Strong Youth Performance in Cup Shows NASCAR is in Good Handsby Kyle Pokrefky March 15, 2016 0 comments
After nearly a decade of the Sprint Cup Series being dominated by drivers that are now veterans, NASCAR’s youth is finally starting to come into their own in the series.
For a sport that needed some new star power, their presence at the front of the field is a sight for sore eyes.
With the old guard of Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards (among others) finding themselves being the ones contending for a majority of wins and championships, it’s refreshing to see a new batch of drivers have success. While the newbies haven’t found victory lane yet, their runs through four races this year show some promise for the remainder of the season.
The early-to-mid-2000s provided some strong rookie classes with Johnson, Edwards, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr. making their debuts during this time; however, the late-2000s output of rookies grew to become relatively bare.
Since the turn of the decade, the only young driver that’s really shown any sort of strength right of the bat has been Kyle Larson. Given that, even Larson remains winless three years into his Cup career.
Through the early going of the season, a new crop of fresh faces has shown signs of life with rookies Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney putting in stellar runs as well as third and fourth-year drivers Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finding themselves up front more often.
Dillon, who competed in the same rookie class as Larson, is finally living up to the hype he had entering the Cup Series, having done so as a past Camping World Truck and XFINITY Series champion.
Through four races this year, the driver of the No. 3 Chevrolet already has three top-10s to his credit. In comparison to his two previous years in Cup, Dillon’s best-ever season for top-10s came last year when he scored five top-10s in 36 races.
Stenhouse Jr. entered Sprint Cup in 2013 as the two-time defending XFINITY Series champion yet wasn’t able to make the adjustment to Cup with much success. Roush Fenway Racing’s later struggles also didn’t help Stenhouse Jr., but with the new aero package the team at least appears to be somewhat on the mend.
Even with a crash midway through Sunday’s race at Phoenix, Stenhouse Jr. currently holds an average finish of 20.2 that is second only to his rookie year’s stat of 18.9. Stenhouse Jr. is also currently on pace to obliterate his previous average start record of 18.3 with a current figure of 12.5.
As for this year’s rookie class, Elliott and Blaney have already proven themselves capable of turning in top-10 finishes – something both drivers did Sunday.
Of course, Elliott and Blaney respectively driving Hendrick and Penske equipment helps their cases, but both drivers have showcased a sense of maturity on the track. Through a race, both rookies have tended to hang around the front all day instead of having top-10s fall into their lap through attrition or through strategy calls.
We also can’t forget about Joey Logano, who’s already a Daytona 500 champion and a proven championship contender at only 25 years of age. While Logano’s ascension to Cup stardom took several years, he’s now at the level many expected him to hit just after his debut in 2009.
Logano’s Penske teammate, Brad Keselowski, also jumped to Cup at the turn of the decade and is already a Sprint Cup champion. At 31 years of age, Keselowski could be viewed as the elder statesmen of sorts for the Cup Series’s newest crop of drivers, yet with Cup drivers making their debuts at younger ages (closer to 20 rather than 25 now), Keselowski could also be viewed as a member of the old guard.
Looking to the future, a wave of talented young drivers is due to make the jump to Cup soon with drivers Cole Custer, Ty Dillon, Daniel Hemric, Erik Jones, John Hunter Nemechek, Tyler Reddick, Daniel Suarez and Darrell Wallace Jr. waiting in the wings, among others.
If these drivers are able to achieve what the new faces in Cup are currently doing, the future identity of the series will be just fine.
The Cup Series needed a bit of a shakeup in terms of faces at the front of the field, and finally it appears that it’s getting it.
Photo Credit: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images