The Path to NASCAR

LAGUNA BEACH, March 22, 2005 – In NASCAR Nextel Cup racing, one thing is becoming apparently clear: only the young and strong survive. And the drivers who are spearheading that youthful revolution are coming from places not previously considered a hotbed of stock car racing.

Until Jeff Gordon arrived on the scene, the usual step-up to Cup competition came from the Busch ranks and weekly NASCAR series [that still provide some front-runners today]. Gordon’s background was widely different from others’ as he raced in USAC midgets and sprints before beginning a single year of Busch racing that launched his Cup career.

That started the floodgates and now we’re inundated with drivers from the open wheel set who might have considered rides in rear-engine Indy cars before the glow of Cup money headed their way.

Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Dave Blaney, Mike Bliss, JJ Yeley are just over a handful of drivers who have wide experience in front engine open wheel racers and who have made successful transitions to the 3500-plus-pound stock cars, seemingly with ease.

What did they learn on the pavement and dirt tracks where USAC plies its trade around the United States? For starters, USAC races always begin with two-by-two lineups that dance in cadence. It’s a pretty sight and one that sends shivers up the spines of race-goers everywhere.

Car control is something these pilots learn from the seat of their pants in a midget or sprint car; when one gets out of shape, they’ve got to bring it back in quickly or become feast for the drivers chasing them. On dirt tracks it’s even more pronounced. Tire conservation is another open wheel trick that’s come in handy for these graduates.

Just about the only thing USAC has been lax in coaching drivers about is media relations, but president Rollie Helmling is working on it. Perhaps if he’d gotten to Stewart before Tony started looking more like a prize fighter than race car driver, the former Indy Racing League champion might have smiled at that photographer he busted in the chops a couple of years ago?

And now there’s a new venue for aspiring Cup drivers: off-road racing spawned Jimmie Johnson, who got his start in the late Mickey Thompson’s stadium contests even before his voice changed. Again, Jimmie learned car control, tire preservation, side-by-side starts and how to address a crowd.

Who can forget Johnson’s Busch series shunt at Watkins Glen International where he climbed out of his stricken racer that had just become one with the Glen’s infamous blue guardrail, raised his arms in relief and provoked a round cheers from fans in attendance? Those actions likely got the Californian his current drive with Gordon and Rick Hendrick.

Johnson’s my pick for top shoe in the taxicab races this year; he likely should have won the Nextel Cup in 2004 but being first loser by a scant eight points isn’t a bad read for the resume.

The newest star twinkling in the ever-increasing NASCAR firmament is Carl Edwards, who listened to uncle Ken Schrader when advised to put his butt in a dirt track car instead of going directly to stock machines early in the kid’s career.

What Edwards learned in modifieds, in midgets and sprints held him in good stead at Atlanta Motor Speedway last Saturday and Sunday.

Yes, Carl Edwards, who matriculated from Craftsman Truck last season to finish off the 2004 Cup campaign for car owner Jack Roush in the #99 Ford won two races in Atlanta and pretty much dropped jaws all over the NASCAR Nation.

Despite having next to no rubber left on his machine, he prevailed over Johnson in a thrilling, composite-bending finish that is still being talked about in coffee shops around the country.

What’s the lesson here? Mothers, allow your prospective race car drivers to learn all they can on the high banks at Winchester; let them try for the King’s Ransom at Eldora; have them contest the Night Before the 500 on Indianapolis Raceway Park’s pavement. It will hold them in good stead.

Heck, when Jeff Gordon went to Indianapolis to try out Juan Pablo Montoya’s Formula One car a couple of Junes ago, the education he received in midgets and sprints likely helped Gordon adapt to the technoid machine he tried out on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

The more I watch these profoundly talented drivers ply their trade, the more awed I become. Of course I’d prefer it if these drivers were still racing open wheel cars but that’s not where the action, the competition and the fame are centered.

Join me and watch Carl Edwards as he continues to impress his peers and car owner Jack Roush, not the easiest guy to astonish. The future of NASCAR Nextel Cup racing is looking ever brighter with intelligent, kind and fun guys like Edwards performing back-flips after taking the checkered flags. It might not get any better than this.