Casey Atwood: What Might Have Been
Greetings, readers, and welcome back to this week’s edition of What Might Have Been. This week, we will look at a driver who was not the victim of tragedy but rather was the victim of unrealistic expectations and impatience and departed the Sprint Cup Series almost as quickly as he arrived: Casey Atwood.
Casey burst onto the season in the Xfinity Series in 1998 where at 17 years old, he became NASCAR’s youngest pole winner in just his second start. The following season, he became the youngest (at the time) winner in NASCAR history at the Milwaukee Mile and followed that up with another victory at Dover.
In 2001, young Casey moved to the Cup Series full-time with the newly-formed Evernham Motorsports where he was given the unrealistic expectation of being the next Jeff Gordon. Casey struggled in his rookie season although he was in contention to win the final two races. Despite these final flashes of brilliance, Casey was unceremoniously dumped to what was to become the Evernham satellite of Ultra Motorsports. Casey’s struggles worsened in 2002, and he was let go from his ride with two races remaining in the season. He made a couple of starts in 2003 before the 23-year old found himself on the outside of the Cup Series looking in before his career had even had a chance to begin. He returned to the Xfinity Series for a couple of seasons but was never able to recapture the magic of when he first arrived and left us all to wonder what might have been.
It is abundantly clear that Casey was befallen of two things: unrealistic expectations and impatience. First of all, it is unfair to compare any young driver to Jeff Gordon. Regardless of talent, a comparison like that generally serves only to add pressure to a young driver. Secondly, more than just being a victim of unrealistic expectations, Casey was also a victim of impatience. Before turning 21, Casey was rushed to the Cup Series to join a brand new team (Evernham Motorsports). After just one year, he was dumped off to a smaller team (Ultra Motorsports) before being cruelly dumped again the following season. He was never given a chance to adjust to the Cup Series, and this undoubtedly damaged his psyche and was probably the reason he never recaptured glory upon his return to the Xfinity Series.
Discussing where Casey’s career might have ended up had he found better circumstances is difficult since his star was so cruelly extinguished before it ever had a chance to shine. However, it is obvious that the talent was there due to his success early on in the Xfinity Series. Secondly, Casey was thrust into a situation no rookie every should have been: massive expectations and a brand new team. When Jeff Gordon arrived in the Cup Series, he was surrounded by the established infrastructure of Hendrick Motorsports even though his team was the new addition to what had been a two-car operation. Also, people have a tendency to forget that Jeff failed to win a race during his rookie campaign. Either way, it is obvious that Casey should have at least had the benefit of more patience during his rush to the Cup Series. Asking someone who is not even 21 years old to adjust to the Cup Series with a brand new team puts them at a tremendous disadvantage early on, and then dumping them off after just one season certainly doesn’t help. Casey should never have been dumped to Ultra Motorsports; rather Evernham should have stood by Casey and allowed him to develop over a couple seasons. I think given more patience, Casey would have reached Victory Lane in the Cup Series and shown himself to be competitive. Unfortunately, he is a cautionary tale when it comes to combining high expectations and impatience, and we are all forced to wonder what might have been.