Super rookies expected to be a driving force this year Labonte, Gordon and Wallace top Class of '93

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Everything is laid out for this 1993 rookie class like a plate of filet mignon.

A year ago Winston Cup racing couldn't even put together a rookie class. By the time the season reached the 20-race mark, only Jimmy Hensley had run the required eight races. Guess who won Rookie of the Year?

Now there are the Super Rookies.

Bobby Labonte. Jeff Gordon. Kenny Wallace.

Tom Cruise, eat your heart out. They are three top guns. All young, all attractive, with the kind of smooth self-assurance major corporate sponsors adore enough to spend millions on. They are rookies, but they have sponsorship deals over which long-time veterans, active and retired, would salivate.

They are like three flashy gunslingers with white cowboy hats and silver bullets about to shoot for gold.

Labonte, Gordon and Wallace have everything they need. A full plate, loaded with money, experienced crews and good equipment.

In fact, they have more going into their first season than Alan Kulwicki has as he sets out to defend his Winston Cup Championship.

When Kulwicki ran for Rookie of the Year in 1986, he started with $50,000. This year he will operate on $2 million plus his purse winnings. Each of the rookies has a deal of about $3 million per year.

"When I was a rookie, I was completely on my own," Kulwicki said. "These guys have great teams behind them, and the competition among the three of them should make each one better. But I think the experience made me hungrier than these guys will ever be."

Labonte, Gordon and Wallace have ego enough to think they've earned what they've got, and two of the three have family ties to Winston Cup titles in brothers Terry Labonte and Rusty Wallace.

"I'm a lot like Darrell Waltrip," said Kenny Wallace. "I'm very consistent and you'll find me still running at the finish every week."

Which is all Wallace's team owner Felix Sabates asks.

"What I expect Kenny to do is finish races, so the sponsors get their exposure," said Sabates, whose contract with Wallace and Dirt Devil covers three years and is worth $3 million per season.

Kenny Wallace, who will be 30 in August, has been racing Busch Grand National cars since 1989. He won Rookie of the Year in that series and finished second in the championship points race in 1991. Last season, after joining the Sabates team, he lead the Busch Series points over the second half of the season to finish sixth in the standings.

Labonte, 28, started racing at age 5 in quarter midgets and has steadily moved up in class. He was voted most popular driver on the Busch Grand National series in 1990, earned the series championship in 1991 and was runner-up last year.

Gordon, 21, began his career in midgets and sprint cars and then moved to the Grand National ranks. A hard charger, in the mold of Dale Earnhardt, Gordon learned his way around the tracks by spinning out on nearly every one and didn't win a race.

"I've adjusted to stock cars now," said Gordon, who won three times on the GN circuit last year. "I know I'm going to have to earn the respect of the Winston Cup drivers, but that doesn't mean I'm just going to move

over and let them drive by. I'm not going to be intimidated out there."

Money and what it buys is apparent as the competition gapes at these three new teams. Of course there is the gleaming new equipment, but what is most impressive about each of the three is the personnel backing them.

On the Wallace team is chief mechanic Jeff Hammond, who was under the hood and in the ear of Darrell Waltrip for 43 of his career victories and two of three Winston Cup championships.

With Labonte is Tim Brewer, who was crew chief on the championship teams of Cale Yarborough (1978), Waltrip (1981) and with Bill Elliott last season, when he won five races and missed winning the championship by 10 points.

And with Gordon is car owner Rick Hendrick and the expertise of the Ricky Rudd and Kenny Schrader teams, which Hendrick also owns.

"I try not to think too much about what I've got with this team," said Gordon, whose team is given all testing information and any other help it needs from the Rudd and Schrader teams. "If I think about it too much, my head might start to blow up. But when I go to bed at night, I think about winning races."

Hammond is with Wallace's team because after 10 years, both Hammond and Waltrip felt the need to grow. Waltrip, who depended on Hammond to basically run his team the past three seasons, wanted more control. And Hammond, who says he had no problem with that, wanted the opportunity to put together a new team with a new talent.

"I love Darrell like a big brother," said Hammond. "But sometimes things can get stale and families have to go in different directions. I'm hoping Kenny and I are going to develop the same kind of close relationship and he becomes an adoptive brother."

When Hammond looks over the garage area at Daytona International Speedway, his eyes don't have to wander far to see Brewer's familiar face. They both had the same early mentor, Junior Johnson. Hammond left when Waltrip left Johnson in 1986. Brewer left in late November, when after 12 years, Johnson sent him a matter-of-fact letter telling him his services were no longer required.

Brewer is one of the key ingredients powering Labonte's new team. Another driving force is the lingering hurt owner Bill Davis feels over having been deserted while he was trying to put a high-profile ride together for Gordon.

"Everyone knows we have a history," said Davis. "I guess Jeff didn't think we could get this done for him. I have to admit there will be some satisfaction from proving what we can do. I'm thrilled to have Bobbyhere, he's a little steadier and more mature than Jeff."

Brewer won't talk about the circumstances of his departure from Johnson's team, saying only, "I worked too long and hard to help build that team, I'm certainly not going to say anything to tear it apart."

Instead, he talks with passion about Labonte.

"I don't call Bobby and this team a rookie team," said Brewer. "I call it a first-year team. The way I look at it is we've got all the experience and Bobby has all the knowledge of driving Grand Nationals. So all this means is he'll be driving a little heavier car over a little longer distance. There's a big desire to win here, and we're going to win."

Each of the three believes he is capable of putting his car in victory lane, but it is not a common practice.

When Davey Allison won twice on his way to Rookie of the Year in 1987, it was only the fifth time in history a rookie had taken the checkered flag and the only time a rookie had won more than once.

"They've each got good teams, good sponsors and good equipment," said Waltrip. "And all three can drive. I'd say this is probably going to be a rookie year like none we've ever seen -- but there is going to be a lot of pressure from high expectations, and it would still surprise me if one of them won a race."

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