FORT WORTH, Texas: When the green flag dropped on the Sprint Cup Duck Commander 500 on Saturday (Sunday in Manila) night at Texas Motor Speedway, half of the top 12 starting spots will be filled by drivers age 25 and younger.
But don’t get it twisted. At the Sprint Cup level, this isn’t a young man’s sport. Not right now, anyway.
Starting in 1999 and for the years immediately after, the Cup series ushered in a string of rookie drivers who are now the focal point of the sport. Guys like Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Ryan Newman came onto the scene between 1999 and 2002.
Those names and a few others have dominated the sport from the time they came in.
Yet since 2007, only a few young drivers have come into Cup and elevated to star status.
A young wave of talented drivers are flooding NASCAR’s top three series right now, but so far, the excitement about this crop of youngsters is based more on potential and name recognition than on-track performance in a Sprint Cup car.
“There’s a really big group of younger drivers coming into the sport right now, and I think it’s great for stock car racing,” said 22-year-old rookie Ryan Blaney. “I’m fortunate to be a part of it. I’ve raced against a lot of these young guys for a while now, and it’s fun to see everybody progress.
“I hope we can all be racing on Sundays. It would be really cool to be racing in the big leagues with all the buddies you grew up racing with,” he added.
NASCAR is looking for its next wave of Sprint Cup stars. Jeff Gordon retired last year, and Stewart will be done after this season. Johnson, Harvick and Earnhardt have all reached their 40s.
THE ROOKIES AND MORE
Joey Logano was named Rookie of the Year in 2009, and three of the following five drivers to win the award are already out of the sport. No rookie has won a race in his first full-time Cup season since Logano did it at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse have been mildly successful, but have yet to win a race.
Logano will be 26 in May and has 14 career victories. But only one other driver his age or younger has a Cup victory — Trevor Bayne in the 2011 Daytona 500.
“We need this crop of young guys to win races,” Harvick said. “That’s the difference from the year I was a rookie, and the next year in 2002 with Newman and Jimmie and some other guys were rookies. Those years, the rookies all won.”
“These guys are doing great right now, making progression and running consistently and creeping into the top 10 on occasion. But in order for a group of rookies to make an impact, they have to win. That’s the most important thing,” he added.
This year’s rookie class includes 19-year-old Chase Elliott, the son of legendary racer Bill Elliott, and Blaney, whose father, Dave Blaney, ran nearly 500 career Cup races. Both young drivers come into Saturday’s race in the top 16 in points.
Last year’s Xfinity Series champion, Chris Buescher, has been consistent in his rookie season. Meanwhile, the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series are filled with young drivers waiting for their chance.
Guys like Erik Jones, Bubba Wallace, Daniel Suarez and Norman native Christopher Bell are working their way toward possible Sprint Cup rides one day.
Yet NASCAR needs one — or more — of them to get over the hump and start winning races.
“If we could have one of this year’s rookies, like Chase or Ryan, to win a race that would be very meaningful and have a huge impact on the sport,” Harvick said.
Jones, who is driving for Joe Gibbs Racing’s Xfinity Series team, has generated a lot of excitement the last few years, which has included three Cup races. Yet he says he constantly reminds himself to be patient with his career.
“I really do, and there are people around me who I’ve had to tell that to as well,” he said. “I’m still pretty young and there have been times where I didn’t feel like I had the experience that I felt comfortable doing some of the things I was being asked to do,” he said.
“I take it as it comes, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what the next few years bring,” Jones added.