taken over by NASCAR's youth movement
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[June 20, 2017]
By Jonathan Ingram, The Sports Xchange
Is the new generation of race format --
known as stage racing -- a younger man's game?
So far in the first season where races have been run in stages,
younger drivers are showing up in victory lane with regular, perhaps
Martin Truex Jr., who is 36, may have the most playoff bonus points
from winning race stages with 10. But drivers in their 20s have won
the same number of overall victories this year in the Monster Energy
NASCAR Cup Series as the veterans in their 30s.
Entering Sunday's race at Michigan International Speedway, drivers
in their 20s had won five of the first 14 races, drivers in their
30s had won six and drivers in their 40s had won three. Although
Truex Jr. may have had the fastest car, Kyle Larson brought the
20-somethings a sixth victory by taking command during the final 49
jaundiced laps, when the yellow flag waved three times.
Not only did Larson, 24, win his second race of the season, he was
followed home by two of his peers -- Chase Elliott and Joey Logano.
In addition to veteran Logano, who took an encumbered victory in
Richmond, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon and last week's winner,
Ryan Blaney, all have broken through with their first career
victories to help give NASCAR's youth movement a head of steam.
When asked about the emergence of so many young drivers, Larson sees
an upside to the coming retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- instead
of a sense of impending doom given Earnhardt Jr.'s longtime official
status as NASCAR's Most Popular Driver.
"I keep saying that NASCAR is in a great, great spot," said Larson.
"Even with Dale Jr. retiring this year, I think it's a huge
opportunity for our sport. Dale Jr. has probably three-quarters of
our fan base. You might lose a few thousand of his fans that might
disappear. The rest of them are going to pick new drivers. I think
new rivalries are going to be built. It's going to bring some
excitement back to the racetrack."
There are many threads to the youth movement's success on the track.
Not the least are the retirements of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and
Carl Edwards, who also left behind quite a few dedicated fans.
Gordon was the first wunderkind to bring new, younger fans into the
sport. But will support for the current young crop revive NASCAR or
just move the needle to a different group of drivers in place of
those who have retired?
There have been other significant changes that have helped the new
generation. The upsurge in Ford's support of its NASCAR teams in the
last two seasons helped Blaney get a full-time ride with the Wood
Brothers, which is affiliated with factory-backed Team Penske.
Ford, too, was behind the power surge that brought Stenhouse a
victory at Talladega. Chevrolet's corresponding extra support of
Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates in the face of the Ford
onslaught has helped Larson realize his potential on a team that was
previously struggling when Juan Pablo Montoya drove the No. 42
A little luck never hurts, and it was good fortune that Dillon's
team rolled the dice on fuel mileage in Charlotte and came up a
Another element in favor of the younger drivers and their teams is
the ongoing and surprising fall from grace by Joe Gibbs Racing. Kyle
Busch, the 2015 Cup champion, came home an unlucky second in his JGR
Toyota behind Dillon in Charlotte, got beat by Blaney in the late
stages at Pocono and was the leader at Michigan when the cautions
started to fall. Denny Hamlin's Toyota was in the mix during the
late-race restarts, but even on four fresh tires he was no match for
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Truex added two more stage victories on Sunday and
was regarded by winner Larson as the class of the field. But he
suffered the misfortune of not being able to get good restarts in
the lower groove following the three yellow flags that began on Lap
Larson, on the other hand, restarted in the low groove next to
leader Busch but made it past the Toyota with a push from his fellow
youth movement driver Blaney.
On the final restart, Larson was the leader and got a push in the
high groove from Elliott, who followed him past Hamlin to get
second. The younger guys, in fact, appeared to be sticking together.
If misery loves company, so does success when it comes to stock car
Larson retook the points lead with the win after Furniture Row
Racing's Truex, Jr., the points leader coming into the race,
"I'm happy that I seem to be head of that youth movement right now,"
said Larson. "With Ryan Blaney getting the win last week, you look
at Chase finishing second, Joey is a veteran, but he's only a couple
years older than I am. Then Stenhouse, Austin Dillon, Erik Jones,
(Daniel) Suarez, so many drivers in great equipment right now that
are running up front.
"It's just a great time for NASCAR. I think everybody is kind of
nervous about where it's going to be, but I think a lot of us, our
fan bases are going to grow as well as NASCAR's fan base."
It would be a little weird to spy another conspiracy in the front
offices of NASCAR when it comes to the stage racing and a strategy
to give the youngsters a push. Nevertheless, the format has put
pressure on veterans like Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt, Kevin Harvick
and Matt Kenseth to qualify better and adopt a different style.
Instead of building on incremental chassis improvements as the race
develops, they've had to run hammer down from the outset.
Johnson, who started 13th after a practice spin damaged his front
end and finished 10th, is sustaining drivers 40 or older when it
comes to victories. He has all three. But Johnson has yet to win a
single stage out of the 30 that have been on offer in the first 15
races. He and crew chief Chad Knaus have continued to be successful
with "long haul" strategies and it remains to be seen if Johnson
will suffer in the playoffs from not having bonus points that come
along with stage victories. He's only eighth in the points
standings, which will pay an additional playoff bonus to the top 10
drivers at the end of the regular 26-race season.
Johnson, who has the body of man at least five years younger, is
gunning for his eighth championship this year. The way the
20-something drivers are gobbling up victories and the playoff bonus
points that go with them, this might be the best year for Johnson to
break the tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the
championship column. By next year, it might be too late.
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