Commentary

Joey's debut big news, but first came Davey, Casey, Junior and Kyle times two

The hype machine was in high gear for Joey Logano's Nationwide debut at Dover, but it wasn't the first time the racing world got ramped up for some newcomer's grand entrance. Ryan McGee looks at the top five driver debuts in NASCAR history (since 1979).

Updated: June 5, 2008, 10:19 AM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Dale Earnhardt jrAP Photo/Terry RennaThe Earnhardt clan was all smiles when Junior wrapped up the Busch title at Homestead-Miami in '99.

As the clouds descended on Dover, Del., delaying the start of Saturday's Nationwide Series race, one crew chief remarked to another, "Why doesn't Joey Logano just come out here and wave his helmet in the air and make this rain go away."

He was joking … sort of.

Logano's sixth-place run at Dover came with more hype than "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," a résumé complete with teenage endorsements from Mark Martin and Tony Stewart and a Charlotte news conference to cut his 18th birthday cake, signifying the moment he became eligible to run in NASCAR's top three series. Now he is being touted as Stewart's replacement at Joe Gibbs Racing by the end of the '08 season. All of this before he's even turned one competitive lap in a Sprint Cup car.

Back in the day, a kid like Logano wouldn't have found his way into a Cup ride for another decade, and even then it would have been a piece of junk until he proved himself worthy of a better sled. But in today's NASCAR, the constant search for "the next Jeff Gordon" has youngsters being signed to development deals with Roush, Hendrick and Gibbs before they're even allowed to drive on the street. And the sponsor-driven hype machine has them in big league rides before their friends have even graduated high school.

Logano is easily the most hyped driver arrival of the past few seasons, but he is far from the only youngster to enter the ring with more fanfare than Ric Flair. With that in mind, here are our Top 5 Most Hyped NASCAR Driver Arrivals, along with a little rearview mirror perspective to see if they were worth their weight in press releases.

5. Kyle Petty, 1979

The son of The King and grandson of Lee arrived in 1979 at the age of 19 with more expectations than any new racer in NASCAR's then-three-decade history.

By then, Richard Petty had already won 185 races and six championships. Lee Petty had won three championships and 55 races. So it was only natural to expect Kyle to do the same, right? Why not? Especially after he won his first-ever stock car race, an ARCA event at Daytona that kicked off the '79 season, and the car he debuted in was a carbon copy STP model of his father's.

"Yeah, I never had a shot, did I?" The 30-season veteran says with a laugh. "I could have won 40 races and a couple of championships and still been a letdown."

As it turns out, he's had to settle for eight wins and a career full of what-ifs, including a pair of near-misses in the All-Star race. But what he's lacked in stats, he's made up for in off-the-track success with charities and the Victory Junction Gang Camp.

Hype-Meter: He's still royalty to us.

4. Davey Allison, 1985

By '85, Kyle was still trying to find some consistency in his career as Petty Enterprises began to flounder. So on July 28, 1985, another second-generation racer made his Cup debut and took some of the heat off of Petty.

Davey Allison, the 24-year-old son of living legend Bobby, made his Cup debut at -- of all places -- Talladega. Already being touted as the man who would keep the Alabama Gang alive for another generation, Davey finished 10th in his debut, 15 spots ahead of Kyle and 17 positions in front of his old man.

By '87, he was racing Cup full-time, and at the time of his tragic death in '93, had amassed 19 wins, 14 poles and a pair of third-place points finishes. Many believe that he was on his way to the title in '93 before dying in a helicopter crash. "We'll never know what all Davey could have done," Bobby says now. "But anybody that believed he couldn't live up to the hype of being my son was proven wrong the first time he rolled onto that racetrack."

Hype-Meter: Incomplete … but believe the hype!

3. Casey Atwood, 2001

This Nashville native made his Busch, er, Nationwide Series debut in 1998 at the tender age of 17 but had his coming-out party the following season when he won two races with Brewco, including a thrilling last-lap pass to beat Jeff Green at Milwaukee.

Soon he was signed by Ray Evernham to drive a Dodge for the legendary crew chief's maiden voyage as a car owner. Atwood (and his questionable haircut) was paired with teammate Bill Elliott and pushed as the original "next Gordon" by Dodge Motorsports. In 2001, he won a pole and picked up a top-5 as a rookie but finished 26th in points and lost Rookie of the Year to Kevin Harvick.

One year later, he finished 35th in points and was booted by Evernham to make room for Kasey Kahne. Atwood drifted back to Busch, then Trucks, and as of Dover hadn't made a major league NASCAR start in '08.

Hype-Meter: Bust-A-Roo!

2. Kyle Busch, 2004

The Shrub was so hyped as a teenager that the biggest names in NASCAR ownership were fighting over his services before he'd even passed driver's ed back in Las Vegas.

Jack Roush, already big brother Kurt's employer, signed Kyle to a developmental deal at the age of 15 and then put him in a Truck of his own at 16. That so spooked NASCAR officials that they implemented a minimum age of 18 to race in its top three series, the very rule that prevented Logano from making his debut until last weekend's Dover event.

In 2003, Kyle made his Busch Series debut after turning 18, but was now driving for Hendrick Motorsports after wriggling his way out of the deal with Roush. He finished second in his first start. One year later he finished second in points with five wins, and in 2005 he became the youngest race winner in Cup Series history. Now at Joe Gibbs Racing, he's the most-booed racer in the paddock and the odds-on favorite to join his brother as a Cup champ.

Hype-Meter: He wasn't hyped enough!

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 1999

Somewhere in my office I still have a "Countdown to E Day" bumper sticker, a last memento from the Anheuser-Busch-fueled hoopla that ushered The Intimidator's son into the big leagues.

His Busch Series debut in '96 was so under-the-radar that most people don't even remember it, but after winning two championships and 13 races, his 1999 Cup bow came complete with a preseason news conference (emceed by his father) and an unveiling of his now-famous No. 8 ride a full four months in advance.

"It was a bit much," Earnhardt admits now. "But between my father and my sponsor, there was no lack of marketing creativity going on there."

He rewarded their zealousness during his rookie season of 2000, winning the All-Star race as well as two points victories. So far, he's added 15 more Cup wins and even managed to out-hype himself with his move to Hendrick Motorsports. As for that first Cup championship? Check back in this winter.

Hype-Meter: Worth the hype!

Honorable Mentions: Ron Barfield Jr., Bill Elliott Motorsports '97 (bust); Kenny Irwin Jr., Robert Yates Racing '98 (incomplete); Hut Stricklin, Osterlund Racing '89 (bust); Ryan Newman, Penske Racing '01 (hit); John Andretti, Petty Enterprises '94 (so-so); Christian Fittipaldi, Petty Enterprises '03 (bomb).

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.

Ryan McGee | email

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