Commentary

Regan Smith has rookie of the year trophy, but no driving job for 2009

Winning the Sprint Cup rookie of the year award was a dream come true for Regan Smith. Being unemployed? That wasn't part of the plan, writes David Newton.

Updated: November 19, 2008, 11:55 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

Mark MartinAP Photo/John RaouxWho better to tutor Regan Smith, right, than Cup mainstay Mark Martin? Both drivers are leaving DEI.

CONCORD, N.C. -- As the video showing past Sprint Cup rookies of the year -- from four-time champion Jeff Gordon to two-time champion Tony Stewart to 2003 champion Matt Kenseth to Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin -- came to a conclusion, the commentator said, "Today's rookies, tomorrow's stars."

Sounds good, right?

Except when you don't know what tomorrow holds.

That is the case for 2008 rookie of the year Regan Smith, who was honored along with the top rookies from the Nationwide Series (Landon Cassill) and Truck Series (Colin Braun) during a luncheon Tuesday at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

Smith's ride at Dale Earnhardt Inc. was eliminated when DEI and Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates announced last week they were merging into a four-car operation. Most of his crew, also at the luncheon, found themselves among the 116 laid off at DEI.

But don't feel sorry for Smith. He's confident he'll have a ride next season, whether it's for Earnhardt-Ganassi or one of the other organizations looking for a driver. He's had conversations with all of them, as well as with teams from the lower series.

Earning their stripes

A look at how the 2008 Sprint Cup rookie class fared:

The Rookie Race
Driver Wins Top 5 Top 10 Laps led Rank
Regan Smith 0 0 0 2 34
Sam Hornish Jr. 0 0 0 2 35
Patrick Carpentier 0 0 0 11 38
Michael McDowell 0 0 0 3 40
Aric Almirola 0 0 1 56 42
Marcos Ambrose 0 1 1 0 45
Dario Franchitti 0 0 0 1 49
Jacques Villeneuve 0 0 0 0 60

"There's two options," Smith said. "You can either look at it from the bright side of things and figure out ways to work through stuff, or you can sit back and have a pity party.

"But if you have a pity party nobody is going to help you find a job. It's up to you."

Smith isn't alone when it comes to 2008 rookies looking for work. Only Sam Hornish Jr. of Penske Racing and Marcos Ambrose of Michael Waltrip/JTG Daugherty Racing are guaranteed rides with full-time sponsors next season.

Half of the class didn't make it through the season. Jacques Villeneuve's Bill Davis Racing team folded after making only two races due to a lack of sponsorship. Dario Franchitti's Ganassi team folded in June due to a lack of sponsorship.

Michael McDowell of Michael Waltrip Racing was replaced after failing to qualify at Kansas in the 29th race. Patrick Carpentier was released by Gillett Evernham Motorsports after failing to qualify at Talladega Superspeedway in the 30th race.

Some might say this is the worst rookie class in decades, and there's plenty of evidence to support that. Smith led only two laps, had no wins or top 10s and finished 34th in points. The worst finish by the top rookie in the past 20 years was 30th by Mike Skinner in 1997 and Rob Moroso in 1990.

The last top rookie who failed to win a race was Kenny Irwin Jr. in 1998. The last to lead fewer than two laps was Sterling Marlin with none in 1983, but Marlin at least had a top-10 and finished 19th in points.

Such numbers won't help Smith find a job.

But there also are reasons the numbers are so bad. None of the rookies were in equipment from organizations that qualified for the Chase. Over the past 10 years, only Montoya (2007) drove for an organization that didn't have a top-10 driver.

This class also didn't have the benefit of driving a Nationwide Series car similar to the Cup car, and many didn't have the benefit of driving a full Nationwide season, as many past rookies did.

"The cars aren't compatible," Smith said. "That definitely played a little into it. We didn't have 10 years of notes from teammates in this car that we could look back and say, 'This is what he's fighting this weekend, let's put in this setup from two years ago because this is the same thing Matt or Jeff or Jimmie was complaining about.'

There's two options. You can either look at it from the bright side of things and figure out ways to work through stuff, or you can sit back and have a pity party. But if you have a pity party nobody is going to help you find a job. It's up to you.

-- Regan Smith

"We had to learn it on our own. That played a bit of a factor into why you saw the results you saw."

One also could argue Smith had a victory. He crossed the finish line first in the October race at Talladega, but NASCAR officials ruled he went below the yellow line and gave the victory to Stewart even though Stewart admitted he forced Smith below the line.

"I don't know if you can ever get over that," said Smith, who drew support from a large portion of the racing community. "You know, it was a good opportunity to win a race. We never thought we would be in that position at the start of the year, and our Bristol car might have been better.

"You've got to take the bright spots that came out of that day. I definitely got a lot of exposure and none of the rookies really had had a very competitive race up until that point. Our car, it was competitive the whole race. ''

And it was competitive without a full-time sponsor.

"I stuck my neck out for him all year," said Max Siegel, the president of global operations at DEI. "He's immensely talented. I believed in him."

It should be noted that Smith became the first rookie of the year in the history of NASCAR to finish every race. Gordon, Stewart and Kenseth can't say that.

It also should be noted that Smith finished ahead of three Indianapolis 500 winners (Hornish, Franchitti and Villeneuve), a Formula One champion (Villenueve), a CART champion (Carpentier) and Australian V8 Supercar champion (Ambrose).

"That's another reason you can't sit back and say, 'Man, what happened to this year's rookie class?'" Smith said. "There was a lot of talent there. There may have been just as much talent as there's ever been.

"I don't think any of the rookies can say we had the type of year we were hoping for or expecting. It was just a different year."

Mike Dillon, the general manager of Richard Childress Racing, agreed. He said it's unfair to compare this class against a lot of others that put rookies in top equipment.

He also said Smith deserves more credit than he gets, adding he tried to recruit him for RCR in the Nationwide Series three years ago.

"Regan is a really good talent," he said.

Smith hopes there's an owner who agrees enough to give him another chance in 2009. If not, he'll look for a ride in the Nationwide or Truck series.

"I wouldn't classify myself as being scared because I don't have a job right now, just because I'm confident in my abilities," Smith said. "I know what I can do in a car. It was an interesting year for everybody being in a new car and we had too much to learn on top of being a rookie.

"I'm excited about next year. I can't wait to get into another car and show how much I've improved."

Tomorrow's star?

Stay tuned.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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