During the NASCAR offseason, I was cleaning out a bunch of the junk a family of five accumulates over time (full disclosure: it was mostly my junk) and I found the first column I wrote as a regular columnist in the Richmond County Daily Journal. The column was from this week 16 years ago.
The title: Will Young Guns Rule the Roost in 2002?
Those “young guns” that year: rookies Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman, second-year drivers Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick and third-year Cup racers Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
I know I have seriously dated myself with that one, but I felt it was relevant as we look to the 2018 season. If you were to peruse the entry list for the 60th running of the Daytona 500, you would see quite an influx of the kids who are set to shake up the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
As an aside, Johnson, Newman, Busch and Harvick are the only four drivers left from that 500 who are running this years “Great American Race.” The fathers of two of this year’s entrants were in that 2002 race (Dave and Ryan Blaney and Bill and Chase Elliott).
To understand the change for this year, you have to look no further than Hendrick Motor Sports.
Undoubtedly one of the flag bearers for the series over the last 20 years looks incredibly different than it did just three years ago. In 2015, Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson piloted the four Hendrick cars.
In 2018, 24-year-old Alex Bowman, 22-year-old Chase Elliott and 20-year-old William Byron join the 42-year-old Johnson. Elliott is sure to pick up his first win this year after so many close calls. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bowman visit victory lane and Byron picking up multiple wins.
Add to that revamped lineup at Hendrick — 24-year-old Ryan Blaney, 21-year-old Eric Jones and 24-year-old Bubba Wallace — and you have quite a contingent of under-25 talent in the Cup series. Add 25-year-olds Kyle Larson and Ty Dillon (who is a great driver, just stunted by his team) and the young talent is unprecedented in NASCAR.
So what does this mean for the long-term viability of the sport? If you ask a Busch (Kurt or Kyle), they think NASCAR is doing too much to market these young kids, eschewing the older established drivers.
If you look at the profile of the “established” drivers, you see an older group who are without a doubt approaching the end of their careers. Johnson and Kevin Harvick are 42. Ryan Newman is 40 and Kurt Busch will be 40 this year. Clint Bowyer is 38. Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne and defending champ Martin Truex Jr. will be 38 this year.
These days, that is pushing retirement age. Joey Logano (28 this year), Kyle Busch (33 this year) and Brad Keselowski (34) are the only drivers who consistently compete for championships that have some longevity left.
But, back to the question, what does it mean? NASCAR has to promote these guys, because they are going to have to win some races and get in the public eye (greater than just NASCAR fans) to keep stock-car racing going.
Jeff Gordon is gone. Tony Stewart is gone. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is gone. After the Daytona 500, Danica Patrick is gone. In the last three years, NASCAR has lost its stars who transcended the sport and had mainstream recognition and appeal. They aren’t walking back through that door. So it’s going to be up to these young guns to pick up the mantle.
If I were a betting man, I would say it’s going to be Blaney who leads that charge with Elliott (who is my pick to win the 500). Even if it’s not Blaney someone is going to have to; for the biggest race of the season, the Daytona 500, only 40 cars showed up, which means they will all race. The race has had nearly 75 entrants in years past and just three years ago, 49 cars entered. There are other things at play here, but that’s a huge drop off and one that NASCAR has to take seriously.
It’s up to NASCAR and these young guys to fix it.
Going back to that point about 40 cars entered for the Daytona 500, there is one that I want to call out: David Gilliland will race Sunday with Ricky Benton Racing in the team’s first ever Cup start. They have run in the truck series for the past eight seasons and have two-third place finishes at Daytona.
The cool thing about Ricky Benton Racing: they are based in Cerro Gordo in Columbus County and are going racing against Hendrick and Gibbs and Penske with a full-time staff of three people. Gilliland has always raced well at restrictor-plate tracks and they have the same engine package from Roush-Yates Engines as the Penske, Roush and Stewart-Haas in their Ford.
Oh yeah, and their crew chief, Mike Hester, lives in Bladenboro.
Andy Cagle, a former spokesman for Rockingham Speedway and motorsports public relations consultant, writes about NASCAR in a weekly column.