Opinion: Young Money

W.Byron and E.Jones

With the arrival of William Byron (9) to the No. 5 and Erik Jones moving to the No. 20, the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver roster continues to have a decidedly younger look.. (Photo: Getty Images)

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"Out with the old and in with the new."

If NASCAR 2018 is looking for a marketing slogan, that simple saying works perfectly.
 
After much speculation that "Silly Season" would live up to its name, the last several weeks have delivered. One announcement after another has changed the landscape of next year’s driver roster and there’s more to come.

Kasey Kahne, Kurt Busch, Danica Patrick and Matt Kenseth are unsure of where they’ll compete next year - if at all. Kahne lost his seat at Hendrick Motorsports, which is being filled by William Byron. Stewart-Haas Racing didn’t pick up Busch’s 2018 option and this year’s Daytona 500 winner is free to look for other opportunities.

Patrick told USA Today over the weekend that her return to SHR is contingent upon sponsorship, which as of now is not there for the No. 10 car. Kenseth was replaced at Joe Gibbs Racing by Erik Jones coming over from Furniture Row Racing, leaving the 2003 series champion without a ride.

There are two common threads running through a majority of the changes taking place: youth and money.

Young talent like Byron and Jones along with Alex Bowman, who takes over for the retiring Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Daniel Suarez are all getting their shots at NASCAR’s top level at a more accelerated pace than in the past. No longer are team owners married to the idea that a young driver needs to toil longer in the Xfinity Series or even the Camping World Truck Series for seasoning.

The days of back-to-back NXS champions like Martin Truex Jr. or Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who both put together consecutive-title seasons in the not-too-distant past, appear to be over. Learning on the job and progressing over the course of the long Cup season is now in vogue.

But the other component to the current trend is equally, if not more, important – dollars and cents. The "right-sizing" of teams that have less sponsorship dollars than were available a decade ago is forcing owners to look at driver salaries.

Veterans like Busch, Kenseth and Kahne – even with their past successes and capabilities to continue performing at a high level – cannot command the contracts they enjoyed in their prime. When a team owner can bring up a Byron or Jones at a fraction of the cost while at the same time, cultivating their talent, the bottom line becomes the bottom line in that decision.

Earnhardt made some pointed comments about the situation last weekend at Watkins Glen that hit home for a number of drivers and team owners.

"You’ve got a guy who you think has a lot of talent, very young, lots of potential and a veteran who's established but wants three, four, five, six times the amount of money," Earnhardt explained. "You’re going to go with a younger guy because it’s a better deal financially.

"That’s a shift that’s going to be better for the sport. Get those salaries into a realistic range for how much money we have from corporate America."

It will be interesting to see if this business style continues as NASCAR enjoys a very fruitful pipeline of young drivers all looking for the opportunity. A combination of talent, potential and economics may be too tough an equation for even more veteran drivers to overcome in the coming seasons.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Motor Racing Network.

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