Ryan Truex planned to fulfill a dream this weekend - driving in a NASCAR Sprint Cup race only about 100 miles from his hometown of Mayetta in Stafford Township.
Instead, when practice starts today for Sunday's race at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, Truex will be watching - something he has done way too much of over the past three years. It's something that many talented young drivers have been doing too much of lately.
The 21-year-old Truex will miss the race because of a broken collarbone suffered in a dirtbike fall near his family's home in Mayetta - something he said "definitely" would have never happened if he had a full-time ride in any of NASCAR's three national series.
Truex would like to be living full time in North Carolina, where he spent the past four NASCAR seasons. But after winning K&N Pro Series East titles in each of his first two NASCAR seasons in 2009-10, he never was able to land a full-time ride in the Nationwide series. He drove for four different teams in the 2011-12 seasons, and this year his only race had been in the Trucks series, which is why he was home in Mayetta, waiting to drive in two Cup races for Phoenix Racing.
"You want to be at the track racing every weekend and have your whole life revolve around it, which is what I've kind of been used to the past few years," Truex said in a recent phone interview. "And you get down time like this, you don't really just want to sit around."
NASCAR experts agree Truex, the younger brother of Sprint Cup regular Martin Truex Jr., should not be in that situation. Ryan is one of the sport's most promising young prospects.
"Each of the steps is put in place so that you gain experience and you gain exposure," ESPN analyst and former NASCAR star Ricky Craven said in a phone interview. "But the missing link right now is support - the financial support. And I really believe, I sincerely believe that's the only thing missing with Ryan. I think that he's shown the potential and he has the skills, but it's frustrating to have the ingredients but not be able to put it to use."
NASCAR depends heavily on sponsorship, perhaps more so than any other sports league in the world, with companies shelling out millions of dollars to put their logos on cars, uniforms and more. It's a necessity because of the high cost of building and maintaining competitive racecars.
While Millville's Mike Trout needed only to prove himself on the field in minor-league baseball to make it to the Los Angeles Angels, a NASCAR driver can win championships every year and still have his career stall. Just ask Ryan Truex.
Meanwhile, with corporate backing, a driver can rise through NASCAR's ranks meteorically without necessarily earning it on the track. Danica Patrick got a full-time Sprint Cup ride this season after seven career top-10 finishes in 58 Nationwide races (Truex has nine top-10s in 35 Nationwide races).
"A kid who is 18 or 19 years old, for the most part, needs to bring money with him as part of the deal," said Steve Byrnes, host of "NASCAR Race Hub" on the Speed Channel.
It wasn't always like that. Teams used to invest heavily in development. Truex's older brother, Martin Jr., won back-to-back Nationwide titles in 2004-05 for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. He went on to have four solid Sprint Cup seasons for that team and now is in his eighth Cup season.
The younger Truex said he remembered his brother having strong offers from every team in the Cup series after the 2005 season. But things have changed.
"Even after my Dover (Nationwide) race last year," Ryan Truex said, "when I got the pole and finished second, teams would start calling up and asking what our plans were - but then in the next sentence they were asking what kind of funding we had and what we were able to bring."
Martin Jr.'s manager, Todd Moore, said he was instrumental in getting Jimmie Johnson his first Cup deal in 2002, when Moore worked for the agency that handled sports marketing for Lowe's. Johnson, who had been somewhat unknown, eventually won five Cup titles in the iconic Lowe's car.
"(Under today's circumstances), Jimmie Johnson probably would have been in trouble," Moore said in a phone interview.
It's not just Truex, either. Byrnes cited 22-year-old Brandon McReynolds, who has five top-10s in nine career East series starts and last year won a race in the ARCA series, and 21-year-old Corey LaJoie, who finished second in the East series standings last year and eighth the previous year.
McReynolds' only Nationwide start came in 2010, and LaJoie never has reached that level. Both are driving partial East series schedules this year.
Meanwhile, of the 38 drivers on the entry list for Saturday's Nationwide race at Dover, there are exactly as many drivers (14) who are 30 or older as there are who are 25 or younger.
The 25-and-under group includes several drivers who brought money to their teams. Ty and Austin Dillon are grandsons of NASCAR team owner Richard Childress. Jeffrey Earnhardt is a nephew of Cup star Dale Earnhardt Jr. Joey Logano is a Sprint Cup regular. Others have less famous family money, Byrnes and Craven said.
"The only driver that has been able to beat that trend is (20-year-old) Kyle Larson," Byrnes said. "He is the only one that I can think of currently that didn't come with a bucketload of cash. ... It's a bit of a paradox right now to me,and it's been a pretty active discussion, to be honest with you: How are the kids going to get the opportunities unless they have money?"
Larson appears to be a beacon of hope. The 20-year-old won the East series title last year, landed a full-time Nationwide deal with Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing this season, and is ninth in points through 10 races.
"I believe the economy is getting better," Craven said. "I honestly believe that now we're starting to see a transition to the young prospects again. I think that Kyle Larson is encouraging and should be encouraging for Ryan Truex."
Truex might have some good news coming soon. While declining this week to reveal anything to The Press, he has hinted on Twitter at an impending deal.
"I have some very big news coming soon #hired," he wrote Sunday. He then added Wednesday, "I sure do hate keeping secrets."
Until he does get hired, the key is for Truex to stay visible for sponsors and capitalize when an opportunity comes along, Craven said.
"I think he's got another opportunity coming," Craven said. "He's got the wind to his back (with his age). But he cannot disappear. He's got to have a presence. That is critical."