Friday 5: NASCAR season proves to be a celebration of youth

Dustin Long
·9 min read

NASCAR’s championship weekend at Phoenix Raceway wasn’t only a celebration of the end of the season.

It was a celebration of youth.

Not since the Truck Series joined the Cup and Xfinity Series in 1995 as one of NASCAR’s top three divisions has the average age of each series champion in a season been so young.

Cup champion Chase Elliott is 24 years old. Truck champion Sheldon Creed is 23. Xfinity champion Austin Cindric is 22.

MORE: Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson share a moment in time

This is the fourth time in the last six years that the average age of the Cup, Xfinity and Truck champions was 26 years or younger.

In the 20 years before, only twice was the average age of the Cup, Xfinity and Truck champions 26 years or younger.

This is another sign of the sport’s shift with a new breed of drivers making an impact. The past five years saw Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. among others leave the Cup Series.

 

The change is continuing. Jimmie Johnson will not be back at Hendrick Motorsports. Alex Bowman, who is 27 years old, will take over Johnson’s ride and 28-year-old Kyle Larson joins the organization.

Matt Kenseth will not be back at Chip Ganassi Racing after this season, replaced by 27-year-old Ross Chastain.

Clint Bowyer will move from Stewart-Haas Racing to the Fox Sports booth. Chase Briscoe, 25, will take over that ride next year.

Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin selected 27-year-old Bubba Wallace to be the driver for 23XI Racing, which debuts in 2021. Justin Marks hired 28-year-old Daniel Suarez to be the driver for Trackhouse Racing Team, which debuts in 2021.

The move to young drivers also comes as teams look at costs in these challenging times. Younger drivers typically don’t command as big a salary as successful veteran drivers. Even so, that shouldn’t diminish the talent that the next generation displays.

This shift – as one generation ages and another generation replaces it – has made an impact throughout the sport. Some discussion before the Truck season finale was how aggressive the racing had been in that series, but 21-year-old Zane Smith, the rookie of the year in the series, said there’s a reason for it.

“There’s a lot at stake,” he said. “There’s a big movement in the sport right now on the Cup side; people that are going to be retiring soon. Those seats have got to refill.”

More change is coming.

Cindric will join the Wood Brothers in 2022. Xfinity drivers Justin Haley, Noah Gragson and Harrison Burton could be in contention for Cup rides after next season.

Each move creates a trickle-down effect for other young drivers.

Hailie Deegan, 19, moves up in the Ford development program to the Truck Series next season.

JR Motorsports will have Sam Mayer join the Xfinity team next summer after he turns 18 in June. He won the Truck race at Bristol, five of 13 ARCA races, five of six ARCA Menards East races and one of two ARCA Menards West races this season. Mayer is a part of Chevrolet’s Drivers Edge Program.

“I’m very excited about what I saw with the drivers that are in that program, and there will be some other ones coming along, as well,” Jim Campbell, U.S. vice president of performance and motorsports for Chevrolet.

“In addition, if you think about it, the transition from kind of veteran championship drivers has been happening at Chevy for a number of years. … Along the way, we have picked up so many amazing young drivers. Every year, they get more experience, more mature, more reps at these tracks, and are really coming together not only as drivers, but then as teams. So I am really optimistic.”

A sign of how young the sport is becoming is taking place at Hendrick Motorsports.

Larson will be the oldest driver there next year at 28.

“I’m happy that there’s somebody older than me still,” Bowman joked after Larson’s hiring. “I don’t have to be the old guy on campus.”

Championship crew chief Alan Gustafson warns about putting all young drivers in the same category as Elliott.

“Chase is not a normal 24‑year‑old person, that’s for sure,” Gustafson said. “He’s got the physical attributes and skill sets of a 24‑year‑old, but he’s got the intelligence and the experience of someone much older and wiser, so he acts like he’s a 35‑year‑old in his prime.

“He’s very similar to the great champions I’ve worked with before, and he’s going to be every bit as good or better.”

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2. What a year

Since 2006, only Kyle Busch and Ross Chastain have competed in more NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Truck races in a season than what Timmy Hill did this year.

Hill ran 75 races across the three national series this season. He ran 36 Cup races, 29 Xfinity races and 10 Truck races.

Here’s a look at those who have competed in the most races in a season since 2006:

Season

Driver

Trucks

Xfinity

Cup

Total

2009

Kyle Busch

15

35

36

86

2008

Kyle Busch

18

30

36

84

2010

Kyle Busch

16

29

36

81

2006

Kyle Busch

7

34

36

77

2019

Ross Chastain

23

19

35

77

2020

Timmy Hill

10

29

36

75

2010

Brad Keselowski

4

35

36

75

2006

Clint Bowyer

3

35

36

74

2018

Ross Chastain

7

33

34

74

Of course, that doesn’t include the iRacing events when the season was paused. Hill ran near the front in most of those races and had a memorable win at virtual Texas Motor Speedway, after he used a bump-and-run late to take the lead from William Byron.

On the track, his best finish of 2020 was a third-place finish in the season-opening Daytona Xfinity race.

Over the last three years, Chastain and Hill are the only drivers to run more than 55 Cup, Xfinity and Truck races in a season. Next on the list over the past three seasons is J.J. Yeley (53 races in 2018), Hill (53 races in 2018), and Landon Cassill (53 races in 2019). Brett Moffitt ran 52 races in 2020.

3. Looking ahead

No one can predict what conditions will be like a few months from now in a COVID-19 world, but that’s the task NASCAR faces as it prepares for next season.

There are numerous questions. A key concern is the return of more fans and teams being allowed to entertain sponsors at the track.

“It’s important to get our sponsors back at the track,” car owner Rick Hendrick said. “We do understand that at least we’re able to race and finish the season. Hopefully, they’ll get a vaccine and we can do some things that can try to get some of those folks back.

“We love to see the fans also, but the sponsors … without them, we can’t do this. They’ve been really great to stick with us and try to be the best that they can.”

Said car owner Joe Gibbs: “The experience that a fan can have at a race is totally different than other sports in that they can come in, they have a chance to get an autograph from somebody, they see things up close, they can get on the starting grid, they can be in hospitality and have questions and answers, get pictures taken with the driver and us as owners. It’s a huge deal for us.

“We need to get back to where we can get our fans back to the racetrack and our sponsors.”

NASCAR President Steve Phelps said that fans and sponsors are key to getting back to the track when it’s possible.

“We need to make sure that the fan experience continues to improve,” he said. “When they come back, we need to give them a reason. They have great racing, but you have great racing on television, right? We need to have a great fan experience that is going to look different, almost certainly, than it did before.

“It’s incumbent upon us, our racetracks, to make sure they’re getting that fan experience. We’ll have to do that with our race teams, our drivers. It needs to be about access, right? If it’s not going to be physical access, what are the things we can do that create something unique and different for a fan at the facility?”

4. 2021 Daytona 500

Although the Super Bowl is about three months away, a key question is could that event impact the Daytona 500, which is scheduled for Feb. 14.

The season-opening Cup race is scheduled a week after the Super Bowl. With coronavirus cases increasing throughout the country, a key question is if the pandemic could force the NFL to pause its season or playoffs and force the league to move the Super Bowl back. If the Super Bowl moved back a week, what would happen to the Daytona 500?

NASCAR President Steve Phelps was asked about such a scenario in his state of the sport address last weekend at Phoenix.

“The NFL, they’re trying to get their season in,” Phelps said. “Thus far, they’ve done a good job of having the majority of their football games take place. But I think at this particular point, I don’t want to speculate what would happen with the 500 if the NFL were to put the Super Bowl on February 14th. We’ll react to that at that particular time. Obviously, we’ll make sure our friends at FOX are aligned with the decision that we make.”

5. Odds and ends

A few notes from this past season:

Four organizations won 34 of the 36 Cup races (94%) in 2020: Stewart-Haas Racing won 10 races, Joe Gibbs Racing won nine races, Team Penske won eight races and Hendrick Motorsports won seven races.

Kevin Harvick‘s nine wins were the second most in a season by a driver 44 years old. Lee Petty had 11 wins in 1959.

The driver who won stage 1 went on to win a Cup race six times. The winner of stage 2 went on to win the race 11 times.

The driver who led the most laps won 21 races in 2020.

Denny Hamlin had a 2.25 average finish in the four speedway races at Daytona and Talladega.

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Friday 5: NASCAR season proves to be a celebration of youth originally appeared on NBCSports.com