Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Kevin Conway: NASCAR's 2010 Sprint Cup Raybestos Rookie of the Year

Courtesy of Kevin Conway's official Facebook page
The 2010 NASCAR Raybestos Rookie of the Year award goes to the Toyota ExtenZe Racing driver Kevin Conway. The official award presentation will happen during Champions Week in Las Vegas on Thursday, Dec. 2, during the NASCAR NMPA Myers Brothers Awards Luncheon. 

Conway started 28 races during the 2010 season and finished 82 percent of his starts. Without having the luxury of provisional start availability, Kevin had to race his way into all of the events through qualifying. Conway's average starting place this season was 40.3 and his statistics show a 32.6 average finish for 2010. Kevin finished 35th in Cup Series season points after earning 1,830 points throughout the season and bringing home more than $2.5 million in earnings.

Though Conway receives the Rookie of the Year award as the only qualifying Cup Series rookie in the field, if Landon Cassill had declared himself for the ROTY award and been in one more race in 2010, Conway would have still come out on top. If driver Terry Cook, who declared himself eligible for ROTY at the beginning of the season, had stayed in for more than three Cup races, it is likely that Kevin would have beaten Cook for the honors as well. In the three races Cook participated in during the 2010 season, Conway finished an average 10 spots better in all three. Conway earned the 2010 Rookie of the Year award by keeping the car out of trouble on the track, qualifying for and finishing races, and through overcoming much adversity during his 2010 season.

Considering that before the season started, Front Row Motorsports opted to not allow Kevin an attempt to qualify for the Daytona 500 because of his lack of superspeedway experience, it is ironic that Kevin's best finish of 2010 came at the Coke Zero 400 in July at Daytona. His 14th-place finish in that race is also the best finish for Front Row Motorsports since the team formed in 2005.

Even with FRM's best finish of their five-year history, after his 21st race of the 2010 season Kevin and ExtenZe Racing left FRM because of a disagreement regarding sponsor payments. Showing himself to not be bitter about the split, Conway said, "It was exciting for me to be able to give Front Row their best finish ... it's unfortunate that we can't work it out to remain in the car for the immediate future."

In week 24 Conway and ExtenZe Racing debuted with Robby Gordon Motorsports. The remainder of the season proved to have several rough spots. During his time with Front Row Motorsports, Conway had just three DNFs in his first 21 races in 2010. In the last seven races of the season, the team shows six DNFs with Robby Gordon Motorsports. With a variety of issues plaguing the Robby Gordon Motorsports Toyota, ranging from a transmission problem and engine failure to brake issues and a bad fuel pump, Kevin said that it felt like going from the frying pan into the fire. 

Courtesy of Kevin Conway's official Facebook page
“It was extremely frustrating,” Conway said. “You try to work with what's in control and not worry about the rest. As a team we have to evaluate what went right and improve on what went wrong. To be a competitive race team and get the results you want to have, you have to remain in the sport even with ongoing mechanical issues. When you beat yourself in the shop it's tough.”

When asked how much he is looking forward to the 2011 season after achieving his best finish of 2010 at Daytona, Kevin said, “I'm really looking forward to getting back to Daytona. There was a lot of track changes and handling that came into play last year.” 

But Conway expects that with the new surface at Daytona International Speedway, the aerodynamic package will come into play more and with that there are new opportunities. Kevin went on to say, “The new track surface levels the playing field to some extent. The teams who have ability to do research can capitalize on that ... I expect more three- and four-wide racing and better handling.” He said that ultimately, everyone's 2011 season will depend on surviving the races and coming away with decent finishes.

With plans to run both Cup and Nationwide races in 2011, Conway said that hitting the reset button with the switch to Robby Gordon Motorsports led to having limited resources in the latter part the season. Kevin said that not having the equipment or experience in Cup cars proved to create challenges in 2010 for his ExtenZe Racing Team. For 2011, Kevin wants to build more familiarity with the team and improve dramatically on 2010. 

With the majority of a full year under his belt, Conway says that the ExtenZe Racing Team wants to finish consistently in the top 20—25 next year and be able to capitalize on other teams' bad days. He said it is up to the driver and the team to create opportunities for success. Setting realistic goals in addition to learning and developing himself as a driver are at the top of the to-do list for Conway in 2011. Keep an eye out for a formal announcement regarding a sponsorship agreement between Kevin and Robby Gordon Motorsports following Champions Week in Las Vegas, possibly just before Christmas.

Conway said that although nothing is booked yet, after the awards in Las Vegas he is going to take a look at the calendar and is “planning on planning a trip to the mountains” during the off-season. Either somewhere in Canada or maybe the Rockies for some snowboarding, he said. 

As a final question, I asked Kevin if there was anything that NASCAR fans should know about him, his season or his team that he would like to share; his reply speaks volumes. 

“We've had a lot of racers over the last couple weeks saying you're the new hero; we're making sure that we are keeping the dream alive for the little guy. This is the first time a non-major team has won Rookie of the Year in 12 years. Regardless of the number of competitors, to be able to run the majority of the races we had to have tenacity, persistence and hard work. Six years ago I was racing weekends in midgets, working for Richard Petty Driving Experience to pay the bills. Six years later, to be in a position to compete for Rookie of the Year ... people sometimes don't understand what it takes to get to this position.”

This is a man who has fought tooth and nail for every inch gained on and off the racetrack. A man who believes in himself, his team and his future. A man who had to overcome adversity more than once during 2010. A man who appreciates each opportunity that has come his way. 

To Kevin Conway, the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year ... Congratulations. You have earned it.

*A special thank you to Kevin for taking the time to speak with me.


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