Tribulation And Tragedy: The Rookie Class Of '98

Once the rookie of the year award - and the fight to obtain it - seemed to mean something.

Then came 2010 and Kevin Conway's farcical triumph. Owner-points shifts were abound to keep him, with a full-time sponsor, in the guaranteed starting positions while teammates Travis Kvapil and David Gilliland, who'd raced their way into the top-35, had to qualify on time. By the end of the end of the year Conway and his sponsor had burned bridges with both Front Row Motorsports and Robby Gordon's team, which fielded him in several late season races.

The 2011 season saw Andy Lally win the award legitimately in that owner Kevin Buckler didn't try any points-shifting shenanigans, but it was still effectively a victory by default as no one else attempted anywhere near a full schedule.

It is an unfortunate decline for prize that has for many years stood out as a crowning achievement on many of the top racing resumes in NASCAR and, in some cases, as a glaring omission.

Over the years, several rookie classes have stood out, either because of the potential of the candidates or because of their eventual successes.

The 1993 class, of course, featured Jeff Gordon, but future series champion and Brickyard 400 winner Bobby Labonte also made his first full-time foray into Winston Cup racing that year. In 1994, Busch Grand National standouts Joe Nemechek, Jeff and Ward Burton, Steve Grissom, and Todd Bodine all graduated to the top tier. 1999's rookie battle was supposed to be a three-way duel amongst Buckshot Jones and Elliott Sadler, Busch Series winners who'd followed the traditional path to Cup racing, and Tony Stewart, an open-wheel star.

The 2000 and 2001 Rookie of the Year battles featured two future series champions and three eventual Daytona 500 winners. Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson's full-time debut came in 2002, as did that of 2008 Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman. The 2006 class featured what was expected to be an all-star lineup of Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, Reed Sorenson, JJ Yeley, and David Stremme.

There are successes and failures to be found in each of those lauded classes. Still, few can match what was expected of the 1998 class of drivers, and none can match the promise that was - often tragically - left unfulfilled.

A vicious testing accident at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in November of 1997 seems a fitting precursor for the Class of '98's tribulations.

Tim Steele, then a three-time and the two-time defending ARCA champ who in previous seasons would have been a rookie class headliner, crashed heavily while driving Bud Moore's Ford and spent the next six months recovering and overcoming a subsequent addiction to painkillers. His plans to run for the '98 rookie crown for Moore's team, obviously, were shelved, and he ultimately never competed full-time in any of NASCAR's top divisions.

Even without Steele in the mix, however, the Class of '98 promised to showcase the new breed of young stars that would carry the sport into the new century.

Dale Earnhardt's team, slated for its first full schedule of Cup racing, tabbed Steve Park to drive the Pennzoil Chevy. Park had won three Busch Grand National races - an the rookie crown - in 1997, and prior to that he had been a star in Busch North and Featherlite Modified racing in New England.

Bill Elliott had partnered with NFL legend Dan Marino, expanding his self-owned race team with the addition of a second car. Carrying Marino's famous number 13 and painted in Miami Dolphin teal and orange, the car would be driven by Jerry Nadeau, a road racing standout.

Robert Yates Racing's August 1997 announcement that Ernie Irvan would not return to the team in '98 opened up one of the most highly respected and highly coveted seats in racing: the No. 28 Texaco Ford. It would be filled by USAC superstar and 1997 Craftsman Truck Series Rookie of the Year Kenny Irwin Jr.

The class was rounded out by former Busch race winner Kevin Lepage, who was scheduled to compete in Joe Falk's No. 91 Chevrolet. Though an underdog compared to the young drivers in the high-profile rides, Lepage's experience in the Busch Series made him a legitimate threat for the award.

The 1998 season, of course, was NASCAR's 50th Anniversary Celebration, and thus, its rookie crown and whichever of the four competitors who could lay claim to it would stand out amongst the list of names dating back to 1957, when little-known Ken Rush took the first award.

And another milestone event, the 40th Daytona 500, seemed the perfect kick-start to an epic battle.

The Class of '98, though, opened its assault on the rookie title not with a bang, but with a clunk. In the case of Lepage and Park, it was quite literal, as mechanical failure sidelined both before the race's conclusion. Nadeau finished a lap down in 21st, and two positions ahead and also a lap off the pace, Irwin led the way for the rookies.

Over the next two weekends, things only got worse. Lepage failed to qualify the following week at Rockingham, while both Nadeau and Park DNQed for the inaugural race in Las Vegas. Irwin made both races, but ended up with uninspiring finishes of 26th and 36th, respectively.

Through three events, no rookie had led a lap of competition or even finished on the lead lap. The group of young, hungry racers that was supposed to have been a headliner in the season's opening weekends was barely an afterthought.

At the fourth race of the season, in Atlanta, that changed for two of the drivers - for two totally different reasons.

Steve Park's bid for the rookie crown had gotten off to a miserable start. Ignition failure in the Daytona 500 and a crash at Rockingham had preceded the humiliation of failing to qualify in Las Vegas. At Atlanta, it effectively ended altogether.

Much like Steele's crash the previous November, Park's right front tire deflated exiting the fourth turn, sending him nearly full-speed into the outside retaining wall. His car hit the outter wall a second time, then caroomed across the rain-soaked frontstretch grass and struck the inside pit wall at nearly full speed before finally coming to a halt.

With a broken right femur and broken left collarbone and shoulder blade, Park would be out of action until August. When he returned, the struggles continued: he only recorded four top-20 finishes, the best being a pair of elevenths.

While Park was on everyone's mind as the race finally got underway Monday - following torrential rains all weekend - it was Kenny Irwin who almost stole the show.

Leading a race-high 113 laps, Irwin seemed like the clear favorite for the victory until he stumbled leaving pit road under green with less than sixty laps remaining. Unable to get back to the front, he was instead left to settle for a fifth-place finish. Still, his performance combined with being the only rookie to qualify for each race, not to mention his chief rival being out of the fight, it seemed after only four races that Irwin had sent the clear message that the 1998 rookie title was his.

After Atlanta, however, his performance deteriorated badly. Over his next seven starts, he finished no better than 16th. Worse during that stretch, he failed to qualify for the high-profile Coca-Cola 600. A ninth at Richmond, where he had debuted the previous September, temporarily stopped the slump. Over his next three races, Irwin took finishes of thirteenth, eleventh, and ninth and seemed to be heading in the right direction. The slump returned with a 33rd place finish at Loudon, and aside from a 10th-place run at Richmond in September, Irwin failed to place amongst the top-10 the rest of the way.

As Irwin stumbled, Jerry Nadeau could not capitalize. He recorded his second DNQ at Texas, and again failed to make the show at Dover in June. In addition, in the first thirteen races he did qualify for, his best start was a 12th at Talladega and his best finish was the 21st at Daytona, which he backed up at Pocono.

At the season's sixteenth race, however, Nadeau appeared destined for his own Irwin-Atlanta performance. The event was in Sonoma, where his road racing skills were expected to shine, and shine they did: he qualified second to Jeff Gordon. And on the start of the race, he overtook the defending and eventual '98 Winston Cup champion on the way to turn number one.

That would be all the glory Nadeau would get: he embarassingly overdrove the first turn, sliding off course and falling well outside the top 10. After just 13 laps, his Ford slammed a tire-wall, dooming him to a last place finish.

It was the end of his association with Elliott-Marino, as one race later, he was fired. He quickly found employment with Elliott's old car owner, Harry Melling, as a replacement for the retired Lake Speed. However, much like Irwin, he was but an afterthought the rest of the way, scoring just one top-15, a fifteenth at Watkins Glen.

Lepage would end up splitting his season between the No. 91 Chevrolet, which he left after Pocono in June, and Roush Racing's No. 16 Ford, in which he replaced Ted Musgrave at Michigan in August. In 13 races with Roush, Lepage was impressive, scoring eight top-20 finishes. His best was a sixth at Charlotte.

Ultimately, in spite of his late surge, Lepage's early-season stint with the woefully underfunded Falk team and the five races he missed while in between rides would be just enough to allow Irwin to hang on to win the 1998 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year award.

Despite their trials and tribulations as freshmen, each of the Class of '98 graduated to the 1999 season as sophomores.

Nadeau again struggled, though scoring his first career top-5 finish at Watkins Glen, and finished 34th in the standings, last among the drivers who had started all the races - and behind Kyle Petty and Geoff Bodine, who each missed two events. He did, however, make enough of an impression in a season split between the No. 9 Ford and the No. 36 Pontiac - in which he replaced a retiring Ernie Irvan - to be hired by Rick Hendrick as the new driver of the No. 25 Chevrolet for 2000.

Lepage failed live up to the expecations created by his late-season performance in 1998, scoring just two top-10s and finishing 25th in the standings. He also scored his only career pole, at Atlanta in November. Though Roush did not have a sponsor for him entering the 2000 season, he was retained as driver of the No. 16 car for a second full-season.

Irwin was bitten by the sophomore slump, as his two top-fives - including a career-best third in the Daytona 500 - and six top-tens were offset by accidents and poor performances. By August, Robert Yates announced Ricky Rudd would be driving the #28 Ford in 2000. Irwin, shortly therafter, was named to drive the No. 42 Chevrolet for Felix Sabates.

Making the strongest impression as a second-year driver was Park, who picked up five top-fives and finished fourteenth in the standings. His best performance came, ironically, at the very place where his Rookie of the Year bid had ended in March of 1998. In the season finale at Atlanta, Park started second, led 72 laps, second most to race winner Bobby Labonte's 147, and was in contention until fading late.

In 2000, two '98 rookies said hello to victory lane, but the racing world said goodbye to the '98 Rookie champion.

Kenny Irwin had struggled through the opening half of the season, with a fourth-place at Talladega standing as his lone top-10 with the No. 42 team. On July 7, he climbed into a race car for the last time. A crash in the third turn at the New Hampshire International Speedway took Irwin's life less than a month from his 31st birthday. In 87 Winston Cup starts, he recorded 12 top-10 finishes, far shy of the expectations that had been placed upon him when he took over the legendary Havoline Ford and won the Rookie of the Year award.

Irwin's death, as well as that of Adam Petty in nearly the same spot of the track eight weeks prior and Tony Roper's death after a truck crash at Texas in October, overshadowed the best year yet for Steve Park and Jerry Nadeau.

Park scored six top-five finishes and 13 top-10s and finished 11th in the final standings. At Watkins Glen in August, he held off Mark Martin, one of the best road racers NASCAR has ever seen, to score his maiden Winston Cup victory. Nadeau had a less successful year, with only five top-10s and nine DNFs, but he won the season-finale at the Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Lepage, in his last year driving for Jack Roush, was a dismal 28th in the standings. Sponsor FamilyClick.com pulled out at the end of the year, and Roush mothballed the No. 16 Ford for the 2001 season.

Nadeau would have a career-year in 2001. He came within half a lap of winning at Atlanta for the second-straight year and scored 10 top-10 finishes. That he only finished 17th in the final standings was due to eight DNFs. Lepage, meanwhile, began the year on the sidelines before replacing Robby Gordon in the No. 4 Morgan-McLure Motorsports Chevrolets. He would leave that team in September and finish the season driving Jim Smith's No. 7 Fords.

Again, however, the headliner of the Class of '98 was Steve Park. He won at Rockingham in February, eight days after Earnhardt's death in the Daytona 500, and was a consistent front-runner. Park seemed to be blossoming into the championship contender Irwin and Nadeau had fallen short of. Through 24 races, he sat seventh in the Winston Cup standings.

On September 1, Park was idling under caution during a Busch race at Darlington. At the same time, lapped driver Larry Foyt was speeding towards the front of the field to line up alongside race leader Mike Skinner. When Park's Chevrolet suddenly veered towards the inside of the track, Foyt could do nothing but drill him in the driver's side door.

The impact ended Park's year, and though he would return from a serious head injury just four races into the 2002 season, it seemed to end his career as well. Never again would he be the consistent frontrunner that he'd shown signs of being before the accident, and by 2004, he was out of the Cup Series altogether.

The success of 2001 did not follow Jerry Nadeau into 2002. He lasted only 11 races before being dropped as driver of the No. 25 car. He substituted for an injured Johnny Benson in the No. 10 Pontiac for a couple of races, before driving Richard Petty's No. 44 Dodge in Sonoma. In that race, Nadeau led with only three laps remaining when a broken rear end gear left him stricken as Ricky Rudd sailed to his final-career win.

Nadeau would run much of the remaining schedule in the 44 car until he was injured in a go-kart accident just days before the October event at Atlanta Motor Speedway - a race where he was half a lap of gas away from being a two-time defending winner.

For 2003, Nadeau joined MB2 Motorsports, for whom he had driven after Irvan's retirement and during Benson's recovery. Driving the black US Army Pontiac, he gave MB2 one of its best runs ever at Texas in April. The fourth-place finish was his only top-10, however, and he was mired in 34th in the standings as the Cup Series headed to Richmond, Virginia for the Pontiac Excitement 400.

In practice for that race, Nadeau spun entering the first corner and slammed the wall flush with the driver's side. He sustained paralysis on the left side of his body, a skull fracture, broken ribs, and - like Park - a severe brain injury. Nadeau gradually regained the use of his left side, though it remained numb, but he has never returned to competitive stock car racing as a driver.

Kevin Lepage avoided the career and life-altering incidents that befell Nadeau and Park, but he never came close to winning a Cup Series race. By the end of the decade, his only real claim to fame was triggering a massive pileup in a 2008 Nationwide race at Talladega with one of the largest boneheaded moves in recent memory.

After being dropped by Richard Childress at the end of the 2003 season, Steve Park dropped down to the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series where he raced for two full seasons. In February 2005, he won a race at Fontana, allowing him to join what was then an exclusive club of drivers who had won races in all three of NASCAR's national divisions. In 2009, Park won a NASCAR K&N Pro Series East race at Adirondack International Speedway in his home state of New York. A year later, he returned to the Sprint Cup Series at Daytona with Tommy Baldwin Racing and recorded a 13th-place finish.

Combined, the '98 rookies scored three victories, 75 top-10 finishes (nearly half of which are credited to Park), and a best points finish of 11th (Park in 2000). The tangible statistics are uninspiring when viewed alongside the expectations that were placed upon them entering that 1998 campaign. Instead, it is the staggering enormity of that unfulfilled promise that is the legacy of perhaps NASCAR's most star-crossed rookie class ever.

1998 Rookie Statistics (through 2011)

Driver Starts Wins Top-5 Top-10 Best Points Result
Kenny Irwin Jr. 87 0 4 12 19th (1999)
Kevin Lepage 201 0 2 9 25th (1999)
Jerry Nadeau 177 1 9 19 17th (2001)
Steve Park 183 2 12 35 11th (2000)
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