SPARTA — For NASCAR fans in Kentucky, timing has created an unhappy paradox.
Starting with Darrell Waltrip's emergence in the early 1970s well into the mid-2000s with Michael Waltrip and Jeremy Mayfield, the state of Kentucky had native drivers playing substantial roles at the highest level of NASCAR.
Yet, over all that time, there was no Sprint Cup race in the commonwealth.
Now, our state is on the verge of playing host to a Cup race for the third straight year — but there are no longer any drivers from Kentucky who regularly compete in the Sprint Cup Series.
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"I think it would be better (for Kentucky Speedway) if there was a star driver from Kentucky," said Mark Simendinger, the Kentucky Speedway general manager. "Do we need it? No. Would it be good? Yes, I think for sure, it would be."
Barring something unexpected, when the green flag drops on the third annual Quaker State 400 Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway, there will for the second time in three years be no homegrown driver in the field.
Last year, Owensboro product Michael Waltrip came out of semi-retirement to finish 30th in Sparta. In doing so, he became the only Kentucky native so far to drive in a Cup race at Kentucky Speedway.
"I did not realize that," Waltrip said. "That's pretty cool."
What's not so cool is that since Waltrip, now 50, retired as a full-time driver after the 2009 Sprint Cup season, there has been no Kentucky-born driver rise through the NASCAR development pipeline to take his place.
For NASCAR fans in the commonwealth, that means there is no chance to root, root, root for the home team when the Sprint Cup Series comes to Kentucky Speedway.
"From my experience, having something local you can promote is always better for a track, at any level," said Andy Vertrees, a longtime motorsports track promoter in the commonwealth and a former Kentucky Speedway official.
The question before the chair this morning: As the generation of Kentucky-born NASCAR drivers that included the Waltrip brothers, the Green brothers, David, Mark and Jeff, as well as Mayfield have seen their driving careers wind down, why has the state of Kentucky not been able to send a next wave to fill their shoes?
'No feeder system'
To understand why the state of Kentucky does not currently have a driving star in the Cup Series, it helps to understand how it happened in the past. The modern story of Kentucky drivers making an impact at NASCAR's highest level is really the tale of one town.
Darrell Waltrip left Owensboro and became a NASCAR legend, winning 84 Cup races and three season championships. Michael Waltrip, 16 years younger than Darrell, won two Daytona 500s. Yet another Owensboro driver, Mayfield, qualified for the first two Chases for the Cup after NASCAR implemented its playoff system in 2004.
A fourth Owensboro product, Jeff Green, won the pole at the 2003 Daytona 500 while driving for legendary car owner Richard Childress. Jeff Green's older brother, David, also had a brief tenure with a full-time Cup Series ride (both also won season championships — David in 1994, Jeff 2000 — at the level now known as the Nationwide Series, NASCAR's Class AAA).
"I give Darrell a lot of credit for that whole group from Owensboro making it to NASCAR," Michael Waltrip says. "Darrell making it to Cup and having the success he did, it changed everybody's focus. It wasn't enough to just be a go-kart racer anymore. Darrell set the bar for all of us.
"I know I wanted to be like my brother and go race NASCAR. I think Jeremy and the Greens alike, whether they know it or not, owe Darrell a lot of credit for what they did, too."
Problem is now, even if our state produces a young driver with the ability to be the next Darrell Waltrip, the pathway that the original traveled from Owensboro to the very top level of NASCAR no longer exists. "I came up on the short tracks, and lots of those tracks are really struggling or have gone away," Darrell Waltrip said last week.
The Kentucky Motor Speedway in Whitesville where Darrell Waltrip got his start has struggled to stay open in recent years (though it appears to be open in 2013). Meanwhile, the next-step-up-the-ladder track where Darrell Waltrip moved up and was "discovered," the Tennessee State Fairgrounds in Nashville, is closed.
Another venue in Kentucky that used to provide opportunities for drivers to be seen, the Louisville Motor Speedway, also no longer exists.
"There is no feeder system (in Kentucky)," Vertrees said. "There just aren't as many places to race and build a name and get seen as there used to be."
Big money, fewer chances
Another big change since "the Owensboro Boys" made it to NASCAR is that the money it takes to break into the sport has gotten huge.
"This is an expensive sport," said Darrell Waltrip. "I don't think cost is necessarily prohibitive, but it does take people supporting you (financially). If you don't have that, it does not matter how good a 'wheel man' you are."
What often now gets a young driver a chance to compete in one of NASCAR's national touring series is the amount of cash, either from their family or from a sponsor, one can bring to a car owner.
"If you talk to Richard Childress (about getting a ride), what he'll tell you is to bring money," Vertrees said. "It's where the sport is at."
Darrell Waltrip says one other change from when he was breaking into NASCAR has also made it more competitive for young drivers to get chances. Now, the sport has gone truly national in terms of where drivers come from.
"When I was breaking in, it seemed like most of the drivers were all from North Carolina. Or a part of 'The Alabama Gang,'" Waltrip said. "Now, there are more drivers in Cup from California (five currently in the top 35 in points) than North Carolina (one, Dale Earnhardt Jr). ... It just seems much more competitive to break in than it used to."
Missing a home team
Kentucky Speedway's Simendinger says the yearning in Kentucky for a star driver to call its own is reflected in how invested fans in the commonwealth still are in the state's past stars.
"To this day, Darrell Waltrip is a huge draw in this state," he said. "And Darrell hasn't been in a car (as a full-time driver) in a long time (2000). Michael (Waltrip), he is popular in a similar way."
Simendinger does not think it is impossible that Kentucky will produce another driver capable of doing big things in the Sprint Cup Series. "But I think we'll have to get pretty lucky," he said. "I just don't think there is enough investment (in racing in Kentucky), and I think there is more racing infrastructure in other places than in our state."
With 107,000 grandstand seats to sell each year when the Sprint Cup Series comes to Sparta, the folks at Kentucky Speedway would relish seeing the commonwealth get "lucky" in producing a driver capable of being a Cup standout.
"Lately, we haven't had a whole lot to shout about in our state (in terms of driver production)," Simendinger said. "I do think it would be great for (Kentucky Speedway) if we had a local person to cheer for, there is no question."
At Kentucky Speedway
Camping World Trucks: UNOH 225, 7:30 p.m. Thursday (Speed)
Nationwide: Feed the Children 300, 7:30 p.m. Friday (ESPN2)
Sprint Cup: Quaker State 400, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 29 (TNT)