Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Some Perspective, Please

Don't get me wrong; 20-year-old Trevor Bayne, driving the famed No. 21 Ford for the Wood Brothers, winning the 53rd running of the Daytona 500 is probably one of the best openings to the 2011 season that NASCAR could ask for -- the only better beginning would've been Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning, but you take what you can get.

But let's exercise some perspective here.

Some have intimated in the days following the Daytona 500 that Bayne will be the sport's next big thing, the rising star who'll sweep in and save NASCAR from all its ills. That's a lot of pressure for a kid who's only made two Sprint Cup starts and is fighting for a Nationwide Series title in an unsponsored Roush Fenway ride.

Don't get me wrong; Bayne's got a lot of talent. He showed it in the Nationwide Series last season, and he was obviously good enough for Jeff Gordon -- Jeff Gordon! -- to work with him during Speedweeks.

But to proclaim him the sport's savior? To call him the Justin Bieber of NASCAR? That's a stretch.

NASCAR's history is littered with high-profile up-and-comers who showed a lot of promise but never lived up to it. For every Jeff Gordon, there are three Casey Atwoods. Even though Joey Logano's shown promise and improvement heading into his third full Cup season, who really believes he wouldn't have benefited from two full Nationwide seasons before moving up?

Granted, the circumstances in Logano's case were different; Tony Stewart leaving a year before the end of his contract sort of forced Joe Gibbs' hand. By and large, though, young drivers aren't allowed to develop the way they used to; even back in the late 1990s, drivers could spend a few years in the Nationwide Series (then the Busch Series) to hone their skills before moving to the Cup Series.

These days? Drivers like Logano and the Busch brothers are practically thrust into Cup the moment they're eligible. Kurt Busch jumped straight from the Camping World Truck Series to the Cup Series, and the bulk of Kyle Busch's Nationwide and Truck Series wins came after he'd already established himself as a Cup star.

Brad Keselowski has been the exception in recent years; after getting his big break in the Nationwide Series in 2007, Keselowski ran in the Nationwide Series full-time in 2008 and 2009, while adding in the occasional Cup start for experience (and, oh by the way, a win at Talladega in 2009).

He didn't start running in the Cup Series full-time until last season.

It's easy to jump on the Trevor Bayne bandwagon after his win in the Great American Race; it's a wonderful story, and Bayne has a world of potential. There's a reason the now-defunct Dale Earnhardt Inc. had him signed to a development deal before the economy cratered, and Michael Waltrip Racing touted him as the next big thing before funding ran dry last year.

But don't let the excitement of the moment cloud the reality that he just turned 20, that he only has two Cup starts and one full Nationwide season under his belt. Bayne is competing for the Nationwide Series title this season, which I feel is the right move. I think he has a legitimate shot at the title, and the experience he gains this year, running Nationwide along with 17 or 18 Cup races, will serve him well.

If he lands a full-time Cup ride next season (in Jack Roush's No. 6, perhaps?), then that would be great. But let's not put Bayne on a pedestal so soon; he could be the next Jeff Gordon, or he could be the next Derrick Cope.

Or, more likely, he'll fall somewhere in between. But let's find out where that is before we anoint the kid, okay?


CrackerLilo said...

I like the kid. His attitude bespeaks "future champion" in a way that Joey Logano, with his giggly nervousness, doesn't. (The God-talk makes me a little queasy--if his God exists, I don't think he favors Bayne more than, say, Mark Martin or Tony Stewart--but I'll allow it given the circumstances.)

Daytona's a really fluky track, though. Really great drivers, like Stewart and Martin, haven't won it. Earnhardt took forever to win it. If you judged a driver's career by Daytona alone, Cope, Michael Waltrip, and Tiny Lund would be considered legends. How will Bayne race at Bristol, Watkins Glen, Atlanta? How will he do when all the Hendricks and Childress cars are intact? These are important things to know.

I'm glad that so far, he (or someone close to him) seems smart enough to understand that he needs seasoning in Nationwide. It would have to be hard to walk away from that full-time Sprint Cup ride at such a young age, and so easy to believe one's own hype. The discipline to say "not yet" will be good for him, too. I do think young girls will like him--the 10-year-old at my house, who loves Logano, was appraising him closely. Given the squealing some of the NASCAR media's done over him, Bayne should be used to that kind of thing!

I came via Twitter. (@greeneyedlilo) Nice blog!

Jeff Cunningham said...

Thanks for finding the blog and for leaving a comment! Hope you keep coming back; I try to update this page at least once a week.

I love the fact that Trevor's sticking to his plan to run for the Nationwide Series title; too many guys are immediately rushed to the Cup Series these days, and I think it hinders their development. Look at Casey Atwood. And while Joey's doing okay for himself, I think if Tony hadn't left a year before the end of his contract to run his own team, Joey would've been better off, because it would've given him at least one full NW season before being plunked into a Cup ride -- a good Cup ride, but still.

Brad Keselowski is really the exception to the rule anymore, spending a good three years in NW before getting his first full-time Cup ride. I think, in the long run, that will serve him well, just as I believe it will serve Trevor well.

I like Trevor; the God stuff makes me cringe a little, too, but he's a nice kid and he doesn't force it on anyone, so I can look past it. I think, so long as he doesn't get rushed, he can have a nice career. I don't see him being a Derrick Cope, but I don't see him being a Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson, either.

Oh, and if I'm Jack Roush? I may have found the next driver of the No. 6 after this season ... cause let's face it, David Ragan hasn't been performing.

Thanks for reading!