NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers come in three basic flavors: You've got the good ol' boys, who never met a piece of syntax they couldn't mangle. You've got the corporate shills, who never met a product they couldn't hawk. And then there's Scott Speed, the open-wheel refugee with the name - and backstory - that's almost too good to be true.
Last seen flaming out of Formula 1, Speed has reinvented himself as stock car racing's unlikeliest phenomenon - a zanily cosmopolitan and preternaturally talented antidote to the bland PR-speak and retrograde culture that permeate stock car racing. Imprudently honest and incongruously fashion forward, he's raced from success to success during his first forays not only on ovals but also in closed-wheel cars. He won his fourth race in an ARCA RE/MAX stock car and his sixth in a NASCAR Craftsman Truck. He'll open the 2009 season in a Red Bull Toyota Camry in the Daytona 500, and he's already been anointed a favorite in the Sprint Cup's Rookie of the Year chase.
"He's the most talented guy I've had in my trucks," says Doug Wolcott, the crew chief of Speed's Toyota Tundra. "He has a certain feel that you see only once in a while. If he can keep his confidence up, there are no limitations on what he can accomplish in Cup. But if his confidence goes down . . . " Wolcott smiles knowingly. Before becoming a crew chief, he was a top modified driver, so he knows the drill. "Confidence is all a driver has."
NASCAR has been brutal to the highly pedigreed open-wheel racers who last year descended with great fanfare on the stock car world, only to be run out of town like Yankee carpetbaggers. F1 world champion Jacques Villeneuve, 2007 Indianapolis 500 champ Dario Franchitti, former Champ Car stud A. J. Allmendinger, and one-time CART ace Patrick Carpentier were all dumped from their rides. Meanwhile, another Indy 500 winner, Sam Hornish, Jr., finished well back all season, and Colombian superstar Juan Pablo Montoya, who's got Indy 500 and Monaco Grand Prix trophies on his mantel, rarely made it out of mid-pack. Yet Speed remains supremely, even serenely, confident in his abilities.
"You can't drive in Formula 1 unless you're really great," he says. "Look at Marco Andretti, one of the best open-wheel racers in America. He went over there [to test] and was embarrassed, went home with his tail between his legs. The level of competition is amazing, and the cars are so demanding to drive fast that you just can't fake it. Over here, if they're both in decent cars, you really can't see the difference between a guy who's absolutely worthless and Kyle Busch.