Young Drivers Challenging Veterans
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on April 23, 2014 | 4:57 P.M. EST
Dylan Kwasniewski, Chase Elliott, Darrell Wallace Jr., Kyle Larson, Daniel Suarez and Ryan Blaney are among many young drivers making an impact in NASCAR. (Photo: Getty Images)
A revolution is taking place in NASCAR and, as often happens, youth leads it. A generation of young racers, atoning for their doomed brethren before them, are winning races, collecting accolades and taking seats from older drivers.
"You’ve got really talented guys in really, really good equipment," said Lorin Ranier, driver development consultant for Spire Sports + Entertainment, an athlete management company. "You put that combination together enough times and you’ll start ringing the bell."
Or sounding the siren ... as they do at the Dawsonville (Ga.) Pool Room. They started blasting it after hometown hero Bill Elliott won NASCAR races. Now, the siren screams for son Chase. Neighbors are having to get used to the noise. Chase Elliott has won the past two Nationwide races.
"He's got a lot of talent," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said of Elliott. "Every once in a while, there are some guys that come in here and they don’t know how good they are. They haven’t competed against this type of competition before and drove cars this well-prepared before. But ... you see certain guys have more than others."
Elliott is only part of a revolution that has witnessed the past three Nationwide races won by drivers 21 and under; that’s had a majority of the Sprint Cup races this season finish with at least one driver age 23 and under in the top five; that saw three drivers age 22 and under place in the top five in the most recent Camping World Truck Series race.
They’re young. They’re fast. And they seem to be multiplying.
This arguably could be the best group of young drivers in more than a decade. The last great group started with former champion Tony Stewart in 1999. He was followed by former champion Matt Kenseth and Earnhardt in 2000, former champion Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick in 2001, and six-time champion Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman in 2002.
Recent rookie classes have not been as successful. Only two of the last seven Rookies of the Year are in Cup - Joey Logano, who won the honor in 2009, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who won it last year.
They’ll likely be joined by more young drivers soon.
In each division, there are multiple candidates for rookie honors. Kyle Larson, 21, and Austin Dillon, 23, are the leading contenders in Cup among a class of eight. In the Nationwide Series, Elliott is the leading candidate. But he faces competition from 22-year-old Ty Dillon, 18-year-old Dylan Kwasniewski, 20-year-old Ryan Reed and others. In the Truck Series, there’s 22-year-old Ben Kennedy and 18-year-old Tyler Reddick among the contenders.
There are others in those series who are not eligible for the rookie honor but still decrease the average age of a driver. The Truck Series features 20-year-old Darrell Wallace Jr., who won last fall at Martinsville Speedway; 20-year-old Ryan Blaney, who won a Nationwide race last year; and 21-year-old Jeb Burton, who won last year in his 12th career Truck start.
Oh yeah, there’s also 17-year-old Erik Jones, who became the youngest Truck Series winner last year at Phoenix International Raceway. The Nationwide Series also has 23-year-old Trevor Bayne, who won the 2011 Daytona 500, and 24-year-old James Buescher, who won a Truck Series title two years ago.
Trent Owens, crew chief for Aric Almirola, has worked with Blaney and Larson and seen many of the other young drivers. He’s impressed by this young group.
"It’s been good to see the young guys come in and see what mature racers they are now," Owens said. "You see it out of Chase Elliott, now. It's not like years past when a guy came in as a rookie. A lot of the rookies now, they're very mature when it comes to the racetrack and race conditions."
What has helped these drivers reach this level of maturity?
It’s who they raced on their way up.
Jeff Burton notes that many of these drivers competed against older drivers in other series before moving to NASCAR and that has proven valuable.
"That moves them along quicker so when they come here, they’re more prepared than the previous generation was, more prepared for their age," Burton said. "At 13, Chase was running against adults in Late Models. That matters because you raise the bar. When you’re doing harder things, you have to be better. It pushes you quicker."
Others might have had that same advantage years ago but didn’t get the chance to show what they could do. The economic downturn a few years ago caused NASCAR teams to dump their driver development programs.
Teams now are pursuing young drivers. Although he races for JR Motorsports, Chase Elliott is a Hendrick Motorsports driver. Chip Ganassi Racing has Larson and signed Kwasniewski last month. Blaney drives in the Truck Series for Brad Keselowski’s team and in select Nationwide races for Team Penske. The Dillon brothers are with Richard Childress Racing. And on it goes.
These young drivers are also in a race to replace NASCAR’s ageing guard.
Each of the top-five finishers in the Southern 500 were at least 38 years old with Greg Biffle the oldest of the group at 44. Biffle is in the last year of his contract at Roush Fenway Racing and has indicated talks are progressing for an extension, which could be the final one of his career.
Earnhardt turns 40 in October and Johnson turns 39 in September. While Mark Martin showed a driver can race until they’re beyond 50, not many drivers are likely to reach that milestone. Jeff Gordon, who is 42 years old, has suggested he’d retire after this season if he won a fifth championship. Even if that doesn’t happen, those near 40 and over might have less than five years left in the series.
Thus, the race to replace them.
"There is some talent coming, for sure," said 23-year-old Joey Logano. "As far as advice, I don’t want to give them too much because I don’t want to get beat."