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Watkins Glen: Rookies strive to gain status, points

By James Johnson
Staff writer

(August 14, 2004) — WATKINS GLEN — Unlike Allen Iverson, Scott Wimmer understands the value of practice. It's not easy for Wimmer and other NASCAR Nextel Cup drivers to steer and shift their bright, clunky cars around a road course.

Watkins Glen International is a road course, a track that Wimmer hasn't raced on since 2001, outside of a handful of laps at a test session last month.

Wimmer could have used the practice session on Friday, but it was canceled because of moisture on the track. There are two more sessions today, but rain is in the weather forecast.

A driver 26th in the series points race with an average finish of 22nd-place could use a break. But no one said the life of a Nextel Cup rookie like Wimmer's would be easy.

“To be a rookie in NASCAR is pure hell,” series veteran and former champion Rusty Wallace said. “It's so hard to understand these cars and stay up with the competition all of the time.”

Rookie status or not, team owners, crews, sponsors and fans want results. Budgets for Cup teams typically are in the $3 million-$15 million range.

It can become very expensive waiting for someone to get in a stock car and show what they can do against seasoned veterans and their teams.

“It takes awhile,” Wimmer, 28, said. “The last few years we've seen rookies come out of the box and do real well, and Kasey Kahne is doing that this year.

“It's something that's just taking me a little bit of time. Even in my Busch career, my rookie season wasn't the greatest. My second year, I won four races and finished third in the points.”

Kahne, 24, is in 11th place in points and just on the outside of the Cup's new Championship Chase picture.

While he hasn't won this season, the quiet, laid-back native of Enumclaw, Wash., has finished second four times and has eight top-10 finishes.

“The biggest thing we wanted to accomplish this year was to gain knowledge and experience at these tracks for a better year next season,” Tommy Baldwin, Kahne's crew chief, said.

“He studies, thinks a lot and knows what's going on. People like that seem to do real well.”

Jimmie Johnson, the current points leader, won three times in his first full season. Ryan Newman was a six-time winner.

“They are a lot more prepared than we were when we started racing,” veteran Ricky Rudd said. “When I came into the series I was 18 years old and had never driven a race car, period.

“I was in a go-kart, on motorcycles, then a Winston Cup car in Rockingham, North Carolina, all in a seven-day period, no testing or nothing.”

Cup rookies like Kahne and Brendan Gaughan of the Kodak-sponsored Penske-Jasper team often spend time in NASCAR's Craftsman Truck and Busch Series.

Those two series are where drivers sometimes are groomed for future Cup careers. NASCAR rules also allow drivers to make a certain number of starts and not lose their rookie status.

“Yeah, it's a different time,” Rudd, 47, said. “They get here and they're with a multi-car team most of the time, so all they have to do is learn how to drive the car.

“When we came up, we had to learn how to work on the cars and a lot of other things.”

Kahne has the benefit of Ray Evernham as his team owner, the man who helped propel four-time series champion Jeff Gordon's career. Bill Elliott, the driver that Kahne replaced, also has shared his expertise.

Elliott won 44 races and a series championship. He and others have said that Kahne has shown the right amount of aggression and respect as a rookie.

“You gotta respect the guys who have been doing it because they are really good at it,” Kahne said. “I showed respect to them early in the season, and I'm still showing it now. It just makes it a lot easier to come in as a rookie and run good.

“If they want to make it hard on you, they will, every week, many times during a race. It's not easy when guys do that. They know how to mess with your car in a corner and get you loose.”

The result can either be a pass or crash.

“Tony (Stewart) got me at Sears Point,” Gaughan said. “It didn't need to happen, but it was a racing deal.

“I gave him the racing room, and I should've given him the aggressive room. It was partially my fault. I haven't learned how to read all the guys yet in traffic.”

Wallace said that Gaughan, who is 29, is learning.

“If they (rookies) come in with a big mouth and are reckless on a racetrack then you tend to stay clear of them and just ignore them,” Wallace said. “They are obviously running around on adrenaline and not brains.

“Brendan runs on brains. He's going to make it. He's got natural talent out the gazoo. He's great with the media, a great-looking guy and a fun person.”

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