This season's card full of promise,
deep in talent and resources
By JIM UTTER
Not only is the 2004 Nextel Cup rookie class deep on talent but it's also deep on resources.
Unlike many seasons in which there are two or three rookies from top-notch teams, this season's class features drivers backed by many of the most successful organizations in the sport.
Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing, Penske - names synonymous with success in NASCAR - are joined by the likes of Bill Davis Racing, Evernham Motorsports and MBV Motorsports.
All of the teams feature talented personnel and are fully funded - not always a given with aspiring rookies.
The driving talent alone would make for a wild rookie race. Toss in six strong organizations and this season's battle could be NASCAR's best yet.
"It's amazing to see the talent that keeps coming up from the Busch Series and other series," said Jimmie Johnson, who battled Ryan Newman in a tight rookie race in 2002. "I think you can't rule anyone out.
"Maybe these guys will raise the bar again. All the rookies have great backing and good teams."
The Busch Series was home last season to all but one of the rookies.
Brian Vickers, who at age 20 became the youngest champion in series history last season, leads the way in Hendrick Motorsports' No. 25 Chevrolet.
Vickers, in his first full season in the series, won three races and the title. He also ran five Cup races, qualifying fourth or better in four.
"There are a lot of great candidates for the (rookie) title - a lot of people I've raced with in the past in the Busch Series and late models," Vickers said.
Scott Wimmer, at 28, and Scott Riggs, at 33, are the "veterans" of the class. Both spent the past two seasons in Busch and each racked up numerous wins.
Riggs is a former late model star and veteran of the NASCAR Truck Series. He takes over the No. 10 Chevrolet at MBV Motorsports.
"This is an exciting time for all of us - just thinking about the Daytona 500 is an awesome feeling," Riggs said of the Feb. 15 season opener. "It's the biggest and most prestigious race and we want to come out of the gate with a strong statement."
Before joining Bill Davis Racing in Busch, Wimmer starred in the American Speed Association and the Hooters ProCup series, where he was known for long hours working on his cars.
"Being hands-on with the car is most important," Wimmer said. "You need to know your car and know how to work on your equipment."
Johnny Sauter, 25, and Kasey Kahne, 23, also move into Cup from Busch, but don't plan to give up their old rides. Both will compete full time in both series in 2004.
Sauter has two Busch wins, and with teammate Kevin Harvick, helped Childress' No. 21 team capture the 2003 owner's championship.
"This is a great opportunity," said Sauter, who will drive Childress' No. 30 Chevrolet. "I want to race, and more time on the track will only give me a better chance at success."
Kahne, who captured his first Busch win in the 2003 season finale, is ready for the Cup season.
"It's nice to get back in the car," he said. "We've got a real good rookie class. I've raced with all of them except Brendan Gaughan. They're all good racers."
Gaughan, who led the Truck series with six wins last season, moves into Cup as part of a third Penske team created from Jasper Motorsports' No. 77. The deal was completed in the past two months.
"I've been racing NASCAR for six or seven years now. I've been racing Trucks, Winston West," Gaughan said. "I've kind of done what NASCAR would like us to use as stepping stones.
"The learning curve is going to be high, but I have lofty goals."