Kevin Harvick's dominance in the 2001 Winston Cup Series Raybestos Rookie of The Year competition may be put into better perspective as the 2002 class prepares for Daytona.
Four top contenders have declared themselves in the running for the prestigious honor. The four are Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Carl Long, and Shawna Robinson.
Johnson, who will be driving the Lowe's Chevrolet, co-owned by four-time
champ Jeff Gordon discusses the importance of the title:
"The racer inside of us wants to be competitive out of the box. We would like to win the rookie of the year [title], and win races. We have those high expectations for ourselves, but we are not going to let them -- that pressure of performing -- let us make bad decisions or force the issue. We're going to try to get into an environment so I grow and develop as a driver at my own pace. We're all hoping it is sooner than later. With the equipment I'm going to be in and the people surrounding me and the resources of the Hendrick team, I think we'll get up to speed fast and be competitive and, hopefully, will be the 'Rookie of the Year' at the end of the year."
How does Rookie car owner Gordon view his role as a mentor?
"That's really a move for the future. I'm fortunate to be involved with the greatest car owner out there who is Rick Hendrick and borrow from his expertise and his knowledge, and his resources," Gordon said. "Really I look at him as another teammate, and I'm going to treat Jimmy and that team basically the same as Jerry Nadeau and Terry Labonte and those teams except it is under our roof. My real commitment is to the 24 car. I'm driving the 24 car to the best of my ability and I certainly am always open, as is our team to Jimmy and that team as far as what I know, and what I can do to help them. That's really where Rick's expertise comes in, that's why I partnered with him, and down the road when I want to wind my career down, that's where I'll really take a much more prominent role and learn and be able to give back the experience of the things that I've learned."
In what is predicted to be the battle of the protégés, Newman, Rusty Wallace's new teammate at Penske Racing also has his sights set on the title. Newman says he thinks his teammate Rusty Wallace will give him an advantage in the race for top freshman honors and he would assist his Penske Racing stable mate in return.
The 2001 Coca-Cola 600 pole sitter explains what it will take to claim
"A lot of patience, a lot of consistency; keeping my head on straight as far as competition goes. I think Rusty will be a great teammate in helping me do all those things. At the same time, I hope that I can help (Wallace's team) and be a great teammate to him. I don't think there is any reason why we shouldn't or couldn't."
"At times we qualified and ran just as well in the Winston Cup Series as we did in the Busch Series. I think we are capable of doing that week in and week out."
Reflecting on the young driver, veteran driver Wallace sees the learning situation as a two way street.
"I look at the way he can get around Charlotte, There is a lot I can learn from him," notes the 1989 Champion.
Johnson and Newman are certainly the favorites to take the title, not only due to their natural talent; but, also in part because of the powerhouse organizations behind them. From a purely financial aspect, Carl Long, and multi-series veteran Shawna Robinson are certainly the underdogs.
Long, who will compete with a variety of teams, notes how the financial
pressures and costs of equipment testing may hinder his effort:
"I never had a windtunnel [to test in]. I've just went racing as a grassroots race from Saturday nights on and building myself on up [the ladder]. Have not had windtunnel time, nor a lot of the amenities that Winston Cup teams have -- it's never affected me. I've never known that was something I should have had. It's tough. I mean I've run some laps I thought would have sent me to the pole in any division or any race I've been in, and I went home.
"When I made the race, it wasn't a perfect lap, 20th or 25th or something and I could see there's some light there. I could have been a top-10 car had I hit the lap perfectly. That just motivated me enough to keep digging and come up with whatever I've got this year to go along with three or four different little volunteer operations that if they can get one ready per month, I've got an engine I can put in that program. Next month I have that car ready with four different teams doing that. I've got four races a month and rookie of the year to look forward to."
Robinson, who like Long, will not attempt to run a full season,
comments on the transition from trying to qualify for twenty-four races,
rather than an individual event:
"The pressure was not running more than one race; the pressure has always been the extremely limited schedules and limited opportunities. Really since 2000 when I ran the full ARCA Series, I haven't had any consistency since then. It would have been nice to back that up by running the full ARCA schedule in 2001 along with the Cup attempts; we didn't do that and really focused on the Cup attempts. This is a situation where new race cars are being built, a team is being put together strictly to run a minimum of 24 Cup races, so it's just a really good opportunity."
All four contenders have an equal chance at winning the title even though Long and Robinson do not intent to run the full schedule.
Rookie Of The Year competitors must start in at least eight of the first twenty races. The yearly point total is derived from the best seventeen finishes of the year.
In addition, candidates will receive one point for each event entered, ten points for top finishing rookie in a race, nine for second highest finishing rookie, (descending through all candidates). Bonus points will be awarded for top ten finishes, and best overall finishes in three segments throughout the season. At the seasons end, the Rookie Of the year panel may award discretionary points.
Current active Winston Cup drivers who have won the title include Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Johnny Benson, Mike Skinner, Jeff Gordon, Ricky Craven, and Jeff Burton.