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Thursday, November 09, 2006

How is a Young Busch Supposed to Blossom?

Every Busch series owner is looking for the next Martin Truex Jr or Kyle Busch. In 2004 both jumped into top-flight equipment and immediately won races and challenged for championships. The problem is drivers like Truex and Busch don’t grow on trees (or shrubs). Most young drivers need time to develop. With numerous Cup drivers consistently racing in the Busch series, that development is tougher than ever.

8 Cup drivers are racing at least 85% of the schedule. Other drivers like Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and Michael Waltrip drive in 20 or more races. The means at least 12 experienced drivers in excellent rides show up for every race. In fact the average number of Buschwhackers per race this year is 13.

This isn’t an attempt to point out the evils of Cup drivers in the Busch series. That is for another day. They are not breaking any rules, so don’t blame the drivers for wanting to run more races. Instead it shows the challenge rookie drivers face. Even in equal equipment, a veteran driver will have the upper hand almost every time. Buschwhackers have scored 31 of the 33 wins, 84% of the top fives and 72% of the top 10’s. That leaves rookies to scrap for top 15’s or top 20’s. In context, that is a good run for a first-year Busch driver.

Apparently that wasn’t enough for drivers like Mark McFarland and Burney Lamar to keep their rides. Todd Kluever will have a partial Busch schedule in ’07. Danny O’Quinn future is also unknown. Obviously any sponsor wants to see their car up front, but it is unreasonable to expect any of these drivers to consistently run up front.

Rookies need time; Truex and Busch were the exception not the norm. It is the same in other sports. Very few NBA rookies will come in and hold their own. There are very few Lebrons, Carmelos or Dwayne Wades. Most rookies need time to develop and adjust to the new level of competition.

Compare Paul Menard’s record to these rookies. He started very slowly, not picking up a top ten until his 48th Busch races. Since then, he has 30 top tens and his first win in the past year and a half. He is now the top Busch regular and has two consecutive top ten points finishes. It took a little bit of patience, but Menard is now ready for Nextel Cup racing.

Other Cup drivers like Kasey Kahne, JJ Yeley and Jimmie Johnson also struggled in Busch. Kahne had 1 top 10 in his first 20 races. To a lesser degree, Denny Hamlin didn’t run consistently in the top 10 until this year either.

Look at the four rookies and their top 15 and top 20 finishes.
McFarland (4 top 15’s, 7 top 20’s)
Lamar (6 top 15’s, 13 top 20’s)
Kluever (7 top 15’s, 14 top 20’s)
O’Quinn (10 top 15’s, 13 top 20’s)

In the current context, these numbers aren’t horrible. Each rookie went through a rough patch where they struggled. Each rookie showed a few bright spots too. Busch drivers typically need at least 30-40 starts to make an honest evaluation. McFarland got 21 and Lamar started 29. Kluever will make 35 this year, but it’s hard to imagine much improvement on a part-time schedule next year.

How can a driver gain any comfort, let alone experience, if they have no security? This falls on the owners like Dale Earnhardt Jr, Kevin Harvick and Jack Roush. Sponsors should have a say, not dictate what a team does. Owners must be able to lay out a long term plan and convince a sponsor to stick it out. Replacing one rookie with another is most likely not the answer for immediate success.

Bobby Labonte replaced Lamar for the balance of the season. That’s fine for the short term, but Labonte won’t drive the car next year. So now Harvick will either shuttle in various veterans like Ron Hornaday, or find another rookie to fill the seat. Another rookie means they will no doubt go through the same struggles. Had KHI stuck with Lamar, he may have progressed in his second year with the team. Instead of one year of growing pains, the team is now looking at two or more.

Another key note: KHI is not the same as RCR. Even Harvick has seen different results in his own cars than when he drives Childress’ #21 car. So while Clint Boywer immediately flourished as a rookie for Childress, Lamar was not in the same equipment. This is not to say Lamar and Bowyer are the same caliber driver, only to point out that Lamar is driving lesser cars.

The same goes for McFarland and JR Motorsports. JR Motorsports is a brand new team in the Busch series. McFarland certainly struggled during his time in the #88 car. He suffered an injury at the Milwaukee race and Martin Truex subbed for the next two races while McFarland recovered. After Truex picked up a top ten and a 16th, McFarland returned with improved results. In the next four races he scored an 11th, 16th, 25th and 17th. It was not enough to save his job as he was replaced at Watkins Glen by Truex.

In eight races, replacement Shane Huffman has not done much better than McFarland. He has one top five, but also crashed out of three races. Maybe Earnhardt feels Huffman has more potential, but so far he hasn’t shown it.

Another perplexing thing about the relative impatience of these teams is they are a few of the teams that could afford to be patient. Harvick and Jr both own relatively infant teams with no immediate Cup aspirations, and both are sponsor friendly. Neither was planning on contending for a Championship regardless what driver was in the seat. And yet both teams got antsy at the first sign of trouble.

There is always talk about the driver shortage and where will tomorrow’s drivers come from. With impatient owners and sponsors, it’s no wonder. There are plenty of problems with the Busch series that need fixing. Impatience from the owners only exacerbates the problems.