2012 is off to an exciting start, with exciting on-track action, Mother Nature reminding fans why she still rules, and the Daytona inferno. But there is another thing that has set this season apart in NASCAR’s national touring divisions. It’s not quite so exciting as the racing, but runs like an undercurrent through the garage and stands. It’s not about the action on the track, but rather about who is _not_ there that has generated the talk.
Everyone knows that times are indeed tough in NASCAR, as in the rest of the country. Teams have closed their doors, and some who haven’t are having to start and park some races, consider partial schedules, merge with other teams, or cut cars and drivers from their rosters. It’s not a pretty trend by any means, and hopefully as the economy recovers, so will the garage, with teams returning to full strength. Still, even taking the cutbacks into consideration, some of the faces that are absent from the garage this year, or only there on a part-time basis, have been surprising.
While there are always going to be talented drivers without top rides, this year’s crop of drivers who either don’t have a ride at all, don’t have their rides guaranteed for the full season, or are relegated to part-time schedules is surprising. Consider these five drivers, none of whom have a guaranteed full-time ride for 2012:
Brian Vickers was the driving force that turned Red Bull Racing from a backmarker to a Chase contender. That expertise is currently off the race track.
*Brian Vickers* While Vickers did shoot himself in the foot with some over-aggressive driving late in the season, take a closer look at the Thomasville, NC native. Vickers is not a past-his-prime veteran, though his resume reads more like a veteran’s than that of a 28-year-old because he’s been in the game a long time. In 255 Sprint Cup starts, Vickers has two wins, 21 top-5 finishes, and 57 top 10’s. While those aren’t, say Jimmie Johnson type numbers, they aren’t bad, especially considering that Vickers spent five years with the Red Bull Racing team, which couldn’t find it’s own rear end with both hands and a flashlight for the first couple of years. Vickers built that team into a Chase team before being sidelined for much of 2010 with blood clots. He’s also the 2003 Nationwide Series champion.
As for the over-aggressive reputation? Well, that’s partially deserved. Vickers punted his own teammate and NASCAR’s most popular driver both on his way to his first Cup victory. He did get into it with Matt Kenseth at Martinsville and again at Phoenix, but face it: Vickers isn’t the only aggressive driver out there. Plenty of drivers have mixed it up with others and still have rides. Vickers should be behind the wheel of a racecar-a Nationwide car at the very least; he’d be an asset to a team because he has more experience than most drivers his age, he’s proven he can run well in lesser equipment, and he’ll do what it takes to win if he’s in position.
*Reed Sorenson* Sorenson is another driver whose experience belies his age. He’s an eight-year NASCAR veteran at just 26 years old, and while he isn’t necessarily a Cup-caliber driver, he’s a proven commodity in a Nationwide car with four wins and 38 top 5’s in 186 races. Add to that the fact that he has finished in the top 10 in just over half of his NNS starts despite running only three complete seasons, he’s a pretty sure bet to bring home a good finish and a bunch of points.
Sorenson would have been a solid pick for a team like the No. 88 at JR Motorsports. Nothing against the talented Cole Whitt, but with Danica Patrick running her first full season in the JRM No. 7, Sorenson would have provided a veteran presence with a proven record. It’s a shame he hasn’t secured a full-time ride, because he has the proven results that would be an asset to many of the Nationwide teams that sit just out of reach of the top 10 in points. Sorenson could well put one of them in that elite group.
*Trevor Bayne* This kid is gold. He’s young, he’s talented, he’s a huge team player, and he’s a Daytona 500 champion. Bayne just turned 21 in February, so he’s got plenty of time to mature. Yet right now he’s got a only a part-time Cup ride and a part-time NNS ride guaranteed for 2012. That’s a surprise; he won his first NNS race last fall at Texas in fine fashion, powering by Carl Edwards in the late laps. Bayne is a sponsor’s dream: he wins races, he doesn’t get in trouble away from the track, and he’s as genuine as they come. Yet no sponsor has materialized.
Back in the day, a Daytona 500 win practically guaranteed a ride for as long as a driver wanted one (Derrike Cope, anyone?), but today, it’s apparently not enough for a sponsor to pull the trigger on Bayne, which is a shame. He’s a driver with a long and fruitful future…if only someone will back him.
*JJ Yeley* Yeley is a better driver than he gets credit for. He was a terror in every USAC division, one of just two drivers to win the coveted USAC Triple Crown: Midget, Sprint Car, and Silver Crown titles in the same year. The other one? Three-time Sprint Cup and former IndyCar champ Tony Stewart. It takes talent to win the triple crown, and Yeley has showed talent in stock cars as well, finishing in the top 10 34 times in 70 races in the two full years he ran the Nationwide Series with Joe Gibbs. And while not spectacular in his two Cup seasons at JGR, he did a decent job in cars he was still learning. He’s outgoing and funny as well as a family man, both assets to sponsors. This is a driver who deserves a second chance in good equipment.
*Michael McDowell* McDowell is simply a better driver than his numbers show. He’s the product of a career’s worth of subpar teams, starting and parking for three years because the other choice was not racing at all. To see what McDowell can do in a quality car, one has to rewind a little ways. While ARCA is a different series, McDowell’s 2007 numbers there say a lot. In 23 races, McDowell won four times and had 13 top 5 finishes. He finished in the top 10 15 times and sat on the pole nine times, finishing that season second in points. In other words, he didn’t get here by accident. He’s another driver who would benefit immensely from a couple for years of solid seat time in the Nationwide Series and would benefit his team in the process, as he would certainly be a top 10 points threat in a good car. McDowell is the real deal, and he deserves a real shot.
There are probably dozens of drivers around the country who would do a credible job in a decent NASCAR ride; that’s not exactly a news flash. But these five drivers are ready for full time, national touring series rides _right now_-no need to add water or fertilizer. Not only are they ready, but they have the talent to improve a team, to take that team to the next level. Vickers has done that once, and the others would very likely do so in a similar situation, especially in the Nationwide Series. The NASCAR world is tough, but the talent sitting on the sidelines for at least part of 2012 is shocking. Someone is missing out.
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