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2003 rookie class not on fast track

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Until Tony Stewart messed with tradition, a rookie had it easy. He could come into Winston Cup racing and take his time getting settled. He could run in the top 20 or even the top 30 without too much criticism. And if he made it to the top 10 or 15, he would have had a great day.

Over the first 42 years of the Rookie of the Year competition, only four drivers had won a race in their first seasons. Only one, Davey Allison, had won two.

But then came Stewart. In 1999, he won three races and became the first to finish among the top five in the final Winston Cup points standings at No. 4. And that started something.

Over the next three years, each Rookie of the Year winner - Matt Kenseth (one win), Kevin Harvick (two) and Ryan Newman (one) - won at least one race, and two of the three finished in the top 10.

Which brings us to the halfway point of this season and the performance of the current class. Until Saturday, when rookie Greg Biffle became the biggest surprise winner of the season with his victory in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway, the best of the lot had been Jamie McMurray. In 17 races, he has two top-five finishes and three top-10s. But he hasn't won.

Judged by pre-1999 standards, McMurray's performance has been a fine one, but it's a disappointment in 2003, especially because last season McMurray won a race as a substitute for then-injured Sterling Marlin. The win, in only his second race, set a Winston Cup record.

His underwhelming performance and that of his peers this season has spawned the question: Does this rookie class lack talent or is it less well-supported?

"It's only 17 races into the season," McMurray said. "A lot could change in the second half. As for me, you have to remember the No. 40 team, Sterling's team last year, was a championship-caliber team that I got to step into. This year, it's a totally different situation. ... It's a new team with a new driver and everyone has had to cope with the new body changes on the cars."

McMurray also points to the recent past rookie classes and notes that one or two drivers from each of those classes is now running in the top 10.

"They continue to make high achievement more difficult," McMurray said. "But, even so, we could have won in California. We've shown signs of a lot of speed. At this point you can't compare me to Ryan or Jimmie [Johnson, who won three races as a rookie last year], but the year's not over yet. I hope we run like those guys did later on."

The man who was favored to win the rookie race this season is Biffle. He has methodically worked his way though the NASCAR system. He won the Craftsman Truck Series rookie award in 1999 and then the Truck Series title the next year. He moved into the Busch Series in 2001 and won Rookie of the Year, then followed it up last year with the Busch title.

If he can win the rookie title this season, he'd be the first to win rookie titles in all three of NASCAR's major series.

But, until he won last Saturday, primarily because of fuel mileage, Biffle, 33, had been having similar transition problems. Still, after Daytona he is first in the rookie standings and 20th overall, despite just one other top-five and one other top-10 performance.

"This group isn't running as good as the previous group or two," said Jack Sprague, a three-time Craftsman Truck Series champion who finished fifth in the Busch Series last season. "But look at the rides those guys were in. Just last year, Jimmie Johnson was in an extension of Jeff Gordon's team and Ryan Newman was in an extension of Rusty Wallace's.

"Greg Biffle is a truck and Busch Series champion and, yeah, he's with Roush Racing, but it's a rookie team and driver. Speaking for myself, I have a brand-new team, a rookie owner and I'm a rookie driver."

Sprague points at McMurray as a perfect example of what can happen if you're plugging just one new piece, the rookie driver, into a veteran, established team.

"He stepped in for Sterling and he won," Sprague said. "That tells you something."

But even knowing what he knows and understanding the reasons for his performance this season, Sprague is still disappointed.

"What we've done so far isn't even close to what I thought we could do," he said. "We started out so bad and so wrong, we were so far behind the 8-ball, it has taken us a long time to straighten it out.

"We didn't know how to build a Winston Cup car. The bodies on our cars were terrible. We didn't know ... how to set them up. And we're still struggling with pit stops. Our guys are trying and working their tails off, but it's a learning experience."

At this point, Sprague simply wants to improve each week to where he and his team are competitive. His sponsors, he said, want top-20 finishes and the Rookie of the Year award.

"There is still [half a season] left," he said. "Maybe it's not impossible."

Sprague paused.

"All of us [rookies] will probably say the same things," he said. "It's hard, but the strong ones survive."

Larry Foyt, whose dad is four-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt, is learning about emotional strength. In a sport where Sprague says, "It takes a stupid amount of money to compete," Foyt has little. In a sport where the most successful cars are covered with multiple sponsors' logos, his displays bare fenders.

"Out of the whole rookie class, everyone knows Foyt has a very low budget," said driver Casey Mears, nephew of Rick Mears, another four-time Indy 500 winner. "He's not in the best equipment, and you can't gauge his talent based on what he's driving. Maybe looking in from the outside people are saying, 'He's a Foyt; he should be running like this or that.' But we understand the situation. If Larry runs exceptionally well, you know he's driven a heck of a race."

When Foyt was driving in the Busch Series, he said he wanted to go to the Winston Cup Series only if he could do it right. But here he is in a struggling, underfunded team that he acknowledges didn't have a chance at Rookie of the Year or anything else from the day it came into the garage at Daytona last February.

"I only agreed to step up to Winston Cup this season because my dad wanted me to," Foyt said. "Maybe he's only keeping the team going because of me. ... We do have a good sponsor, but one sponsor alone isn't enough and we're a one-car team and that makes it harder."

The Foyt-owned car began competing on a regular basis in 2000 but has never finished better than 36th in the points race. Right now, Larry Foyt is 42nd, having qualified for just 11 of the first 17 races. Three weeks ago, he stepped aside at the road course in Sonoma, Calif., to let a professional road racer, P.J. Jones, attempt to qualify the car. Jones didn't make the race.

"The positive in that is everyone finally realized, 'It's not just Larry. Let's figure out what's wrong with the car,'" said Foyt, 26, who acknowledges he has been embarrassed. "It's real easy to point the finger at the rookie."

For Mears, the challenge is neither equipment nor team, but learning how to drive his Chip Ganassi-owned stock car. He comes from a successful career in off-road and open-wheel racing. He spent last year in the Busch Series, where he finished 21st in points, and this season stepped into the car formerly driven by Jimmy Spencer, who finished the season 27th.

Mears said the Winston Cup Series is "three times" more competitive than Busch, and if you add to that his own inexperience with the massive cars, the reasons for his ranking are fairly obvious.

"The competitive level is night and day from other series," Mears said. "We're making gains, but it takes time. I've got a great team and fast equipment. The biggest thing is I've got a lot to learn. But at the end of the day, we know we're improving every time we go out."

THE RACE FOR TOP ROOKIE

The Rookie fo the Year candidates on the Winston Cup circuit:

Driver Rookie Points Winston Cup standing Races Earnings

Greg Biffle 186 20th 16 $1,213,190

Jamie McMurray 180 23rd 17 $1,241,470

Casey Mears 156 34th 17 $1,364,900

Jack Sprague 150 35th 17 $1,128,050

Tony Raines 135 39th 16 $1,029,140

Larry Foyt 85 42nd 11 $ 668,922

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