Race Weekend Central

Only Yesterday: What If Casey Atwood Had Said Yes?

Note: ‘What if’ is a question we’ll never be able to truly answer. It’s simply about looking at the sport with new eyes, seeing what might have been. There are too many variables to know for sure just how history would have been altered, so many possibilities. Change any one of them, and the outcome could be vastly different. Speculation here is just that, based on what actually happened and what might have happened if one thing had been different.

The late 1990s in NASCAR held a lot of promise, as a number of young drivers were entering the picture on the heels of Jeff Gordon, who entered the NASCAR Cup Series younger than most drivers at the time and was a champion within three seasons. Dale Earnhardt Jr. might have had the biggest name among the new wave of youngsters, but there was plenty of young talent to be had. 

Entering the new millennium, no young driver was a hotter commodity than a Tennessee teenager named Casey Atwood. In 1998, Atwood became the youngest pole winner in NASCAR history at age 17, posting the fastest qualifying lap at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. His record still stands in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. 

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After winning a pair of races for Brewco Motorsports in 1999, Atwood was already drawing comparisons to Gordon, then a three-time Cup champion.

And, accordingly, the big time came calling. With new sponsor AC Delco on board for the 2000 Xfinity (then Busch Series) season, Richard Childress Racing was in the hunt for a driver to develop with the eventual goal of building a third Cup team around him.

Childress called Atwood.

Atwood flew to North Carolina to discuss the opportunity with Childress. A painfully shy 19-year-old, Atwood was overwhelmed with the offer. Comfortable with his Brewco team and coming off a solid season, Atwood did the unthinkable.

He declined the ride.

You know the rest of the story. Kevin Harvick got the call instead and, in 2000, won three races and finished third in the standings. Atwood finished eighth in the standings with Brewco in 2000 and was tapped for a brand-new Cup ride with Hall of Fame crew chief Ray Evernham’s new operation spearheading the return of Chrysler to the sport in 2001. Atwood was paired with veteran Bill Elliott

Elliott won once that year. Atwood struggled but really wasn’t much worse than Elliott overall in terms of average finish. But pressure to bring Dodge to the top led Evernham to funnel Atwood to a second-tier satellite team, Ultra Motorsports, where he spent one more year struggling in subpar equipment. Atwood never had another chance at a top ride.

But what if he’d signed the contract at RCR?

In some ways, things might have been similar. If everything other than the driver unfolded the same way as it actually did, Atwood would still have been fast-tracked into Cup in 2001 as Harvick was, due to the death of Dale Earnhardt in the ’01 season opener. 

And that ride came with plenty of pressure. Instead of the pressure to put Dodge in victory lane, there was the pressure to succeed a seven-time champion. It was pressure Harvick struggled with even with early success in the car.

But what Childress did differently was to keep Harvick in the Busch Series even as he was running his rookie season in Cup, following the plan originally laid out before Earnhardt’s accident. Harvick thrived, winning that series title along with a pair of Cup wins and a ninth-place points finish.

Perhaps, if Atwood had had that kind of support, running cars he was comfortable with alongside the Cup effort, he’d have blossomed in both series, even if the Cup success came later. He needed at least another year of experience. That was evident.

Childress has shown he can be patient with young drivers. He might have helped coach Atwood instead of brushing him aside when times got tough. The pressure to live up to Earnhardt would still have been there, but RCR was well-established, and that could have bought Atwood the time to develop into the driver people had once thought he’d be.

Harvick won 23 races with RCR between 2001-13; half of that number would have been a decent career for Atwood. And a good year or two in the top 10 in points would have been enough for him to have longevity and stability, which in turn, could have led to more success.

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Atwood needed time, and he didn’t get it. Given a different timeline, he might well be remembered as much more than being the poster child for what happens when drivers are rushed through the ranks.

So let’s say that maybe Atwood has a decent Cup career and retires on his own terms with 10, maybe 15 wins under his belt.

But what about Harvick?

Harvick’s 60 Cup wins put him 10th in the Cup Series all-time. A certain Hall of Fame driver, he won the 2014 Cup title and has another 61 combined wins in Xfinity and the Craftsman Trucks Series.

But in 1999, Harvick had hardly set the world on fire. He had yet to win in a national series, and in two full seasons in the Truck Series, he had a best points finish of 12th in 1999. Atwood was a bit ahead on the career curve.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s say Harvick takes over the Brewco ride from Atwood in 2000; it’s a plausible move, and the ride would have been open if Atwood had driven the No. 2. Brewco was a decently solid team at a time when independent teams could still win races in the Busch Series. Harvick wasn’t in a manufacturer’s or big Cup team’s pipeline, so a team like Brewco would have been a likely opportunity.

NASCAR was all the rage as the 21st century rolled in, and the big Cup teams were expanding, some to four and five teams. New owners were making a splash as well, like Evernham and Chip Ganassi. They were looking at young drivers, which means there would still have been opportunity for Harvick.

For the sake of simplicity, slot Harvick in right where Atwood finished in the Brewco car in 2000: no wins but a solid eighth-place points finish. With experience, he could well have been in the series title hunt in ’01, perhaps ending the year fifth or so. That would have put him about at the top of the crop for young guns looking for Cup rides for 2002.

He might have also gotten the call at Evernham for 2001, but another Busch year seems more likely. So what Cup rides might Harvick have landed for 2002? 

He could have still wound up in a third RCR car that Jeff Green ended up in, pushing his career forward in a similar manner to the way it actually happened. 

Jack Roush was a year away from expanding to five teams, so Harvick waiting around seems unlikely. Chip Ganassi also didn’t have a third car yet. Roger Penske was committed to mechanical engineer Ryan Newman as a new breed of driver. Dale Earnhardt, Inc., was committed to its three drivers, and Robert Yates didn’t make a driver change for ’02 either.

But Hendrick Motorsports was committed to a new fourth team. Running for Busch teams of similar means, Harvick, who was comfortable in those cars from the start, may have had a performance edge over rival Jimmie Johnson.

Yeah, that guy. What if Harvick had landed the No. 48 instead?

That’s another “what-if” for another time. But if Atwood had said yes to the ride and left Harvick looking elsewhere, it would almost certainly have altered both of their careers. The ripple effect would have impacted others at some point. 

Would one word have made Atwood into the next Jeff Gordon? Maybe not. But we’d probably be talking about him — and the man who would not have gotten the nod — in a different light. 

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Bob

Wouldn’t have mattered, remember at that time the greatest of all time came along…Buckshot Jones, well at least according to the racing media and TV announcers he was. Ok, enough of smart@ss me, good article, I enjoyed it.

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