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WAID’S WORLD: Doors Once Closed To Young Drivers Now Wide Open

We all realize there’s a youth movement going on in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing. Guys who are not far removed from adolescence are steadily replacing guys who retire in their early 40s.

It wasn’t that way in the past. Drivers who hung around long enough to become veterans didn’t retire. They were recycled.

If their tenure with one team came to an end, they simply moved on to another. Sometimes the vets merely swapped rides and kept going.

Only a handful of drivers remained with a single team much longer than three years. In fact, a three-year contract was routine.

Among the regulars, only Richard Petty didn’t move – for decades. The reason was simple. Petty Enterprises was a family-owned business passed along to Richard by father Lee, the team’s founder and three-time champion.

But even Petty moved on for a couple of seasons, 1984-85, when he raced for owner Mike Curb.

For the majority of drivers it was a matter of finding employment and hope that it might last for more than a few seasons. It seldom did.

This “one team to the next” environment included some of NASCAR’s top competitors. I daresay Bobby Allison, the late Benny Parsons and the late Buddy Baker drove for 10 teams or more during their careers.

They were recycled and sometimes not by choice. If they did not produce they were gone. And if they were at odds with their team – specifically their team owner – they either left by choice or were terminated.

But they kept racing with another organization.

For decades team owners weren’t willing to sign eager, young talent. They relied on experience and it was always available.

To be hired, a young driver had to be noticed. In the majority of cases he was not recruited. He had to catch someone’s eye.

Terry Labonte did so when he finished fourth at Darlington in 1978 and won the Southern 500 two years later.

Rusty Wallace was a hot shoe in the Midwest who startled everyone with a 1980 runner-up finish in Atlanta driving for Roger Penske – his future employer.

Ken Schrader was also a top Midwest talent. Ricky Rudd was a very successful competitor in Virginia. Both of them started modestly in NASCAR but progressed to bigger and better things. There were several like them – as we know from the often-told story of Dale Earnhardt.

Perhaps the most notable was Jeff Gordon. He was a racing star almost from the time he could walk. He was well on his way to Indianapolis when a stint at the Buck Baker Driving School led him to NASCAR.

As most others Gordon started out modestly with owner Bill Davis. His all-attack driving style drew the attention of Rick Hendrick who quickly broke the mold and signed Gordon.

That was in 1992 and, as you know, Gordon went on to become a superstar – and he spent his entire career with Hendrick.

It was Gordon that changed owners’ minds. They saw for themselves how a team could benefit with the employment of young talent that would only become better with experience.

Owners searched for the next Gordon. They signed young drivers and either put them in NASCAR’s minor leagues or lent them out to other Cup organizations for development.

NASCAR increased the scope of its diversity program. And I trust you remember Jack Roush’s “Gong Show” method of discovering young talent.

The NASCAR world has changed. It is no longer soaking in money. Sponsorship, once relatively easy to find because of the sport’s popularity, is now scarce. Where a team could race with a tidy sum from a single financial backer, it now requires dollars from multiple sources.

The theory is that in order to save money, owners hire the less-expensive younger drivers, several of whom are barely in their 20s.

In my opinion it’s paying off.

You are doubtless already aware of the strong presence, and in some cases success, of the likes of Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Daniel Suarez, Austin Dillon, Chris Buescher – and now, Erik Jones.

Others already signed by major teams wait in the wings.

Yes it is a different NASCAR. Where doors were virtually closed to young drivers they are now wide open.

And that is a good thing.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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WAID’S WORLD: Sonoma 1991 – NASCAR Breaks Rank, Orders Disqualification

Sonoma Raceway is the site of a race in which the driver who took the checkered flag first was not the official winner.

It was one of those very rare times in which NASCAR essentially disqualified a driver and awarded victory to another.

It happened in 1991 the year in which Sonoma played host to its third Winston Cup Series event. There had not been a disqualification in the two decades preceding the race and there hasn’t been one since.

NASCAR has always been hesitant to declare a disqualification no matter how blatant a misdeed may be or how strongly observers urge it to do so.

Many times over the years a winning driver whose car was declared illegal in post-race inspection has been fined, had points taken away or even suspended. But his victory stood – and thus was entered into the record books.

At Sonoma in 1991 NASCAR didn’t deal with an illegal car. It took action after it determined that one driver’s tactics against another to take the lead warranted stern, and unprecedented, discipline.

The Banquet Frozen Foods 300 on the 12-turn, 1.999-mile Sonoma road course was the 11th race of the 1991 season.

Ricky Rudd, one of the drivers for Hendrick Motorsports, came into the race in a scuffle with Dale Earnhardt for the championship.

Many gave Rudd, an accomplished road racer who had won Sonoma’s inaugural race in 1989, the edge. He was certainly one of the pre-race favorites.

The race was filled with drama. Rusty Wallace ran superbly and seemed to have the race won until his Roger Penske-owned Pontiac dropped a cylinder with 10 laps to go.

Tommy Kendall, substituting for the injured Kyle Petty on the Felix Sabates-owned Sabco Racing team, inherited the lead and was poised for an upset victory when he wrecked with Mark Martin with less than three laps remaining.

That shoved Davey Allison into the lead. Allison, the 1987 Rookie of the Year, was in his fourth season with Robert Yates Racing.

Allison maintained a one-car length over Rudd as the two headed into the hairpin 11th-turn, a place which has routinely seen more than its share of incidents.

Rudd nudged the rear of Allison’s Ford, which immediately went into a spin. Rudd, in a Chevrolet, took the lead while Allison recovered.

NASCAR took action quickly and ruled that Rudd’s actions amounted to a flagrant foul. It immediately informed Rudd’s crew chief, Waddell Wilson, that his driver would serve a stop-and-go penalty.

But Rudd had already taken the white flag. In order for him to serve the penalty, he would have to go off the course and into the pits before the checkered flag.

Which, of course, was something he wasn’t about to do.

So you can imagine his surprise when he didn’t receive the checkered flag at the start-finish line. Instead the black flag flew.

Allison crossed the finish line four seconds later and was declared the winner.

Fans and media were perplexed. No one had ever seen this type of thing before and didn’t know what to make of it.

For a couple of hours confusion reigned in the garage area. Finally NASCAR issued a five-second penalty to Rudd, which effectively put him in second place.

NASCAR called it a penalty. But when a driver is stripped of a victory, I think most of us would call that a disqualification.

Naturally there was outrage. Wilson was especially upset. He had never seen NASCAR take a victory away from a driver.

“I’ve been around since 1961 and this is the rottenest thing I’ve seen from NASCAR,” Wilson said. “When Kendall and Martin wrecked, they didn’t do a thing to either one of them.”

The late Les Richter, then the director of the Winston Cup Series, said that NASCAR was trying to maintain law and order.

“Ricky hit Davey in the rear and spun Davey out,” Richter said. “Yes, they were racing to win but sometimes you have to make a judgment call. It’s like calling balls and strikes.”

Allison said he did not cut off Rudd, rather, he was simply the victim. He added that he was hit so hard his rear wheels came off the ground.

Allison admitted he did not know if Rudd’s actions were intentional but added, “The race was taken away from us in an unsportsman-like fashion and NASCAR rightfully restored it to us.”

You can just imagine Rudd’s response. He claimed that, indeed, he hit Allison but it was unintentional. Rudd had applied the brakes and his car starting hopping, causing it to whack Allison’s.

“I came around and saw the black flag,” Rudd said. “I did not know what the hell was going on. How could it be a black flag? I had already taken the last lap.”

Rudd’s rants of complaint included the comment, “If you have never seen the World Wrestling Federation, this is it. I’m tired of this mess.”

That wasn’t the first time NASCAR has been compared to professional wrestling and it would not be the last.

Even with the penalty Rudd managed to cut 53 points off Earnhardt’s lead for the championship. But it wasn’t enough.

Rudd finished the season in second place, 95 points behind Earnhardt, who won the title for the fifth time.

In 2002 Rudd won at Sonoma for the second time in his career.

Ironically, he was driving for Robert Yates Racing.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.