 Monaco Grand Prix, Red Bull Racing brought him home to America. In his first-ever stock car race, he finished seventh at Talladega SuperSpeedway in ARCA and four races later in that series, he won at Kansas Speedway.
Speed claimed his first Craftsman Truck Series win in only his sixth start and if that was not impressive enough, that victory came at Dover International Speedway, the "Monster Mile." Despite that success, Speed is remarkably well-centered.
“Honestly, results are pretty irrelevant," Speed said when asked about his rapid development. "There are 30-to-40-some other guys out every time you race. You can’t control all those guys. Sometimes it works out to where you’re the best out of all of them. The idea is you try to improve yourself to be one of the best drivers in the series, and whether you win or not really doesn’t have too much to do with that.
"Obviously, in the long term it does, but to win a one-off truck race for example, was I the best truck driver there? Not even close. I’m certainly a lot better than I was then and I’m continuing to learn, and honestly, that whole process of learning and getting better at this is what I’m enjoying so much. "
In 39 starts in both ARCA and the truck divisions, Speed logged five victories and was in contention to win the ARCA championship in its final race in 2008.
In limited Cup competition, both drivers have yet to prove themselves, but the handwriting is on the wall. In what was supposed to be his Cup debut, Logano posted one of the best practice sessions at Richmond International Raceway last fall before rain canceled qualification.
In the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Speed had a car capable of stealing a top-10 before settling into a very respectable 16th. Both the potential to run up front and the realization that circumstances and a lack of experience factored into his result were part of Speed's schooling, however.
“My expectations are to continue learning," Speed said. "Let’s say at the last race of the year in Miami: we had a great car especially in qualifying, and in the race I think we definitely had a top-10 car that we probably could have finished in there.
"I ended up finishing 16th, which is probably a lucky 16th because we should have been more like 20th. That’s where I would say I’m at right now in my progress. By the end of the year, I want to be able to finish in 10th if that’s where my car is capable of finishing.”
While their path to NASCAR has not been parallel, 2009 has started with every indication these rookies are going to be close to one another all season. In the Bud Shootout, both drivers were hapless victims of a "Big One" crash and ended their race barely three laps into it.
During Sunday's pole qualifying for the Daytona 500, both drivers qualified in the front half of the pack. Speed posted the 17th fastest time and will start Thursday's second Gatorade Twin 150 final qualifying Thursday in ninth. Logano was 21st fastest and starts in the first 150 race in 10th.
The battle for top rookie honors over the course of the entire 36-race season is going to be hard fought and both contenders believe they are up to the challenge.
“I think honestly it’s going to be very interesting because we both have such different -- we’re rookies for such different reasons," Speed said. "Obviously, having come from such a big form of racing, I’ve gone through all the hype and dealing with the pressure and all that, and the pressure I have on me is for sure a hundreth of what he has.
"Then again (Logano) has so much more stock car experience and so much experience in these cars and probably handles himself better in the racing circumstance. It’s really going to be interesting.”
As for Logano, his expectations are single-minded: “I think we’ll go for Raybestos Rookie of the Year. It’s an achievement or accomplishment we can do this year. From there, (we’ll) see how it goes."