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Youngsters Stick Their Necks Out

Commentary: Veteran drivers are being passed by brash newcomers, who aren't afraid to try something different.

April 29, 2002|ED HINTON | ORLANDO SENTINEL

This is how powerfully the youth wave is cresting in NASCAR: Sunday, a second-year team dominated the NAPA 500, but then was beaten by the fresher, more aggressive thinking of a first-year team.

Kurt Busch is 23, with not quite one and a half Winston Cup seasons under his belt. But he said this as if several decades' worth of savvy had been swept out from under him: "I never would have thought I'd be beaten by gas only."

He meant the split-second judgment in Jimmie Johnson's pits, by a crew chief too new on his job to mull for a moment, to take no tires on the final stop.

Busch had thought his two-tire stop was an aggressive-enough gamble to win. "I believed in my heart that the strategy [his teammate Matt] Kenseth used to win Texas would work," he said.

But that was three weeks ago. Only in the computer industry is three-week-old wisdom more archaic than it is in today's NASCAR.

Busch was stunned at what he saw: Johnson had gotten out of the pits first. That two veterans were intermingled with the young duelists was irrelevant. They were sitting ducks. Bill Elliott led, Johnson was second, Ricky Rudd third and Busch fourth.

That the fearless youths would blow off the old guys was a given in today's NASCAR. Rudd delayed Busch's move into second just long enough for Johnson, 26, to get away clean.

Rudd, 45, was less than gracious about it afterward.

As for just what it is about these kids, he said, "I think you've got to look at the equipment they're sitting in.... They're jumping into the race cars with great people [engineers and crewmen] around them."

"I get real tired of hearing that," said a co-owner of Johnson's team, one Jeff Gordon, who at 30 is now the elder statesman of the complete makeover of NASCAR racing into a high-tech, more polished, far less southern realm. "Everyone's got good equipment these days."

Sponsorships that allow drivers to run on $20 million to $30 million a year, each, have assured that.

So, money and engineering being equal, Rudd and others in the old guard remain in denial that the kids are very, very good, and thoroughly fearless.

"They don't know any better," Gordon cracked. "They haven't hit things as hard as the rest of us have."

While it is true that Johnson's team is an arm of the Hendrick Motorsports armada, and Busch's part of the Roush Racing stable, their units are still in the formative stages.

In Johnson's pits, Chad Knaus had knocked about as a crew chief with lesser teams previously, but this is his first year running a top-flight team. So Sunday he was new to the crucial call, for all or nothing.

Under the final caution, "I watched the others coming in, watched what they were doing," he said. "Seemed like most were taking two tires, so I just blurted out 'gas only' [on the team's radio channel.]

"After I made the call and we made the stop, I felt like I needed to go somewhere and throw up."

Johnson himself was in fact a major gamble on the part of Gordon and team patriarch Rick Hendrick, who saw raw talent and played a hunch. He's reached a ripe old 26 because he had to struggle up through the Busch series, NASCAR's answer to triple-A baseball, until Gordon noticed last year that "he seemed to be getting more out of his car than it was capable of."

Johnson's lack of record didn't equate with lack of talent, so Gordon and Hendrick signed him last summer. "We didn't have a sponsor, didn't even have a team for him, didn't have anything," Gordon said Sunday.

Gordon's role was wooing a sponsor by convincing corporate brass that Johnson could win, and quickly. Executives of the Lowe's home improvement chain figured if Jeff Gordon, NASCAR's winningest active driver, believed in Johnson, that was good enough.

Johnson responded right out of the box, winning the pole for this year's Daytona 500. But the intricacies of restrictor-plate racing, and the fickle draft at Daytona, were beyond his experience.

But as the season has settled into what drivers call the "real racing," on the tracks where plates aren't used, Johnson has looked better and better, until....

His victory Sunday was no surprise at all, just the next logical step for him. The only effervescent thing about it was that it came at his "home track," California Speedway. He's from El Cajon, a San Diego suburb.

After Gordon finished 16th with an ill-handling car Sunday, his own crew chief, Robbie Loomis, considered switching to the sort of chassis setup the fresh thinking of the Johnson-Knaus unit has produced.

"Sometimes you get set in your old ways," Gordon said. "You get comfortable with a certain spring or shock, and you don't want to change. That's why I wanted Jimmie on our team. I knew I'd be able to learn from him, as well as him learning from me."

Does Johnson remind Gordon of anyone else a few years ago? Gordon wouldn't bite. "To say he reminds me of me," Gordon said, "would be a compliment to me."

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