Looking ahead to Sunday’s Cup race, at first glance it’s not quite that dramatic on the youth movement side of things. Three of the four title contenders are former Cup champs with lots of experience (Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch), and the fourth candidate is someone who hasn’t won a Cup title but has been around the series for quite a long time (Martin Truex Jr.). There will not be a teenage face taking home the first Monster Energy Cup.
But the big moments for the “old guys” -- like Kenseth’s win last week and the Cup title that will be awarded Sunday -- may be few and far between in the coming years. Looking ahead, the likelihood that our Cup champions will be more like what we saw this weekend in Trucks and Xfinity is high.
Chase Elliott has been the most impressive young driver on track all year, and he is just shy of his 22nd birthday. If not for some poorly timed battling with Denny Hamlin, he would be battling for a title at Homestead. Since his teen years in the Truck series, he’s been a sight to see, so expect him up front throughout his career.
Erik Jones, who somewhat controversially was given the #20 ride at JGR over veteran Matt Kenseth, is only age 21 and already has an impressive resume through the lower series and in Cup. He will be a guy who’s always bad fast and championship material.
Also, Ryan Blaney is just 23 and his future looks tremendously bright with a new ride at Penske Racing awaiting next year. With mentors like Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano (who was once a youngun but now seems downright old at 27 after a decade of racing), Blaney can only continue to rise.
Hendrick getting younger
Consider Hendrick Motorsports, where seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson in 2018 will now essentially a mentor to three talented up-and-coming drivers in Chase Elliott, William Byron (replacing Kasey Kahne) and Alex Bowman (replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr.). No doubt he will help them all perform better, but based on recent results they may show Jimmie a trick or two.
Beyond any contract disputes with Kenseth that might have happened behind the scenes, that’s an example of why Coach Gibbs likely felt he had to take the route he did and put Erik Jones in the 20 car for 2018. Without the change, he would have had three of his four drivers be in the upper age bracket of today’s NASCAR, and sponsors these days appear to prefer someone younger who will be around for a long, long time to come.
The list of drivers who are gone or are in process of leaving Cup series racing in recent years is staggering, and it includes: Four-time champ Jeff Gordon, three-time champ Tony Stewart, almost-champ Carl Edwards, immensely popular Danica Patrick, and even more immensely popular Dale Earnhardt Jr., plus Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth. Not far behind in the next few years will likely be Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray and others whose birthdates came long before the 1990s.
At that point, the ball will be in the court of William Byron, Erik Jones, Bill Elliott and the others -- that is, if they haven’t already stolen the ball before the veterans decide to let them have it. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the Homestead finalists for 2018 include 2 or 3 of the new generation.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
Well, it depends on your perspective. On one hand, it is pretty rotten that Matt Kenseth doesn’t get to keep his ride despite performing so well for so long in that Gibbs 20 car. It’s got to be frustrating to him that this is the scenario that unfolded. And I believe that there was another one-year fix that could have been agreed to -- i.e., keeping Jones a second year in the Furniture Row team until the change to Gibbs could be made, which could have kept Matt around one more year.
But at the same time, NASCAR and its teams have always been about what makes financial sense, and if sponsors say they prefer a youthful driver to get things done, that’s what we’re going to get, no matter how much anyone complains.
To end on a bright note, I’ll just say this: If the young crop of drivers is going to start taking over, we’ve got an impressive class, and since they all started racing as toddlers (something earlier generations generally didn’t do), there’s a good reason many of them exhibit the characteristics and skill of the veteran racers they are battling.