Given the phenomenal success of some recent NASCAR Nextel Cup Rookies ofthe Year, Scott Riggs knew his rookie season would be tough. And itturned out that way, with fellow rookies Kasey Kahne, Brian Vickers, andScott Wimmer providing stiff competition in Rookie of the Yearcompetition.

Through the season's first 26 races--NASCAR's "regular season"--Riggstrailed those three, as Kahne, with nine Top 5s, led the way. Vickerswas Second with three Top 10s; and Wimmer, with a single Top 5 and apair of Top 10s, was Third. The best runs for Fourth Place Riggs,meanwhile, were a Fifth at Dover in June and a Seventh at California onLabor Day weekend.

Riggs was aware from the start that former rookies Jamie McMurray,Jimmie Johnson, and Ryan Newman would be tough acts to follow, butthat's as far as he'll go about it.

There are notable differences between Riggs and drivers like McMurray,Johnson, and Newman. Riggs, who will turn 34 on New Year's Day, was a33-year-old rookie; McMurray turned 27 in the middle of his Rookie ofthe Year campaign in 2003; Johnson was 26 and Newman 24 when they burstupon the scene in 2002. Johnson first got on a motocross bike when hewas four, and Newman started racing Quarter Midgets at the same age.Riggs began motocross racing at 13.

"I didn't get my racing opportunities the way a lot of guys have," Riggssaid early during his rookie season. "I've been racing for enough yearsto know that a lot of things in this sport come down to breaks, andfortunately for me, I was able to get the break I needed to move intothe Truck Series and then into the Busch Series. Once I got there, Ifeel like I did what I needed to do to generate the opportunity I havenow."

All talk aside about the top rookies from years gone by, Riggs has madethe most of his opportunities. From the motocross bikes, he stepped intoa four-cylinder Modified at Orange County Speedway in Rougemont, NorthCarolina, not far from his hometown of Bahama (pronounced ba-HAY-ma). "Iraced those for two years before stepping up to a full-size Late Model,"Riggs recalled. "It was quite a drastic jump coming from motorcycles tocars, and it was equally a big jump going from Modifieds to LateModels."

As for big jumps, the jump from the Busch Series to the Nextel Cup wasnot that much of one, according to Riggs. When he stepped into the No.10 Valvoline machine at Daytona for Speedweeks 2004, it was business asusual from a competition standpoint.

"It was actually a positive difference for me," Riggs said of racing inthe sport's Super Bowl as his first Nextel Cup event. "I actually feltmore at ease in the Cup race than I did in the Busch races, because Ifelt like guys raced you harder on the track, but they [Cup drivers]knew how to race without crossing the line and being overly aggressiveand putting themselves and you in trouble. They'd race you hard on thetrack where they could, and they knew where they needed to be carefuland be easy on the track. To me it was a good experience.

"I didn't get a lot of drafting help in practice, but I tried to workwith all the guys every time I got on the track and show that I wasn'tgoing to do anything too drastic and too outrageous. I felt that in therace, I got a lot more help and it seemed like more people were willingto work with me. We didn't have the kind of outcome we wanted to have,but we learned a lot and hopefully earned some respect."

For Riggs, a successful transition from the NASCAR Busch Series to itstop division is all about respect, both giving it and getting it. "It'searning respect, trying to learn all your competitors and how they'regoing to race you on the track, who is going to give you respect off thebat or whose respect you have to earn," he said. "How do you earn thatrespect? Do you do it by racing them hard or by being sensible, givingthem plenty of room and racing them very clean?"

When the opportunity to move up came at the end of the '03 season, Riggsjumped at it. "I had hoped it would come," he said of the call from teamowner James Rocco. "I thought I was capable of competing at this level,but ultimately I had to wait until the right people figured that out.And I thank everyone at Valvoline Racing for making it happen."

It wasn't as if the call to Cup wasn't in Riggs' future. His name waslinked to nearly every open seat in the series, and he finally decidedon the No. 10.

"Other teams told me, 'We've got the best team,' or 'We've got the bestequipment,' or 'I know we're going to be successful,' " Riggs said. "Ifelt like this team was really the most honest. They said, 'We've gotstrengths and we've got weaknesses, and what we want to do is work tochange those weaknesses.' They wanted to build this team and wanted meto be a part of that building process versus me just stepping into thedriver seat. Besides, what other team's sponsor is on the car, in thecar, and owns the car?"

Valvoline, which has been a big-time sponsor in NASCAR for quite a longtime, believed in Riggs and his potential. "So far, I couldn't have everimagined such a prestigious sponsor that's been in the sport for so longcould ever be so down to earth and so involved in their racing," Riggssaid. "They truly are what they say they are. They learn from the trackto make their products better on the shelf. They stand behind theirracers and their teams.

"They are the only sponsor in the sport that owns a race team, so tohave a product that is in the car they try to develop from racing, as asponsor and owner, it just shows the dedication and determination theyhave to make sure this team is successful. On top of that, they havebeen over the top as far as being down to earth with me. They reallywelcomed me in as part of the family. I never knew that a sponsor couldbe so loving to its new family member."

In the wholesale changes that saw the departure of incumbent driverJohnny Benson, crewchiefs James Ince and Jay Guy, and a sizablepercentage of the crew, Riggs and his Busch Series crewchief DougRandolph have managed to smooth the waters and provide some stability toa team that won a race in 2002 but had a best finish of Fifth in 2003.

"This is the first year I've ever had a crewchief two years in a row, atany level," Riggs said with a laugh. "It's the first time I haven't runthem off."

Riggs noted that one of the biggest changes was to get used to thelonger distances the Cup drivers run, compared to Busch and Trucks."I've done a lot of training [during the off-season] to really preparemyself physically for the longer races," he said. "If testing andDaytona are an example, I feel like I'm going to feel better in the carthan ever before. If you feel stronger physically, you're going to bestronger mentally."

Asked what he thought of those uninformed sources who believe race cardrivers are not athletes, Riggs was typically straightforward. "Peoplewho say that are people who have never strapped in a race car and haveno idea what they are talking about," he quipped. "I started motocrossracing when I was 13 years old, and that's the second-most physicallydemanding sport in the world. By being such a physical sport, it helpedme physically in the car. People don't realize how many g's we pull,what kind of temperatures we have to fight in the race car, the stresslevel, the tension level, and the endurance level we have to maintain inlong races. Anyone who says you don't have to be in shape and that it'snot an athletic sport has never strapped in, and I challenge them to arace anywhere, anytime."

Another change for Riggs was that Goodyear made a softer tire for theNextel Cup Series in 2004, and that changed the handling characteristicssomewhat.

"The good part is that the Cup car is a very good cross between a Buschcar and a Truck," Riggs said. "It has a long wheelbase and lots ofhorsepower like a Truck does, and it also has the aerodynamics of aBusch car. I feel like I have had the best of both worlds, the bestmixture of training that I could have by driving the Truck Series almostas long as I did the Busch car, so I have a good baseline to put it allback together for the Cup car."

One might think that since Riggs comes from a short-track background,he'd be eager to get to the bullrings. Apparently, that's not the case.

"I don't really have a preference," said the two-time track champion atSouthern National Speedway in Kenly, North Carolina. "It doesn't matteranymore. I like tracks that we go to where we have a good car and can becompetitive. I really don't have favorites or ones that I dislike. Isort of broke that the first year I started racing Trucks and on throughthe first year I drove the Busch cars. I had a lot of tracks that I feltgood at and felt like we were going to do well on, and then we'd go backthere and not do very well. Then I would have tracks that I didn't likeand had never done well on, and we would go back the next year and winthe race.

"I learned that it's all about how good your car is that weekend at thattrack. I don't really care if it's a short track or a big track--whereverwe can have a good car and be competitive, lead some laps, and hopefullywin some races."

Given the success of some of the more recent "young guns" in the Cupseries, Riggs balks a bit at being labeled as such. "Well, when you lookat some of the other rookies, I'm not really a young gun . . . I guessI'm more of a middle-aged gun," said the 33-year-old Riggs.

Riggs has the advantage of having raced against a lot of the Cup driversin both the Truck Series and Busch Series. "I think it's good for me tohave raced in the past with a lot of the Cup guys," he says. "You alwayshave to learn your competition. I feel like I have a pretty good ideaabout a lot of the guys, how they race you, what their thought processesare, and how to race them on the track, because I've raced them on theTruck circuit and in the Busch cars. Those guys, knowing them and havinga little more history with them, I probably feel a little morecomfortable with them because I know what to expect from them."

As a Busch Series rookie in 2002, Riggs earned his first pole and wonhis first race in his first seven races in ppc Racing's Nesquik machine.He went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and finished 10th in theseries points. He was also voted Most Popular Driver. In 2003 he wasSixth in the final points.

In his first full season as a Craftsman Truck Series driver, he won fiveraces, finished Fifth in the points, and finished in the Top 5 on 14occasions. He had raced three quarters of a season in 2000, earningeight Top 10 finishes in 17 races and finishing 20th in points.

Judging by his record in the Trucks and Busch Series, it won't be longbefore everyone else knows just what to expect from this "middle-agedgun."

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