NASCAR youth movement showing promise
June 12, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
Related video: Alan Cavanna's 1-on-1 with Jeb Burton
The drivers once known as the “young guns” of NASCAR aren’t very young anymore. Ryan Newman has two little children, while Jimmie Johnson has a second daughter on the way, not to mention five titles and a beard with a few slight flecks of gray. Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Jamie McMurray are all family men, and Kurt Busch is rebuilding his career rather than starting it. Each of them is heading toward the big 4-0 at the speed of a qualifying lap at Atlanta.
They were basically still kids when they took the national division by storm at the turn of the last decade, but the memories remain fresh: the days to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s premier-series debut ticked down in a “Countdown to E-Day,” Newman running an “ABC” schedule -- a little ARCA, a little of the then-Busch Series, a little Cup -- for Penske, Edwards wowing people with his backflips, McMurray notching a stunning first victory in a relief role, everyone wondering who this Johnson guy was. They came in one after another, and over a period of four years completely changed the face of the sport.
"I want to win a couple of more races, because I want to be in the Cup Series in a couple of years."
These were the direct successors to Jeff Gordon, his race victories and championships enough to convince team owners that yes, young drivers could indeed compete in top-tier equipment -- a concept that stood in stark contrast to previous generations, where young drivers had to prove themselves in junk before they went anywhere. Good cars were too expensive to be entrusted to rookies apt leave them a heap of crushed metal, or so the thinking went. Now, that belief is as outdated as hand-operated leaderboards or manual timing and scoring.
Gordon cracked open the door, and sent teams all scrambling to find the next Jeff Gordon, which in turn allowed Johnson and his contemporaries to kick that barrier down for good. Youth was once the exception -- at one time NASCAR’s premier series was the domain of drivers like Dale Jarrett and Bill Elliott, who only hit their competitive stride as they reached middle age. Now, it’s the rule. And it’s going to stay that way, given the next generation already nipping at the heels of their elders, eager for their chance to break through.
Never was that more evident than this past weekend, when not even Johnson’s dominant effort at Pocono Raceway could overshadow another youth movement cresting in the distance. Chase Elliott, the 17-year-old son of Awesome Bill, bested the likes of Frank Kimmel to win an ARCA race at Pocono. Trevor Bayne prevailed in a late-race duel with Austin Dillon in a Nationwide Series event at Iowa. And Jeb Burton, the 20-year-old son of former Daytona 500 winner Ward, earned his first victory at NASCAR’s national level by claiming the Camping World Truck Series event at Texas.
They’re far from alone. Ryan Blaney, now 19, last year became the youngest winner in Truck Series history. Kyle Larson, 20, is a threat every weekend on the Nationwide tour. Darrell Wallace Jr., 19, is knocking on the door of a first national-series victory.
Alex Bowman, 20, and Parker Kligerman, 22, impress week after week. Ty Dillon is a title contender at 21. The K&N Pro Series features steady up-and-comers like 18-year-old Dylan Kwasniewski and Brandon Gdovic and Ben Kennedy, both 21. The reigning Trucks champ, James Buescher, seems downright grizzled at 23.
Now clearly, there are no guarantees in auto racing, a sport that lacks a true scouting system, and where progression to a large degree hinges on sponsorship, timing, and good fortune. There are plenty of very good drivers who never made it and others who did but didn’t last. One Truck Series victory, or one promising year on the Nationwide circuit, does not a career make. But the current groundswell of young drivers is impressive simply because of its volume, and that depth heightens the likelihood that some will indeed emerge as the stars so many of them seem to have the potential to be.
So, in short: the kids are coming, and they’re coming fast, and attention, Johnson and company -- they want your jobs.
“I want to win a couple of more races, because I want to be in the Cup Series in a couple of years,” Burton said Tuesday, in a south Virginia drawl not too unlike that of his father. “That’s the pressure. I win races, I’ll be in the Cup Series one day. That’s just where it’s at. I know I can do good. I just want to win races.”
Surely, he’s not alone there. For young drivers trying to stand out in a crowded field, there’s pressure from the very beginning. Burton knows as much firsthand -- a year ago, he watched the Texas race from his couch, because he didn’t have the sponsorship to be on the track. Now he does, and he’s wasting no time, last Friday night’s victory adding to a superb rookie season that’s also seen him earn three poles and stand second to veteran Matt Crafton in the points. No wonder the feeling he had when he crossed under the checkered flag was relief rather than exultation.
“Just the hard work, the pressure to get it off your back,” said Burton, who drives for Turner Scott Motorsports. “That first win, no matter what you’re racing, is hard to get. Because you’re thinking a whole lot about it, and I put a lot of pressure on myself, because I know I can drive a race car pretty good.”
Clearly so can the younger Elliott, who in addition to his ARCA victory has recorded top-five finishes in two of his three Truck Series starts this season. In the media center after his third-place run in the Sprint Cup Series event at Pocono, Dale Earnhardt Jr. made a point to congratulate the Hendrick Motorsports development driver for winning the day before. “He’s got a great future,” Earnhardt said.
When Bill Elliott was 17, he was racing with his brothers at local tracks like Dixie Speedway in Woodstock, Ga., and was still three years away from his first NASCAR national-series start. “The kids today have so much more experience than when I came along at 17, 18, 19 years old,” said the 1988 NASCAR champion. “I mean, most of these kids have been racing already for 10 years by that point in time. And they just have a lot more experience. Chase has got so many late model races under his belt.”
Many of them do, further perfecting the template set forth by their predecessors, who jumped into go-karts or onto motorbikes as little tykes and completely altered the concept of driver development. They’re racing, younger and younger. They’re winning, younger and younger. They’re ready to move up, younger and younger. Burton enjoyed the biggest break of his career only days ago, and he’s already moved beyond it, ready for the next step.
“Last week is already over. It’s about next week now,” he said. “If I win five more Truck races this year, I’m not happy. I want to go next year and win five more. It never gets old. I think that’s why Jimmie is so good. He wants it.”
No doubt, so does Jeb Burton. Give the new kids credit -- they certainly know how to learn from the best. Which one day, they may use to try and unseat them.