Bill Elliott can look back to his successful run for the Winston Million in 1985 as a time of change during his racing career. The Elliott clan, Bill and brothers Ernie and Dan, claimed R.J. Reynolds' million-dollar bonus that year by winning three of four designated races, but it wasn't simply the money that changed the way the Elliotts operated. Unprecedented attention from the media began to cut deeply into Elliott's time spent working on his car that season. The crush became so bad that Elliott needed armed guards in order to work on his record-setting Thunderbird.
You won't find many Winston Cup drivers today who actually work on their cars, but even more attention is focused on the sport. Instead of preventing drivers from tuning their engines or crawling under their cars to adjust the suspension-as Elliott and a few drivers still did in the mid-'80s-the demands of the sport today might force a driver to be late for a personal appearance, a television interview, or a commercial shoot.
In a world of stock car racing where corporations once feared to tread, marketing terms like "demographics" and "target audience" are now part of the Sunday afternoon vernacular. And nowhere is marketing success more prevalent than in the wave of young drivers who have swept into the forefront of NASCAR.
Johnson's April victory at...
Johnson's April victory at California Speedway marked the fourth consecutive season a rookie has won a Winston Cup point race.
"When we came into this deal we didn't have any money," Elliott says."I don't take that as being a negative. I learned what I had to learn during my era. I've been able to adapt throughout the years. I'm very happy today. That's evolution. Guys are going to come in here and push you out. That's part of it. That's the part we've got to understand."
Their names--Dale Earnhardt Jr., Elliott Sadler, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Casey Atwood--have become familiar to even casual fans of the sport. The oldest of the group, Earnhardt Jr., will turn 28 in October, while Atwood, the youngest, is 22.
Tony Stewart redefined rookie success in 1999 when he won a record three races and finished fourth in Winston Cup points for Joe Gibbs Racing. The trend toward young, successful drivers goes back even further, though, to Jeff Gordon's success as a 22-year-old in 1993, when he was Rookie of the Year. He won twice the next year and new fans began to flock to the sport because of Gordon. In terms of marketing and appeal to younger, never-before-reached markets, Earnhardt Jr. has picked up where Gordon left off and single-handedly redefined success in the marketplace.
Youthful vigor on the track hasn't equated to positive PR off the track, however. Two of the most successful rookies ever in NASCAR, Stewart and Harvick, have been two of the most volatile drivers off the track. Harvick, who won twice, finished ninth in points, and was Cup Rookie of the Year in 2001, has had several well-documented flare-ups this season, as Stewart did in 2001.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (left)...
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (left) won twice during his rookie year, while Kurt Busch (right) didn't reach Victory Lane until his sophomore season.
This season a young, articulate, well mannered driver has combined the best of both worlds. Jimmie Johnson is not only saying and doing the right things off the track, he's winning on the track at a pace ahead of even Stewart's rookie campaign. By the Pepsi 400 at Daytona, the midpoint of the season, Johnson had won two races and was in fourth in points.
Johnson personifies the young, aggressive, winning driver that teams have searched for since Gordon lowered the bar in terms of when to expect success in the sport. For his sponsor, Lowe's, which joined Hendrick Motorsports at the beginning of this season, Johnson's ability to win quickly has meant a reversal of fortunes. The company spent five seasons as a sponsor before reaching Victory Lane in a Cup point race with Richard Childress Racing and driver Robby Gordon in last season's finale at New Hampshire. Lowe's languished in the shadows of NASCAR success while rival Home Depot hit the jackpot in '99 with Gibbs and Stewart, a combination that produced 12 wins in three seasons.
There are parallels between Johnson's success this season and Stewart's in '99: Both drivers moved to the Cup series after having modest success in the Busch Series, both came from outside the NASCAR realm-Stewart, an Indiana native, came from open wheel racing, and Johnson, a Californian, came from off-road racing-and both landed with established Winston Cup teams. Their personalities, however, differ as much as the fiery orange and placid blue that make up the primary colors of their respective sponsors.