DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It’s indisputable that the look of NASCAR has changed over the last few seasons as star drivers who accounted for over 200 wins and eight championships have departed the sport over the past three seasons.
The competitive balance? Well, it hasn’t changed nearly as much.
NASCAR’s youth movement is the sport’s biggest storyline heading into Sunday’s Daytona 500. But it’s going to take some time for those young drivers to supplant the drivers at the top of the Cup Series heap. Eight of the 10 drivers who have made it to the final four at Homestead in the first four years of NASCAR’s playoff format are still active in the sport. And seven of those eight drivers can be considered serious favorites to make it to Homestead again in 2018.
“I think there’s a push for those guys but anytime I look at who am I going to have to beat for a championship it’s the guys that have been racing five-plus years for the most part,” Denny Hamlin told Yahoo Sports. “Crazier things have happened and those young guys are going to win races and they’re going to be a threat in the playoffs, but you look at the final four last year and it was veteran-filled. So I think the focus and favorites for this thing lies with the guys with quite a bit of experience.”
Hamlin’s one of those seven drivers. He was all set to make the final four for a second time in the waning laps of 2017 before his car was bumped into the wall by Chase Elliott in apparent retaliation for what happened between the two at Martinsville two weeks prior.
The two had been racing for the lead at Martinsville when Hamlin tried to bump Elliott out of the way heading into the corner. He screwed it up and ended up piledriving Elliott’s car into the wall.
Their conflict was the epitome of NASCAR’s generational battle. Elliott’s part of the new crew along with teammates William Byron and Alex Bowman and Hamlin’s teammates Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez. Hamlin, 37, is entering his 14th season in NASCAR’s top level and is one of just five drivers still active in the series who won a race in 2006.
At 27, Joey Logano is still young enough to be considered a “young driver” in the sport. After all, Austin Dillon is frequently mentioned as an up-and-coming driver and he’s a month older than Logano. But Dillon is entering his fifth full season in the Cup Series (and got his first win a year ago) while Logano is a relatively old man entering his 10th season of full-time competition at NASCAR’s top level.
Logano missed the playoffs a year ago because of an inspection violation following his win at Richmond. But he’s been in the final round of the playoffs twice and is the youngest driver of the eight who have made the final round.
“The younger guys under 25, they haven’t been through that yet. I’ve got more wins than all of them combined at 27,” Logano said with a chuckle to Yahoo Sports. “So that’s a unique spot and I like that.”
The average age of the final four drivers (champion Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski) a year ago was 36 and it’s been over 30 in each of those four years. Logano is the only driver who has made the final round of the playoffs under 30; Busch was 30 when he won his championship in 2015.
And while 30 may be the start of the downhill slide of an athlete’s career in any other sport, it’s still early in NASCAR despite the influx of younger drivers at the sport’s top level. Evidence suggests a driver’s peak is in his late 30s, meaning guys like Busch (32) and Brad Keselowski (33) are not only the youngest active Cup Series champions, they’ve got a lot of career left ahead of them too.
Oh yeah, they’re pretty big rivals too. That’s a point that can’t get lost as the sport pushes drivers who have fewer wins than the two stars have championships. Busch and Keselowski have the chance to have the greatest rivalry in the sport since Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt if they keep racing each other for wins over the next decade.
In January, Busch used words like “bothersome” and “stupid” regarding NASCAR’s increased emphasis of younger drivers. He said this week that he wouldn’t have made some of the comments he did had he known he was set to be part of an upcoming NASCAR promotional shoot at the time.
His original sentiment was understandable, even if it was overstated. NASCAR’s explanations for its push of younger drivers make sense especially in the prism of long-term strategy. But it’s undeniable that the focus and theme of 2018 don’t correspond to those who will likely have the most success on the track in the short term.
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