Golden Age Of NASCAR
January 1, 2000 | 12:00 A.M. EST
And what of the so-called “Young Guns” that some media outlets, particularly FOX, have waxed poetic over with almost unbridled enthusiasm? For a bunch of kids, they are holding their own.
But do the math and as it turns out drivers aged from 20-29 have won six races of the twenty-one run to date this season. Drivers aged 30-39 have won six Cup events as well. (Matt Kenseth’s name appears under both headings as he won at Rockingham while still 29, but was 30 when he won at Texas and Michigan.) As for the “Old Dogs”, those drivers over 40 years old, they’ve scored nine victories to date this season. The youngest winner this season was Kurt Busch who was 23 when he won at Bristol, while at 46 Bill Elliott is this season’s oldest victor. Elliott’s Winston Cup career started prior to Busch’s birth.
Those six victories by the under 30 set are divided among five different drivers, with 26-year-old rookie, Jimmie Johnson, the only youngster to score two wins. The six wins by drivers aged 30-39 are split between four different drivers – with Matt Kenseth and Tony Stewart each winning a pair of races. (As mentioned above Kenseth has three victories total.)
The “30 Something” crowd has had their output notably diminished by the failure of two perennial winners in that age group, Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton, winless so far this season. Six different drivers 40 years of age or older combined to score those nine victories, with Elliott, Ward Burton and Sterling Marlin all winning two races.
But what of poles? Certainly younger drivers are fearless and can hold the pedal flat to the floor with reckless abandon while the old timers who’ve hit more than a few walls are more innately cautious, right? The statistics don’t bear that assumption out.
Six poles have been claimed by young guns; eight by 30-somethings, and seven by Old Dogs. (Oddly enough Rusty Wallace, once NASCAR’s premiere pole threat hasn’t been among them.) The most prolific pole winner to date? It’s none other than that 46-year-old Elliott guy.
Watching the race coverage this season fans may have been led to believe that it’s the young drivers who are dominating the sport. If you look at the points standings as far as the current top 10 drivers, that doesn’t seem to be the case. To top the charts in points a driver has to be consistent, not just occasionally brilliant.
Sterling Marlin has held the points lead since Rockingham, and is 44. He’s joined by four other drivers over 40 in the top ten (Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, Elliott, and Ricky Rudd) so five of the top 10 are 40+. Another three (Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth) fall into the 30-39 bracket. (All on the low end of that scale) leaving just two drivers under 30 in the top ten in points. (Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch). Of those drivers waiting in the wings in points positions 11-15, one is over 40 (Dale Jarrett) one is under 30 (Ryan Newman), and the other three (Michael Waltrip, Jeff Burton and Ricky Craven) are 30-something.
Apparently having the spotlight shining on them can cause problems for some of NASCAR’s Young Guns. Of the four race winners still under the age of 30, two of them landed in hot water with NASCAR this year. Kurt Busch was fined for his comments after The Winston. Kevin Harvick was suspended one race for an on-track incident and several off truck incidents.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. manages to skate a fine line being controversial but avoiding fines, though a lot of people were unhappy with him earlier this year when he blew off the race week festivities at Bristol. Jimmie Johnson has maintained a Gordon-esque squeaky clean image, but his young crew chief was the first to head a team that was docked points for a rules infraction.
Lately it’s been Winston Cup’s perpetual adolescent punk, Tony Stewart, 30, who has been in the dog house. Old age has apparently mellowed the fiery Rusty Wallace who hasn’t landed himself in any major trouble to date this season.
Historically speaking, the years between 30 and 39 were considered the prime of a Winston Cup drivers career. Drivers younger than that struggled to reach the Winston Cup level or drove for under-funded teams. After four or five years of struggles a driver who showed promise might land a ride with a better team as some senior citizen retired.
Richard Petty earned 60 of his 200 victories in his 20s. (To be fair, Petty missed the 1965 season when the Chrysler boycott sidelined the reigning NASCAR champion). Petty won 111 races in his 30s and the remaining 29 races while in his forties. Though he continued racing into his 50s, Petty was winless during that epoch.
Dale Earnhardt was in his late 20s by the time he even managed to land a full time Winston Cup ride. He won just six races (and one title) while in his 20s. Earnhardt scored 55 of his wins (and four championships) between the ages of 30 and 39, then went onto win 15 more races (and two titles) in his 40s. Sadly Earnhardt was killed just prior to his 50th birthday so we’ll never know how many more wins he had in him.
Bobby Allison earned 38 of his 85 victories while over 40 years of age. He won nine times in his 20s, and the remaining 38 wins came during his 30s.
Harry Gant may win the award for the most productive golden years of a career. Gant didn’t land a full time Cup ride until he was 39. All eighteen of his victories occurred while he was 40+ with eight of them, including four consecutive races in 1991, occurring after Harry turned 50.
Gant’s mark will probably never be equaled by any of today’s Young Guns. I don’t doubt some of them have the talent to be able to win races after 50, and for all its inherent peril, racing today is safer than in previous eras, so far fewer (hopefully none) will die or be crippled while racing.
It’s just that nowadays the drivers start racing in Winston Cup in their early to mid-twenties. They make the sort of money finishing 17th in the points former NASCAR champions never made during their entire career. The pressures on their time and lack of privacy take a toll as well.
One can imagine one day prior to their 40th birthdays a lot of these drivers are going to wake up one morning and decide “I’ve got more money than I can spend in a lifetime, I’ve got nothing left to prove on the race track and I want to spend more time with my family. I quit.”
So, enjoy the Golden Age of NASCAR racing, during which long time favorites may be growing long in the tooth but are still winning races. Some of the younger drivers that will one day replace them are winning races as well, and the ever-reliable 30-something contingency long time fans have finally grown comfortable with score their victories as well. This might be the changing of the guard, but if those young whippersnappers think they’re just going to kick in the door and take over the castle, they’re in for a rude surprise from the Old Dogs.