Race Weekend Central

2009 NASCAR Driver Review: Scott Speed

Scott Speed

2009 Ride: No. 82 Red Bull Racing Toyota
2009 Sponsor: Red Bull
2009 Owner: Dietrich Mateschitz
2009 Crew Chief: Jimmy Elledge
2009 Stats: 35 starts, 1 top five, 1 top 10, 0 poles, 3 DNQs, 35th in points

High Point: Scott Speed had just one top-five finish this year – at Talladega this spring – and even that run went largely unnoticed courtesy of Carl Edwards bouncing off Ryan Newman’s windshield and nearly parking it in the front row on the final lap. While far from a weekly contender, Speed also led 12 laps at Martinsville this spring courtesy of a competition caution; but hey, laps led are laps led nonetheless, right?

It was really in qualifying where the rookie had occasional flashes of brilliance; he put his No. 82 Toyota on the outside front row at Chicago in July, one of six top-10 qualifying efforts for him in his rookie year.

Low Point: Unfortunately, “making the field” was often Speed’s biggest problem, as having to qualify on time after the first five races proved daunting on many unfamiliar tracks. He suffered DNQs at three events – Texas in April, Darlington and Infineon – the most of any fully-funded team in the series. The DNQ at Infineon was probably the lowest point of the year, as Speed was likely en route to a pole-winning run before getting a little out of shape through turn 9, running off the course and going from hero to zero in the matter of just a few seconds.

Speed still raced that event for Joe Nemechek (as well as at Darlington), but that pole could have provided quite the shot in arm for this team, as well as possibly put him in position to win his first Sprint Cup event.

Even in Nationwide, bad luck seemed to bite Speed no matter what the circumstances. After sitting on the pole at Las Vegas Nationwide event in March, an early wreck with none other than good friend Kyle Busch took him out of the running.

Summary: In years past, rookie seasons such as these would be quite normal and expected. But in today’s era of rookie standouts like Kasey Kahne, Newman, Jimmie Johnson and Busch, this freshman’s 2009 results are a bit numbing. That is not to cast aspirations on Speed’s ability, though – quite the contrary. His early success in ARCA and the Camping World Truck Series, along with his limited Nationwide schedule this year that produced eight top 10s in 13 starts, has shown he clearly has the ability to compete at this level.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for him this year was learning the tracks, the CoT and having to qualify on time each weekend. Speed has said himself that he didn’t think Cup racing would be as hard as it proved to be this season, collecting twice as many DNFs (eight, including three in a row for wrecks) as top 20s (four) in 35 starts.

What shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle here, though, is that although Red Bull is perhaps the largest motorsports sponsor worldwide, Team Red Bull is not nearly the size of Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Fenway Racing or Richard Childress Racing. Think Petty Enterprises pre-merger and you’ll get a sense of this team’s stature. So as the season came to a close, up to 25 employees between the No. 82 and No. 83 teams were laid off, further testament to this troubled time in motorsports – even for the most well-healed of corporate sponsored and in this case, corporate-owned teams.

Off-Track News: Perhaps Speed’s highest point in 2009 came this July, when he was married to his girlfriend Amanda Smith Mathis.

Speed also has the distinction of being an honorary Frontstretch contributor, with his Driver Diaries that he has been so kind to provide for us this year (and will continue in 2010). Look at it this way, Scott; if the turning left thing doesn’t work out, you can always type for us.

See also
Scott Speed Driver Diary: Finishing Strong, Then Off to Europe... With Kyle Busch?

2010 Outlook: If there is one thing that may conspire to restrain the progress of the No. 82 team next season, it is the lack of Top-35 owner points credibility. Currently without a locked-in spot for the first five races next season, that will keep them having to focus more on qualifying to get in the show rather than on race trim. It is a problem that has plagued this team since it was the No. 84 car with AJ Allmendinger at the helm, leaving them at a disadvantage every Sunday throughout virtually the entire three years of their existence.

So, after a full season under his belt to learn the CoT, can Speed avoid the sophomore slump and improve over his 29.0 finishing average this season?

I believe he can and will.

TRB has shown increased performance each year since they made their debut back in 2007. With teammate Brian Vickers scoring their first win as an organization together at Michigan this season, as well as qualifying for the Chase, Speed should be able to draw from this group’s performance and experience next season.

Just don’t expect the transition to happen overnight. Yes, Speed was able to win in only his sixth Truck Series start in 2008, along with four ARCA events that year. But mastering the Cup level is a different animal altogether, one that Rusty Wallace says takes up to three years before open-wheel converts feel 100% comfortable behind the wheel.

Rest assured, though, over the long term in my mind Speed has the skill and commitment to succeed at this level. He just needs a little insurance and some breathing room with which to work with – something he did not have during his Formula 1 days and which was absent from his Sprint Cup experience in 2009.

Like Ray Evernham is fond of saying, you have to crawl before you can walk and walk before you can run. With any luck, the No. 82 team will break back into the Top 35 in owner points for 2010, setting them up to be a race-winning contender in 2011.

2008 Frontstretch Grade: C–
2009 Grade: D+

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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