The Rookie that Changed the Face of NASCAR: Tony Stewart

NASCAR has certainly become a young man’s sport. Ten years ago, NASCAR only had three full-time drivers that were between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine. The trio of twenty-somethings consisted of Jeff Gordon, 25, Jeremy Mayfield, 27, and Jeff Burton, 29.

A decade later, sixteen full-time Nextel Cup drivers began the 2006 season under the age of thirty.

What impelled this change? Two things; Corporate America and Tony Stewart!

Before Tony Stewart first arrived on the NASCAR scene in 1999, the previous four Rookie Of The Year winners were Kenny Irwin, Jr, Mike Skinner, Johnny Benson, and Ricky Craven. Of those past Rookie Of The Year victors, only Johnny Benson and Ricky Craven combined for three wins, while Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, and Jamie McMurray, the next four Rookie Of The Year winners after 1999, have combined for twenty-nine wins. And that’s not including the fifty-nine wins posted by the rookie runner-ups Dale Earnhardt Jr, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, and Greg Biffle.

Since Tony Stewart posted three wins, twelve top fives, and twenty-one top tens in his first season, a rookie has won a NASCAR race in every season since, with the omission of 2004. Top-notch car owners began to put their equipment at risk with the younger, less experienced drivers, hoping to find the next Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart. And the more these ‘young guns’ triumphed, the more the big money sponsors pushed for young, marketable talent.

In 2000, Dale Earnhardt Jr won two points paying races plus the All-Star event in Charlotte, while rookie counterpart Matt Kenseth won the Coca Cola 600.

In 2001, Kevin Harvick exploded on to the NASCAR scene as the late Dale Earnhardt’s replacement, but despite the tragic circumstances of which his career began, he won twice and finished eighth in the final Nextel (Winston) Cup standings. Kurt Busch, the 2004 Nextel Cup champion, was apart of that rookie class as well.

In 2002, Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman became perhaps the finest rookie one-two punch in the history of NASCAR. Johnson, who became Jeff Gordon’s protÃ?©gÃ?©, put together three wins that year and finished 5th in the final Nextel (Winston) Cup standings. Newman’s introductory season wasn’t too shabby either as he won a race at New Hampshire as well as the All-Star event. Newman would finish the 2002 season sixth in the final Nextel (Winston) Cup standings.

In 2003 and 2004, the rookies didn’t quite measure up to the standards that Newman and Johnson set, but Greg Biffle was able to win the Pepsi 400 at Daytona as rookie in 2003. Jamie McMurray, the 2003 Rookie Of The Year winner, as well as Kasey Kahne, the 2004 Rookie Of The Year winner, put together solid inaugural seasons despite the doughnut in the win column.

Last year, Kyle Busch ran away with rookie of the year honors, as he would win twice. And of course this year, we have the much heralded 2006 rookie class of Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, J.J. Yeley, Martin Truex Jr, Reed Sorenson, and David Stremme.

Before Stewart, Davey Allison was the most recent driver to post a victory in his rookie season back in 1987.

Top fifteen rookies in the modern era.
1.Tony Stewart (1999)- 34 3 12 212
2.Davey Allison (1987)- 22 2 9 10 5
3.Dale Earnhardt (1979)- 27 1 11 17 4
4.Ryan Newman (2002)- 36 1 14 22 6
5.Jimmie Johnson (2002)- 36 3 6 21 4
6.Ron Bouchard (1981)- 22 1 5 12 1
7.Kevin Harvick (2001)- 35 2 6 16 0
8.Kyle Busch (2005)- 36 2 9 13 1
9.Kasey Kahne (2004)- 36 0 13 14 4
10.Matt Kenseth, (2000)- 34 1 4 11 0
11.Jody Ridley (1980)- 31 0 2 18 0
12.Dale Earnhardt Jr (2000)- 34 2 3 5 2
13.Jeff Gordon (1993)- 30 0 7 11 1
14.Jamie McMurray (2003)- 36 0 5 13 1
15.Greg Biffle, (2003)- 35 1 3 6 0
Tie Morgan Shepherd (1981)- 29 1 3 10 0

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