HIGH POINT, N.C -- Without question, Scott Wimmer's dramatic NASCAR Winston Cup debut in the season-ending NAPA 500 at Atlanta last month was not the best-ever debut by a novice to motorsports' top uompetitive series. But certainly no driver has...
HIGH POINT, N.C -- Without question, Scott Wimmer's dramatic NASCAR Winston Cup debut in the season-ending NAPA 500 at Atlanta last month was not the best-ever debut by a novice to motorsports' top uompetitive series. But certainly no driver has ever come from as far off the radar screen in such a short period of time to make such a huge impression as did Wimmer, who finished 22nd and led nine laps in the rain-delayed race despite running out of gas just prior to a late-race, green-flag pit stop.
Just three days earlier, Wimmer had traveled to Atlanta to attempt to qualify the for the preliminary ARCA race with the #20 Bill Davis Racing team for whom he will drive full-time in the Busch Series in 2001 and for whom he had started three late-season Busch Series events. When ARCA qualifying sessions were washed out by the first of two days of rain during the extended race-weekend, Davis chose to late-enter Wimmer among the 56 teams attempting to qualify for the "big show" and see what the 24-year old could do.
After posting a second-round qualifying speed equal to BDR teammate Ward Burton's 12th-place first-round time, Wimmer started 31st and dazzled everyone -- Davis included -- with his calm-under-fire and his unbelievable wire-to-wire performance, especially given the fact that he had competed in only 22 career American Speed Association (ASA) and Busch Series races in 2000 prior to his WC debut.
"You couldn't help but be impressed with how Scott handled himself during what had to be a real emotional weekend," said Davis, one of only six NASCAR team owners to win in both the Winston Cup and Busch Series. "With the way things happened after ARCA qualifying, he had very little time to prepare for something most guys have months to think about -- getting your first shot at the Winston Cup Series.
"On the track, Scott raced all day with some pretty good veterans guys like -- Mark Martin and Ricky Rudd and Terry Labonte and Bobby Hamilton -- and made really good decisions for having almost no NASCAR experience. (Crew Chief) "Bootie" (Barker) made the decision to leave him out after a quick caution fell following his first pit stop and put him ahead of the field for a few green-flag laps. It's hard to tell what that will mean to him once he's been over here racing for a while. He probably would have also had a top-15 finish to fell good about, too, but we calculated his fuel wrong there at the end and he ran out. Still, I'm sure it opened up a lot of people's eyes for a first-time run. I couldn't have asked for more. "
In the recent history of the series, Rusty Wallace's first WC race stands alone as a debut among current drivers, starting seventh and finishing second behind Dale Earnhardt in the 1980 spring race at Atlanta. Terry Labonte finished fourth in the Southern 500 at Darlington in 1978 after replacing 1976 Rookie-of-the-Year Skip Manning in the entry of owner Billy Hagan, for whom he would win his first Winston Cup championship five seasons later. In September, 1998, 2000 Raybestos Rookie-of-the-Year Matt Kenseth substituted for an injured Bill Elliott at Dover, starting 16th and finishing sixth.
Among other top current drivers, only Ricky Rudd (11th/Rockingham -- March, 1975) Dale Earnhardt, Jr.(16th/Charlotte -- May, 1999) earned higher finishes than Wimmer, although Dale Earnhardt's did finish 22nd in his first WC race (World 600) at Charlotte 24 years prior to his son's debut. In that race, the senior Earnhardt finished one position in front of future car owner Richard Childress.
Other current stars have less-than-pleasant first-race memories, including 2000 WC champion Bobby Labonte (33rd in June, 1991 at Dover/engine failure), three-time champion Jeff Gordon (31st in November, 1992 at Atlanta/wreck), 2000 runner-up Jeff Burton (37th in July, 1993 at New Hampshire/first-lap wreck), Mark Martin (27th at in April, 1981 at North Wilkesboro/rear-end failure) and future BDR teammate W. Burton (35th in March, 1994 at Richmond/engine failure).
Tony Stewart, the 1999 Rookie-of-the-Year, started on the outside pole for the he Daytona 500 -- his first WC start -- but struggled home 19 laps down in 28th and Dale Jarrett, the 1999 WC champion, did finish his April, 1984 WC debut at Martinsville, eight laps down to race-winner Geoff Bodine. Both Jeremy Mayfield (29th at Charlotte/10-93) and Steve Park (33rd at Watkins Glen/8-97) finished two laps down to the winners in their respective first races. None of the above drivers led their first WC start, as did Wimmer at Atlanta last month.
"It all happened so quickly that I didn't really have a chance to think about the whole weekend until I got home to Wisconsin," said Wimmer, who joined Kevin Cywinski this spring as the only ASA rookies in history to win back-to-back races (at Lanier, GA...4/8 & Hickory, NC...4/22). "Going into the weekend, I was prepared to go to a track I'd never seen, try to qualify for the ARCA race and get some experience and I wind up running in the Winston Cup race around some of the best drivers in the world.
"We were actually pretty competitive all day and we might have finished 6-7 positions higher if we'd not run out of gas. It was definitely a great way to get settled in for the start of next season with the Bill Davis team. It's probably better that I didn't have time to think about it all before just getting out there and doing what I could do. Regardless of what happens down the road for me, it's something I'll never forget."
On Saturday, December 9, Wimmer will join the other ASA regulars for the 2000 season at their annual banquet at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville. Despite running one less race than the other contenders, Wimmer finished 11th in the overall ASA points, 108 points out of the top-ten, and joins fellow rookies Joey Clanton (8th) and Robbie Pyle (10th) among the contenders for honors as ASA's top first-year driver. Wimmer, who also finished second to veteran Butch Miller in the ASA season-finale in St. Louis, won more races (2) and led more laps (286) than any other ASA rookie in 2000.
"The purse for finishing 22nd at Atlanta was more than a third of what Scott and his family ran on as a budget for the 2000 season in ASA and he showed that he could get it done over there against some experienced, well-funded teams and drivers," said Davis. "He's got a tremendous amount of potential and we've got a good, solid race team for him to be a part of next year. We're going to run the full Busch schedule and enter him in a few ARCA and Winston Cup races to get him all the laps we can.
"We don't have a sponsor signed for the #20 yet but, as you can imagine, his performance in Atlanta created a lot of interest. He's a great talent and we're looking forward to next year in a big way because we believe all our drivers (including Burton and WC teammate Dave Blaney) and teams are poised for good starts to the season."
If Wimmer's future continues on its promising path, the way in which he received the news about his first WC opportunity will certainly become part of the sport's rich folklore. After ARCA qualifying was cancelled, BDR General Manager Mike Brown broke the news to Wimmer by asking if his "ultimate dream was to get to Winston Cup racing one day". When Wimmer replied in the affirmative, Brown said "Well, today's the day." And 45 minutes later, the young Wisconsin driver was sitting on pit-road in front of Gordon and Earnhardt and Jarrett and Martin preparing to make a WC qualifying lap, his racing dreams playing out all around him.
Should the potentials shown at season's end extend into the 2001 season, the day that Wimmer moves to the NASCAR Winston Cup Series may also not be that far away.