Across all forms of racing there seems to be a movement toward younger and younger drivers taking the wheel of powerful machines. This runs all the way from local dirt tracks up to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. It is not at all uncommon the see youngsters who can not even get a license to operate a car on the street driving everything from Mini-Stocks all the way up to Super Late Models on the dirt and paved short tracks that dot the landscape of the country. Further, there are drivers in the very top touring series of dirt racing, asphalt racing, and even NASCAR who may be as young as 18 years of age.
Over the past couple of years, NASCAR has had some of its biggest stars to either retire or be pushed out of the sport. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth are all former champions who have left for one reason or another. Further, very popular racers such as Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Carl Edwards and Danica Patrick are no longer in competition on the track, either by their own choice or the choices of others such as team owners and sponsors.
Taking the places of those drivers on the list of competitors in NASCAR are very young and often times winless drivers who are being marketed to the public as the sport’s new “stars”. Chase Elliott, William Byron, Alex Bowman, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez are among those who have recently been handed the keys to some of the top rides in the sport with organizations such as Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing.
Granted, most of the drivers mentioned above have shown considerable talent in lower levels of racing and can somewhat easily be justified for the rides they have been given. However, their movement to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series level along with the departure of the older stars has depleted that division of the sport of those who have actually shown the capability to win races and championships. As a result, not nearly as many former winners exist in NASCAR.
That has created an opening for the drivers who still remain with race winning experience. The result of that has been for those few to dominate so far this season. Only five drivers have won in the nine Cup Series events to have been conducted so far this year.
While the experience level of this year’s winners may not be the only factor that has determined the outcome of the races held in 2018, there certainly can be a case made that it has been a significant contributing factor.
With the exception of Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon, every Cup winner this year has been over 30 years of age. And further, every race winner, with the exception of Dillon, has at least thirteen seasons worth of experience at the sport’s top level. Kevin Harvick(42) is in his 18th season on the MENCS, defending series champion Martin Truex, Jr.(37) is in his 13th campaign, Clint Bowyer(38) is in the midst of his 13th season, and Kyle Busch(32) is competing in his 14th season at NASCAR’s top level.
At the same time, the younger drivers mentioned above have not enjoyed nearly so much success. Jones is currently the highest ranking of those young up-and-coming racers as he ranks 12th in the series standings ahead of Bowman(13th), Byron(16th), Elliott(20th) and Suarez(21st). Combined, those mentioned have scored a total of thirteen top-10 finishes while the four veterans mentioned have a total twenty-six top-10s.
As stated earlier, these young would-be stars have shown their prowess elsewhere. Most if not all of them will eventually emerge as major players in the sport and be known for something other than “Bill Elliott’s son” or “The young guy who replaced…(Earnhardt, Gordon, Edwards or Kenseth)”. But to this point, they have not visited victory lane and the veterans are taking full advantage of that fact.
The fact that Roush-Fenway Racing is about to bring Matt Kenseth back into their fold and place him in the No. 6 car as a part-time driver could very well indicate that some owners are not entirely ready to put the older guys out to pasture just yet.
And those drivers aren’t ready to give up their hold on the top of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series yet either. Earlier this year, Harvick tweeted that the average of winners in 2018 is over 38 years. While that may have changed a bit with Busch’s three victories, the dig at the younger guys and the car owners who placed them in their rides still remains.
Certainly, all of this could change this weekend in Talladega. But as of now, the proven winners are winning and the non-winners are not.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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