Six years ago, Hendrick Motorsports sported a driver lineup of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne for the 2015 NASCAR Cup Series season.
The team fared admirably, with nine wins (five of which belonged to a certain eventual seven-time champion), one of the most memorable victories in the gold-standard organization’s history (“We’re goin’ to Homestead!”) and with it a Championship 4 appearance.
The writing, however, was very much on the wall. The youth movement was coming — and in a hurry.
All four drivers were in their age-35 season or later, teenage phenom Chase Elliott was fresh off the 2014 Xfinity Series title and while the wins were there, Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske were putting some serious pressure on the most victorious franchise in the sport’s history.
Team owner Rick Hendrick spent the next half-decade re-tooling his team roster, with Elliott taking over Gordon’s No. 24 (now in the No. 9), Alex Bowman making his way into the No. 88 (now the No. 48), Byron hopping in the 24 after Elliott slid over to claim his father Bill’s old number and Kyle Larson joining the fray this year after Johnson stepped away from his full-time NASCAR duties.
Average Hendrick driver age in 2015: 39.25.
Average Hendrick driver age in 2021: 26.0.
Unquestionably the team to beat in 2021 having won 10 of the season’s 21 races, the reshuffling has worked. So why bring this up now?
Well, Hendrick isn’t the only organization susceptible to its drivers eventually aging out of competitiveness, and it might’ve provided the blueprint for how to make the transition to younger talent with a lineup potentially penciled in for the next decade.
The Ford-aligned Team Penske and Wood Brothers Racing shook up NASCAR Silly Season in a big way Thursday morning, announcing that 22-year-old Austin Cindric and 20-year-old Harrison Burton would be making the move up to Cup to pilot the Nos. 2 and 21 Mustangs, effectively replacing Brad Keselowski (37 years old) and Matt DiBenedetto (will be 30 on July 27), respectively. The pair will join team veterans in 2017 champ Joey Logano (31) and a winner for both organizations in Ryan Blaney (27).
“I don’t know whether we necessarily looked at Hendrick and said, ‘oh, let’s copy that,’ but certainly, yes, that is in some ways what they did, two, three, four years ago where they reset a driver lineup with a younger lineup and brought them up together,” said Mark Rushbrook, Global Director at Ford Performance. “It’s clearly, with other things, worked well for them. I definitely like the model with teamwork potential between Harrison and Austin to be able to lean on Joey and Ryan and that combination to have great performance across all four cars.”
Penske/Wood Brothers had their collective hands forced, to a degree, with Keselowski angling for an ownership stake at his current home.
“He wanted to have ownership and the way we’re structured, that wasn’t available,” said Penske after Thursday’s news broke. The two sides were unable to come to an agreement for beyond 2021, making the 2012 champ a free agent at the end of the year and clearing the path for a possible move to Roush Fenway Racing in a driver/ownership role.
Last fall, the teams announced Cindric would replace DiBenedetto in the No. 21. With Keselowski’s departure, the door remained open for the team to potentially retain DiBenedetto, but it chose to notify him roughly two weeks before his Aug. 1 contract deadline that it would be going in a different, younger direction with Burton. The No. 21 team is winless since 2017 and, while he’s hit his marks a few times this year, DiBenedetto is averaging a finish of 18.2 after a career-best 14.8 last year.
In addition to underwhelming performance out of the 21 car, NASCAR itself is about to enter a new frontier. As a new era of stock car auto racing is ushered in next season with the dawn of the Next Gen vehicle, the Wood Brothers saw that as a clean slate for all drivers in the series, regardless of tenure.
Thus, the perfect time to start anew and build for the future.
“Keep in mind, the Next Gen car is coming. That’s a white sheet of paper so far as drivers. White sheet of paper for everybody, but drivers in particular,” said team president and co-owner Eddie Wood. “So we felt that that’s a good time to bring in a young rookie. So, we made this decision to try to figure out what we wanted to do. We could bring a young rookie in to team up with Austin, obviously now going into the 2, and those two guys could work together and develop themselves into great race car drivers. Being rookies, they’re both on the same level and this new car, like I said, it’s a white sheet of paper that even if you’re a 20-year-veteran, you’re really not going to have a lot on a rookie. Everybody is kind of starting in the same place.”
With plenty of Silly Season shoes to drop before the end of the year and the ’22 Next Gen debut, it’s clear the Penske coalition is forward-focused and has a four-driver lineup (Wood Brothers has a technical alliance with Penske) set to contend for a decade-plus. One has to wonder if other organizations will follow suit at some point — Joe Gibbs Racing’s four drivers hold an average age of 35.75, for what it’s worth — or if premier-series experience still holds the value it once did.
One thing we do know?
The future isn’t coming. It’s already here.