On Their Own
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on August 28, 2014 | 10:47 A.M. EST
With so many young drivers coming up NASCAR ranks, those in the early 20s are being pushed to the side as if they're in the sunset of their career. (Photo: Getty Images)
When time is measured in tenths of a second, years can seem eternal.
Such is the plight for many young NASCAR drivers, who comprise one of the strongest classes of new talent in the sport’s history. While car owners have renewed their interest in fuzzy-faced, fast phenoms, seats in the Sprint Cup level are limited with many veterans racing beyond their 40th birthday.
This creates a driver logjam. Without proper funding, some racers will see their path to NASCAR’s top levels blocked even though they arguably have the talent to succeed. It’s not a new issue. It’s just that there are so many drivers battling for so few spots.
“There’s an awesome new wave of kids coming up, and I’m hoping that the guys that I grew with, my heroes, call it quits sooner than some of the other guys have and open up those seats,’’ said 22-year-old Cale Conley, who has driven in select Nationwide races for Richard Childress Racing this season.
As the number of talented teenagers flow into the sport, drivers in their mid 20s can be overlooked.
“There’s internal pressure behind my brain saying, ‘This is what you want to do, this is your dream, this is your one shot. You’ve got to produce now before it’s too late,’ ‘’ Conley said.
Many others know such thoughts. They are young enough to have their life ahead of them but possibly too old to have a chance for a top ride.
Had Jimmie Johnson come up at this time, fans might never know his name. He didn’t make his Sprint Cup debut until he was 26 years old. That’s almost ancient today. Twenty percent of last week’s Cup field at Bristol was age 26 or under.
It would have been difficult for a driver like Johnson - who had only one Nationwide win - to climb to Cup if he faced the talent in the Nationwide Series now. Eighteen-year-old Chase Elliott leads the points. Ty Dillon, 22 years old, is third in the standings. Twenty-year-old Ryan Blaney, who led the Truck standings earlier this season, won last weekend’s Nationwide race at Bristol.
Elliott appears headed for some Cup races next year, Dillon is set to make his Cup debut this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Blaney will drive in about a dozen Cup races for the Wood Brothers next year.
They are just among several drivers gaining notice. Former Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne, who is 23 years old, will run a full Cup schedule next year for Roush Fenway Racing.
There are many others seeking a chance at a Cup ride from 19-year-old Dylan Kwasniewski to 18-year-old Erik Jones, the youngest Truck series winner last year at age 17, to 16-year-old Cole Custer, who started on the front row for last weekend’s Truck race at Bristol and finished eighth.
They make the path to the Cup even more difficult for those who only a few years ago were in their position.
Max Gresham, 21, won the K&N Pro Series East title in 2011 as a development driver for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Now? Last weekend’s Bristol race was his third series start this season. He finished 12th, placing behind younger drivers Darrell Wallace Jr. (age 20), John Hunter Nemechek (17), Ben Rhodes (17) and Custer.
Where did Gresham’s path turn? After winning the K&N title, Gresham said Joe Gibbs Racing offered him a few Nationwide races, including road course events. Gresham weighed that against an offer to run a larger number of Truck races for team owner Joe Dennette. The Truck deal lasted eight races. Gresham never finished better than 18th. He missed five races before picking up another ride but never scored a top-10 finish that season.
“Looking back on it now, I think I would have stayed with Gibbs and only run a couple of races,’’ Gresham said. “As a lot of people realize in this sport, it’s not how many races you run. If you run four races and run up front, you make a bigger impression than running 15 races in 20th.’’
He remains hopeful he didn’t miss his chance to impress owners. It’s hard to stand out when younger drivers finish ahead of him.
In Search of Money
Matt DiBenedetto’s family moved from California to North Carolina to help foster his budding racing career when he was 13 years old. He became the youngest winner at Bristol at age 16 when he won a UARA-Stars series race there in 2008 and signed a development deal with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2009.
DiBenedetto ran seven Nationwide races for JGR in 2009-10 with a best finish of ninth.
It was at that time teams began feeling the pinch from the recession - sponsor contracts had protected them for a couple of years but that changed when it was time to renew deals at lower rates. Teams had to make cuts. Driver development programs all but vanished.
“I kind of came in right at perfectly the wrong time,’’ said DiBenedetto, who is 23 years old. “I was starting to get an opportunity and it got cut short.’’
Since he could provide little funding, DiBenedetto did whatever he could to stay in the sport. That meant start-and-park rides. Then again, he was at the track each week.
“Really, you had to start back at the bottom,’’ DiBenedetto said. “You really got to just be committed to doing whatever you’ve got to do even if it is something you don’t want to.’’
He failed to qualify at Daytona this season and didn’t run more than eight laps in any of the next eight races. He did enough to earn a recent promotion Nationwide owner Curtis Key’s top team. Now DiBenedetto runs the entire race. He placed 13th at Mid-Ohio earlier this month and 19th at Bristol.
DiBenedetto isn’t just competing against drivers on the track in the Nationwide Series, though, but every driver looking for money. That includes someone like Custer, the 16-year-old son of Stewart-Haas Racing executive Joe Custer. Cole Custer has backing from Gene Haas but also searches for more money.
“It’s hard,’’ Cole Custer said. “We’ve been trying to find sponsors and we’ve been trying for a while.’’
Corey LaJoie, who is 22 years old been touted by some as among the best young drivers, can relate to Custer. LaJoie is a development driver for Richard Petty Motorsports, but the team has been unable to find sponsorship for him. Last week’s Bristol Truck race was his second in the series this year. He’s run only one Nationwide race this year.
“You tell me,’’ he said after finishing 10th at Bristol. “You probably hear more stuff than I do. I know the Pettys are working hard. It’s just hard to find that money right now. If I keep running like this now and then in the one-offs I do, then I think somebody will jump on board.’’
For every Kyle Larson, who nearly won a Cup race this year before his 22nd birthday, there are many more drivers aspiring to be him. Same for Austin Dillon. Or Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, who each made their Cup debuts at age 18.
Logano, 24, looks around at all the young drivers trying to join him in the Cup series and smiles.
“I think, ‘Boy, I’m getting old,’ ‘’ he said. “It’s funny because a lot of them look like they’re 13 instead of 16, but I guess I was like that at one point, too. It’s kind of fun to watch that and how good they’ve been doing. A lot of them have gone really fast.’’
But will they get where they hope to go? Or will they be marooned in another series or in a low-budget ride thinking if only they had a chance to show what they could do. By then, few will likely notice. There are more young drivers coming.