Bowyer impressive as rest of rookies sputter

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The rookie class being touted as the strongest in the history of NASCAR's highest level was warned the Daytona 500 has a steep learning curve.

Clint Bowyer passed. The work by the rest can only be called incomplete.

Bowyer finished sixth in Sunday's race, staying out of trouble and giving Richard Childress Racing a top 10 finish from the least experienced of its three drivers.

He knows how fortunate he was to get there, but as can be expected by a novice, he was more surprised by the skill of the drivers in Cup racing.

"I was just kind of watching things," Bowyer said. "Things were looking pretty dicey up three-wide.

"At one time I was like, 'Man, these guys are going to pile it up big-time.' That's why they are the best drivers in the world; they didn't [crash]. They all drove through it and it was a pretty good race."

Bowyer collected the $1,500 bonus as the race's top rookie, but more impressive is the list of rookie top-10 finishers in the 500 he joins. Only Scott Wimmer in 2004 (third) and Jeff Gordon in 1993 (fifth) finished higher in their Daytona 500 debut. Dale Earnhardt, Jody Ridley, Rick Mast, Bobby Hamilton, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman are the only other rookies to pull off a top 10.

While Bowyer was basking in the glow, the rest of his 2006 peers were simply trying to stay out of trouble. J.J. Yeley wasn't that lucky.

He got caught up in a crash that started with Jeff Green getting bumped from behind by Dale Jarrett. Only Carl Edwards was taken out of the race, but the wreck essentially ended the hopes of Yeley, Green, and Kyle Petty.

"Someone hooked [Green's car] down the back straightaway and got him spinning there in the grass," said Yeley, who ended up 46 laps down and in 41st place. "… I was just slowed down and just had to wait for [Green's car] to stop spinning. But somebody who was around me couldn't get checked up enough and drove into the back of me and I drove into the back of [Green]."

Petty's comments made it clear it wasn't a rookie mistake.

"We had two good [Petty Enterprises] cars and got into two wrecks that weren't our fault," Petty said. "Both wrecks were caused by experienced drivers, so you can't blame a bunch of rookies."

Yeley, though, was the only rookie not to finish on the lead lap. Martin Truex Jr. turned in a solid 16th, and unheralded Brent Sherman even came in a respectable 21st.

Denny Hamlin, however, was not pleased with his 30th-place finish on the heels of last weekend's Bud Shootout victory.

"It wasn't anything to brag about, for sure," Hamlin said. "We just struggled all day trying to find help and get track position. Every time we got track position we got shuffled out. One time [it took us] all the way to the back. Help was the biggest thing that we were lacking today."

And Hamlin found he wasn't alone in that respect. Part of the learning curve at Daytona is really a trust curve. Finding veteran drivers to run with is critical, but finding a willing one is difficult. But after Daytona, there's hope the trust will come.

"There was nobody helping me, I can tell you that," said David Stremme, who finished 28th, one spot ahead of fellow rookie Reed Sorenson. "Now I will say that Elliott Sadler helped me quite a bit and I was thankful for that. He did an awesome job. I look forward to Talladega."

But with Daytona behind them, Bowyer said it's a long season for the rookies and there's still plenty left to learn.

"Yeah, it's going to be a strong rookie class," Bowyer said. "It's going to be a fight all the way to the end [for rookie of the year]."

K. Lee Davis is the motorsports editor for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Kevin.Davis@ESPN3.com