Youth is being served in NASCAR.
To say the motorsports’ Silly Season has been extra silly this year would be an understatement. Thus far, we have seen two former champions and an 18-race winner have been told to hit the bricks in 2018.
Matt Kenseth, the 2003 Winston Cup champion, will be replaced by 21-year-old Erik Jones. Kasey Kahne, the 18-race winner, is out at Hendrick Motor Sports in favor of 19-year-old William Byron. This week’s Kahne/Byron announcement come on the heels of the announcement of Alex Bowman (downright old at 24) replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88. Hendrick will turn over half of his lineup next year. Byron and Alex join 21-year-old Chase Elliott and the ancient Jimmie Johnson.
Stewart-Haas Racing is still up in the air about what it is going to do with the seat currently held by 2004 champion Kurt Busch. It is possible Busch could be back in the car next year with a new contract. SHR says he will be back, but recent comments from Busch says he has other options. The team may also dump the 35-year-old Danica Patrick amid her sponsorship woes. If Busch and Patrick exit SHR, don’t be surprised if you see Cole Custer filling one of those seats.
I hold on to my theory that NASCAR teams are looking for the next Jeff Gordon. Gordon was 21 when Hendrick put him in the No. 24. He repaid Hendrick by winning four championships in his first nine seasons (all before his 31st birthday). To put that into perspective, Dale Earnhardt did not run his first full season in Winston Cup until 1980, the year he turned 29 (he also won the championship that year). The year before, he ran 27 of 31 events. Prior to 1979, he only had nine Cup starts. Before Gordon, drivers didn’t get top-notch rides at that age. They had to prove their mettle in sub-par rides or in the Xfinity Series or trucks for a few years before moving into something that could win races. This paradigm wasn’t that long ago.
I liken this to NFL quarterbacks. The paradigm used to be your rookies would sit behind a veteran for a couple years to learn the system, get their shots in garbage time before moving into the starting role. Sure, there are exceptions (see Manning, Payton), but even Aaron Rodgers sat behind Brett Favre for three years before getting his shot. Now they are thrust into the lineup and have the trial by fire. Some burnout (see Russell, Jamarcus and Leaf, Ryan) and other have immense success (see Wilson, Russell and Prescott, Dak).
The same goes for NASCAR drivers. For every Kyle Larson, there is a Casey Atwood (thanks to my friend Chris Owens for that reminder). Atwood had a handful of starts for Ray Evernham as a 19-year old in 2000, then ran full seasons (missing a race each year). He came to Cup with two Xfinity wins when he was 18-year old. Since 2001, he has run a grand total of two Cup races. Even though this goes against my Gordon theory, let’s not forget that Kenseth’s rookie year was the year he turned 28. Jamie McMurray was 26 and Jimmie Johnson turned 27 during his rookie year.
Earnhardt Jr. had an interesting perspective on the current youth movement last week: it’s about money. His basic thought is that Kenseth, Kahne and he are being replaced by young, relatively inexperienced drivers is they are cheap. But they are landing good rides not just because the owners are being cheap; it’s a matter of the new economics of NASCAR. He says, up this point, driver contracts haven’t matched the downturn in the amount of money sponsors are putting in the sport. Drives are now making an amount disproportionate to the rest of the money in NASCAR.
Where are this leaves Kenseth, Kahne and Busch is yet to be seen, but there aren’t many quality charters left out there. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Kenseth (the oldest in the bunch) the main victim in this youth movement without a ride next year. I’m also not sure all the dominos have fallen yet and if we’ll see these veterans find homes or more youth being served.
Andy Cagle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.