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A NASCAR Youth Movement Is Coming

Updated on February 21, 2015
NASCAR holds an annual Drive for Diversity combine looking for the future faces of the sport
NASCAR holds an annual Drive for Diversity combine looking for the future faces of the sport

Last month, ESPN ran an article showing the steady aging of drivers at the Sprint Cup level. Author David Newton identified that the average age of NASCAR's top ten was 36.5 at the time and that the series was in dire need of a youth movement. It seems that someone must have been listening; the past 30 days saw several drivers under 30 find the spotlight. While the Cup series is still dominated by older drivers, NASCAR is in the midst of its biggest youth movement in over a decade. The only question is whether those drivers will be as successful as NASCAR's last sea change at the turn of the millennium.

Jeff Gordon, one of NASCAR's biggest stars over the last 20 years, is approaching the end of his storied career
Jeff Gordon, one of NASCAR's biggest stars over the last 20 years, is approaching the end of his storied career

Without question, the biggest stars in Sprint Cup racing are getting older. Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Greg Biffle are all well over 40 years old and in the next two years Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. will all join them there. Those drivers account for 13 Sprint Cup championships and 10 of the last 12 titles. They've won hundreds of races and carried the sport after the untimely passing of Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 2001.

Yet Father Time remains undefeated. As they age, drivers lose a certain amount of talent thanks to the deterioration in reflexes and hand-eye coordination. A good conditioning program can help offset those losses and experience can often make up for what time takes away; Mark Martin was a better driver in his forties than he was in his twenties. But the end is near for many of those aging drivers and for NASCAR to thrive, the next generation needs to step up now. It's why NASCAR took Sprint Cup regulars out of the equation for Nationwide and Truck series championships. It's why the series funded the Drive for Diversity program. Their time is rapidly approaching.

Larson has won on numerous levels of auto racing despite being only 21 years old
Larson has won on numerous levels of auto racing despite being only 21 years old

The spotlight is already shining bright on two drivers who will officially be rookies in 2014. Kyle Larson, a developmental driver for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, will pilot the #42 car for EGR next season. Replacing a talented but temperamental driver in Juan Pablo Montoya, Larson comes to the Sprint Cup series with an enormous amount of hype. He won the K&N East series championship last year. He's run six Truck series races with one win, three top fives and five top ten finishes. While results in the Nationwide series haven't been quite as good, he'll have more power at his fingertips in the Cup car- a fact that observers such as Jimmie Johnson say will work in Larson's favor.

Another driver making his Cup debut next season will be Austin Dillon. The grandson of team owner Richard Childress, Dillon clearly isn't afraid of pressure. Since entering the Truck series full time in 2010, he's run the styled #3 first made famous by Earnhardt Sr. All signs indicate that he'll be driving that same number 3 for RCR next season at the Cup level- the first time it's been used since the 2001 Daytona 500. He's earned the right, too. He won a Truck series title in his second full season. He finished third in the Nationwide standings last year, his first full Nationwide schedule. Between the two series, he's won seven races and scored 79 top ten finishes in 121 starts. He'll have an army of fans and media watching his every move but that's nothing new for the 23 year old.

Austin Dillon will likely run the #3 on the Sprint Cup level next year for his grandfather, Richard Childress
Austin Dillon will likely run the #3 on the Sprint Cup level next year for his grandfather, Richard Childress
Jeb Burton is a Truck series contender right now
Jeb Burton is a Truck series contender right now

One driver who hasn't had a rocket strapped to his back that will soon debut is Phoenix Racing's Justin Allgaier. Thanks to Harry Scott purchasing the cash-strapped team, Allgaier will finally get the chance to drive a Cup car later this year. While the team hasn't announced its plans for 2014 yet, it seems likely that Allgaier will get the chance to drive the Cup car full time next season. Justin won an ARCA series title in 2008 before moving on to drive for Roger Penske in the Nationwide series the following year. He spent two years driving the Penske Nationwide car but with Brad Keselowski's success Allgaier found himself the odd man out. Since then he's driven for Scott as a part of Turner-Scott Motorsports. Overall, he has 3 wins, four pole starts, and 81 top ten finishes in five plus years at the Nationwide level. Phoenix Racing, like Turner-Scott, has a technical alliance with Hendrick Motorsports. With sponsorship, they should be competitive.

Beyond those three, name recognition still counts and there are several second and third generation drivers who've got both the name and the talent. Chase Elliott won his first Truck series race over the weekend after bumping another up-and-comer, Ty Dillon. Ryan Blaney is getting rave reviews for his car control and has a pair of Truck Series victories. Jeb Burton also has a Truck series victory this season and is in contention for the series championship. Ross Kenseth, Corey Lajoie and Brandon McReynolds all have begun their own individual climbs up the racing ladder, following in the footsteps of their more famous fathers.

Bayne has yet to be eligible for Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year but has already won a Daytona 500
Bayne has yet to be eligible for Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year but has already won a Daytona 500

There are also several outstanding prospects who lack the family connections but not the skill to make an impact on the Sprint Cup level. Last year's Truck series champion, James Buescher and developmental driver Kenzie Ruston both are on season-long deals with Turner-Scott. Johanna Long is the woman many NASCAR fans cite as the anti-Danica; a woman focused on developing her racing skills instead of selling sex appeal. Thanks to his appearance in the Drive for Diversity program, Darrell “Bubba” Wallace is already a name many fans know and follow. Finally, that's without mentioning either Trevor Bayne or Ricky Stenhouse Jr, two drivers who've already found some success on the Cup level. It's impossible to list every talented young driver in the sport.

Looking at the last big youth movement in NASCAR, their success had two factors. The first, talent, is obvious. The second, however, was access to high level equipment. No driver can win with junk equipment, a point Kenny Wallace made on SiriusXM radio just a few days ago. Take a look at the list of drivers who entered the sport between 1999 and 2003, both by name and team

NASCAR Rookies 1999-2003

(click column header to sort results)
Tony Stewart
Joe Gibbs Racing
Elliott Sadler
Wood Brothers Racing
Matt Kenseth
Roush Racing
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Inc.
Dave Blaney
Bill Davis Racing
Stacy Compton
Melling Racing
Mike Bliss
AJ Foyt Racing
Kevin Harvick
Richard Childress Racing
Kurt Busch
Roush Racing
Casey Atwood
Evernham Motorsports
Ron Hornaday Jr.
AJ Foyt Racing
Andy Houston
PPI Motorsports
Ryan Newman
Penske Racing
Jimmie Johnson
Hendrick Motorsports
Jamie McMurray
Chip Ganassi Racing
Greg Biffle
Roush Racing
Tony Raines
BACE Motorsports
Dillon will be moving up to the Sprint Cup series next season
Dillon will be moving up to the Sprint Cup series next season

What jumps off the page is just how often the big name teams succeeded and how often the lesser teams missed. Part of that is having the budget necessary to have a driver development program. They have the opportunity to learn from more experienced drivers; in Jimmie Johnson's case, to actually drive their cars. Nothing accelerates a learning curve like experience. But equipment matters. Racing ultimately comes down to speed and better equipment runs faster.

For the young drivers coming up in the current surge their success will depend in large part on getting competitive equipment and several are already on their way. Austin Dillon will be driving the same cars Kevin Harvick has in this year's Chase. Chase Elliott is a Hendrick developmental driver; when he does make his debut it's a safe bet his cars will be competitive. Fast cars will help develop a young driver's confidence in addition to his or her overall skills. Which drivers get similar equipment may go a long way into determining which is the next Johnson or Kenseth- and which is the next Houston or Raines.

There's no question that a youth movement is underway. And NASCAR needs those young drivers just as much as those drivers need NASCAR. The stars of today have handled the weight of American auto racing on their shoulders but the time is fast approaching when that burden will need to be carried by the next generation. Judging by NASCAR's lower tiers, it looks like a very bright future indeed.

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Now it's your turn!

Which Sprint Cup rookie will have the best debut in 2014?

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    • profile image

      Tony Geinzer 

      6 years ago

      I'd be a fan of a Real Rookie Race,too.

    • Rusty Shackelford profile image

      Rusty Shackelford 

      6 years ago

      If these guys can break into the top ranks and have an impact on the sport, credit will be due to NASCAR for making it less attractive for full time cup drivers to go race full time in the nationwide series as well. Yes, that meant that there were not as many fully funded rides out there, but it opened seats for some of these young guys (Dillon being an exception due to his family connections, but the kid CAN drive and while he might be a silver spoon racer, he's got the talent). Dillon versus Larson for rookie of the year honors will be great to watch, it's been a while since we had a proper ROTY battle in the Cup series, typically somebody who finished 30th in the points ends up getting it by default.


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