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Amid youth movement, the old guys still rule

NASCAR.com

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Maybe they should be racing minivans.

It might be more appropriate, given the stage of life in which the final three contenders for this Sprint Cup Series championship find themselves -- smack in the midst of middle age, with young children toddling around their feet, perhaps a few gray hairs springing from their temples. Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick have become as comfortable around crib assembly instructions as they are around race cars. Their firesuits might as well have pleats.

It all adds an unusual dynamic to this season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, where Kenseth and Harvick will make last-gasp attempts at trying to prevent Johnson from winning his sixth career title at the sport's highest level. There's been zero sniping between the three, no attempts at getting inside one another's heads, nary a whit of animosity or gamesmanship between the last drivers standing in this Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. The contenders' press conference that kicked off the weekend could have been mistaken for three guys grabbing a beer at Applebee's after dropping off their kids at soccer practice.

All of it, mind you, while vying for the highest prize in NASCAR, and at a time when the sport is in the early stages of a youth movement that could prove the most transformative it's witnessed in decades. We saw it Friday night, when 19-year-old Ryan Blaney and 21-year-old Jeb Burton both banged off the wall and rebounded to claim top-five finishes in the Camping World Truck Series finale. We saw it Saturday, when 23-year-old Austin Dillon claimed the Nationwide Series championship. And we'll see it next season, when Dillon and 21-year-old Kyle Larson make the move to NASCAR's top circuit.

Plenty of others -- Darrell Wallace Jr., Corey Lajoie, Chase Elliott, Parker Kligerman, Ryan Reed, Ty Dillon, Erik Jones, and many more -- are waiting in line for their shot to climb the ladder, this at a time when veterans like Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte and Dave Blaney are facing uncertain futures or transitioning out of the race car altogether. One of the best crop of young drivers in NASCAR history is coming up fast, all of them surely hoping to follow in the tire marks of Brad Keselowski, who claimed the sport's biggest championship a year ago this week at age 28.

But not yet, kids. If this NASCAR season has taught us anything, it's that men of a certain age are not only capable of competing at an elite level, but that they also can even get better with age. This was a year when the old guys still ruled.

Old in a relative sense, of course, but still veritable geezers compared to the kids coming up behind, or even the athletes in other sports who are often contemplating retirement when they reach the same age as Johnson or Kenseth. In the Truck Series, 37-year-old first-time champion Matt Crafton was the picture of consistency on a tour where both young and old can find themselves in the wall in the competitive series. In Nationwide, 34-year-old Sam Hornish Jr. enjoyed his best NASCAR season in battling Austin Dillon down to the final race. And the Sprint Cup title came down to three men -- Johnson (38), Kenseth (41) and Harvick (37) -- who are certainly closer to the ends of their careers than the beginning.

The sight of three middle-aged dads slugging it out for the title may become more of a rarity as the sport continues to get younger, and prodigies like Larson and Ryan Blaney continue to take it by storm. But this season harkens back to an earlier era, when the likes of Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte and Bobby Allison wheeled it at a high level well into their fourth or fifth decades, and a driver hadn't really hit his competitive peak until he began sporting a few flecks of gray.

"I'm thinking of Junior Johnson, something I saw on television, where he didn't win until he was in his 30s," Johnson said. "Generations before us, Terry, Dale Sr., most of them were older champions. There's really something for experience in our sport. It really makes a big difference. Youth is important. Jeff Gordon won at a young age. We need that in our sport, it's very important. But championships are so hard to get. I think all of us, and I remember saying it myself getting started, I would trade my age for experience any day. There's so much you learn over the course of a career, a decade in the sport now. So much better as a competitor. We're able to prolong our careers more than stick?and?ball sports. Mentally, (we're) getting into a strong period of time. That's probably the biggest thing."

Kenseth is emblematic of all this, a driver who's enjoying his best season ever at age 41. No question, a change of scenery helped -- he's flourished in his first year with Joe Gibbs Racing and crew chief Jason Ratcliff, emerging as a serious title contender for the first time since 2006. Although his 23rd-place run last week at Phoenix seriously jeopardized his title hopes, Kenseth still set a personal record with a series-best seven race victories this year.

"It's probably the best I've felt physically and mentally and emotionally in probably as many years as I can remember. It's probably as confident as I've ever felt," he said. "... I don't feel like I've slowed down. I feel like in this sport there's a lot of things, I think, youth brings to the sport. I think you're really fast and you do all that stuff, but I think that experience still matters a lot here when it comes to finishing 500?mile races and racing for championships and doing all those things, because it does take a while to learn, and the only way to learn is to make mistakes. And everybody is so competitive over here that when you make mistakes, it's not real forgiving."

That often comes across live and in color during Truck and Nationwide events as young drivers try -- unsuccessfully, at times -- to find the balance between patience and speed. Their progression through the ranks is certainly aided by vehicles that often are as good as or better than any others in their respective garage areas, something evident a week ago Phoenix when Jones won the Truck Series event in a Kyle Busch Motorsports chassis that had prevailed five previous times that season, including with Wallace at Martinsville.

"All I got to say is, how old is that guy who's won five championships in the Cup Series?" said Crafton, referring to Johnson. "Honestly, I get tired of hearing it. The young guys are in great equipment. At the end of the day, that's all it is. You put some of the mid-30s, early 40s race car drivers in that good equipment, they're going to haul ass, too. I'm not taking anything away from some of the younger guys that are racing, but it's just one of those deals. Yes, I understand they're good. But it doesn't mean you're not good if you're not (that age)."

Clearly not, as Crafton's championship and this season's Sprint Cup title race have shown.

"Experience helps you here. There is no question," Jeff Burton said. "It's good to see who is battling. Don't get me wrong, I believe in the cycle of things. I believe that we always need to have young drivers coming and pushing the older drivers out. I mean, I'm a 46-year-old driver saying that, but we need it. Our sport needs that, but at the same time it's good that we have (three) veteran drivers battling it out, because it is a sport that if you have passion and you have desire and you have the right situation, you can have success well into your 40s."

Which Johnson, perhaps positioning himself to one day eclipse the record of seven championships now shared by Earnhardt and Richard Petty, may very well do. In the meantime, there's the matter of deciding Sunday's title, which Johnson can clinch by finishing 23rd or better, regardless of what Kenseth and Harvick do. Gentlemen, start your minivans!

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