ATLANTA Jamie McMurray didn't win a race during his rookie season on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. Instead, he won his first race before he was a rookie.
Confusing? Not really. NASCAR allows inexperienced drivers to get a running start by making seven or fewer starts during a previous season before they officially embark on their rookie season. McMurray made six starts in 2002 and won one of them.
Since Tony Stewart won three races during his rookie campaign in 1999, first-year drivers have made significant contributions to the sport. Once considered racing's version of the Miss Congeniality award, the rookie of the year honor now brings instant credibility and fame.
Only five drivers Shorty Rollins, Earl Ross, Dale Earnhardt, Ron Bouchard and Davey Allison won a race during their rookie season from 1957 to 1999.
In the past five years, however, seven rookies Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle won races during their debut seasons; eight if you count McMurray.
McMurray proved again there is more than a youth movement afoot in stock car racing. It's the preferred way to do business.
''With the equipment these young guys get into nowadays, it's not surprising they have so much success,'' Michael Waltrip said. ''A race car doesn't know how old the driver is.''
And with drivers like 20-year-old Brian Vickers and 23-year-old Kasey Kahne ready to run for Rookie of the Year in 2004, it's only getting younger.
McMurray, 27, won the rookie championship in 2003 after spending a couple full-time seasons on the Busch Series circuit. He was 13th in the point standings while driving for Chip Ganassi and he had 13 top-10 finishes.
Driving proved to be the easiest part of the learning curve. Everything else was a crash course.
''When I drove in the Busch Series, the sponsor that I had didn't use the sponsorship to its full potential,'' McMurray said. ''They didn't use their driver for appearances and all the other things sponsors do. This year I stepped into the Winston Cup Series and Havoline used their sponsorship. I did appearances and Yellow, my sponsor in the Busch Series, used their sponsorship for everything it was worth.
''Doing appearances for both of those and all the testing, not only the NASCAR testing but the testing we would do at racetracks we don't even race at, that was a busy schedule. All I want to do is race, but you need some days when you're not racing. Maybe just going to the house and goofing off and getting racing out of my head for a few hours.''
The four previous Rookie of the Year winners were Stewart, Kenseth, Harvick and Newman. Stewart and Kenseth already have won series championships. Newman is the favorite to win the title in 2004 after winning 11 pole positions and eight races this year.
Some of Newman's biggest competition might come from the next group of rookies. That includes Vickers, the defending Busch Series champion, Brendan Gaughan, who won six races on the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series this season, Johnny Sauter, Scott Riggs and Kahne.
Waltrip was correct: The newcomers are well-connected.
Vickers will have the resources of Hendrick Motorsports behind him; Gaughan will drive for a new collaboration between Jasper Motorsports and Penske South Racing; Sauter will drive for Richard Childress Racing; Kahne will replace Bill Elliott at Evernham Motorsports; and Riggs will drive for MBV Motorsports.
Twenty years ago, it was easy to find the rookies during the race; they were running at the back of the pack. Now the only way to tell them apart from the successful veterans is the mandatory yellow stripe on the back bumper.
For McMurray, the yellow stripe was little more than a formality.
''I don't think the stripe on the bumper is as bad as all the rookies meetings you have to go to,'' he said. ''When I first started in the truck series I wanted to go to those (meetings) because they tell you things about racetracks that you don't know. When you get to the Busch Series, it's like you've got to do it all over again. When you get to Cup, you've already done those like 60 times and you've been to every one of those racetracks three or four times.''
McMurray will lose his yellow stripe in 2004, and he'll get to skip the required rookie meetings every Friday morning. But it doesn't get any easier, especially with another crop of rookies coming in.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.
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