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NASCAR rookies bring a lot to the table

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By Staff Brunswick Beacon

Although NASCAR's off-season is probably the briefest in professional sports, to a race fan, it seems to last forever.

Mercifully, it is now over. The Daytona 500 on Feb. 17 will mark the official opening of the 2008 race season.

For the moment, it is a clean slate, but don’t hold your breath. Before too many laps and weeks have passed, this fresh page will be filled with scuffs and skid marks, fines and feuds, and plenty of traded paint.

Race fans and media are an impatient lot. Never content to simply sit back and watch the season unfold, we feel it is our right, if not our actual responsibility, to ponder and predict what might happen.

For the first two weeks of February, we become a nation of NASCAR Nostradamuses, speculating on everything from probable race winners to possible pole sitters to potential Sprint Cup championship contenders.

One of these categories is Rookie of the Year.

The list of contenders for the title of 2008 Raybestos Rookie of the Year for the Sprint Cup Series doesn’t exactly read like a Who's Who of NASCAR; it’s more like a list of Who's Not Who In Open Wheel Racing Anymore. The names include Dario Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr., Patrick Carpentier, Regan Smith and Jacques Villeneuve.

Three of these guys—Carpentier, Smith and Villeneuve—attended a luncheon during the National Motorsports Press Association’s annual convention in January. Each made remarks about his plans and aspirations for the upcoming Sprint Cup Series season. Smith stood out for a heretofore unheard-of reason at a NASCAR event. He was the only one of the three drivers without a French accent.

There was no language barrier, mind you. Doug Rice of the Performance Racing Network, who served as emcee for the event, even got a nice laugh from the audience when he remarked that Carpentier and Villenueve, who are both French-Canadian, would be available to give English lessons to Elliott Sadler this year. (Sadler is known for his distinctive southern Virginia accent.)

Still, when the luncheon was over, I heard more remarks about how Carpentier and Villeneuve sounded than about what they actually said.

In the words of the great philosopher Berra, it was like deja vu all over again. I heard the same kinds of remarks last year when Juan Pablo Montoya joined the Sprint Cup Series.

I appreciate the dedication of NASCAR fans. They are, I believe, the most committed and loyal fans of any sport, and I am proud to count myself among their number.

Still, I think sometimes we tend to be a bit too territorial about “our” sport. Every parent knows that, no matter how badly we may want to or how hard we try, we can’t freeze our children in time at the age of six months, or six years, or 16 years. (Note: The number of parents who want their kids stuck at age 16 is very small.)

Do we really want to limit our palates to a diet of vanilla ice cream? Without butter pecan and Chunky Monkey and mint chocolate chip, dessert would get awfully boring, don’t you think?

This topic comes up a lot, and I really wish we could go ahead and get over it already.

Think about your own job. If you’re a writer, you probably want to be an editor; if you're a roofer, you might aspire to one day own a general contracting business. Improving our resumes is simply a normal and natural part of business. How can we blame these drivers, four of whom have spent their careers in open-wheel racing, for wanting to do the same?

Of course there will be a NASCAR learning curve, but certainly these guys walk through the garage gates with some level of knowledge. They include three Indianapolis 500 champions, a CART series Rookie of the Year, a CART series champion, a Formula One world champion, a couple of World Karting Association champions and two IndyCar series champions. They know a thing or two about how to race and how to win.

Think twice before you look at guys like Carpentier and Villeneuve and dismiss their NASCAR prospects with a simple boo-la-la. I will take a seat on the NASCAR Nostradamus bandwagon; my prediction is they might just pleasantly surprise us all.

Cathy Elliott is the former director of public relations at Darlington Raceway. She currently lives in Florence, S.C. Reach her at cathyelliott@hotmail.com.