Aftermath: Recreating The Ladder System For Young Drivers

Mark Martin says it may take a successful start-and-park career for young drivers like Landon Cassill to get a full-time Cup ride.

Before Joey Logano and Kyle Busch arrived on the racing scene – or were even born – the way NASCAR drivers got their rides and opportunities was far different than it's been for much of the last decade.

Old-school drivers like Mark Martin had to start at the bottom and battle their way up to the top teams. They didn't just get placed in elite rides once they arrived in Cup; they had to prove themselves with lesser teams first.

"Back in the day, if you were lucky enough to be a young man and drive a 25th-place car, you were in heaven," Martin said. "That's the best car you could ever dream of getting. No way could you go drive for Joe Gibbs. That ain't gonna happen!

"If you rode around in that car and drove it better than it should, everybody would say, ‘Damn, that car is driving better than it should!' And then you got hired after five years of riding around and not wrecking it. That's how it worked."

Martin said those words one year ago, sitting in the lounge of his team's hauler last November – a veteran driver telling a young reporter about the way things used to be.

But 12 months later, things have changed. The opportunities for young drivers to start their Cup careers with a Hendrick Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing are long gone. "Development drivers" seem to have disappeared.

Unless a young driver has money or brings a sponsor, as we documented in this space a few weeks ago, they'll never get an opportunity to show how good they can be.

If you pay close attention, though, there seems to be the beginnings of an interesting rebirth: The ladder system Martin spoke of is making a comeback.

"That's what's going on right now; that's what we're seeing now," Martin said this weekend at Talladega. "The whole sport is seeing a reset. It may not reset where it was, but it is definitely resetting in all things, all aspects of it - from sponsorship to rides to contracts - the whole thing.

"Everything is sort of resetting from a peak of euphoric time, you know? Same as the economy. Everybody in the financial world is seeing tough times right now. So you have to be more modest in your hopes and expectations and goals – and more patient."

What does that mean for young drivers in terms of planning their career path? It means that the blueprint for how to make it as a Sprint Cup driver may revert back to starting at the bottom and working slowly toward the top.

They may not like it, but even talented young drivers might have to settle for driving a backmarker with old equipment and few resources - and driving the car faster than it should realistically go in order to prove themselves worthy of a better ride.

Are there any case studies of young drivers who have succeeded with this model in today's NASCAR? Not yet. But if you ask Martin, owners are looking at start-and-park teams as a sifter for new talent.

In essence, if a driver can make the show in a car that probably shouldn't be there, teams may pay attention. And Martin said there's no shame in starting at the very bottom.

"You know what? It's exactly the way it was when we came up," he said. "What's the big deal? It just was different for awhile."

Unprompted, Martin said he has his eye on one driver in particular - Landon Cassill, who had successfully qualified for eight of nine attempted races on speed before missing Talladega.

"Landon Cassill's the man," Martin said. "Landon's doing it. He's putting it in the show every week, he's going faster than he should. That's how you get the next step ride.

"You don't have to run up front; you have to get in the car and run better than the car should run. That's how people get these rides."

But does Martin really believe a successful start-and-parker like Cassill can turn his qualifying record into a full-time ride?

"Absolutely!" Martin said emphatically.

That philosophy may give hope to those young drivers, like Cassill and Michael McDowell and Josh Wise, whose only choice is to start at the bottom and work their way up.

Told of Martin's comments, Cassill said he's more determined than ever to "keep doing it until somebody notices."

"For me to be able to relate to him on how he made it into the sport is extremely encouraging," Cassill said. "It kind of gives me an extra pep in my step for the next time I go to the track.

"I know that I don't have a sponsor and I don't have the money backing me or a big investor, but I can make it the way Mark Martin made it. And that's something that I can really look forward to. It makes me want to work harder."

That's good. Because as for any young driver these days, there's a long road ahead.

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