Yes, there was quite a stir in New Hampshire this past weekend. Hopes were raised and dashed for the 16 Chase contenders. Nerves were stretched taut and the odds makers in Vegas had heart attacks with every car that went sailing off into the wall.
However, this weekend wasn’t all about Joey Logano hoisting a massive lobstah over his head. There was a veritable tidal wave of youth in NASCAR banging down the doors in all three national series. We’ve seen it coming for a while, but with Kyle Larson running an incredible race last week–bringing home a 3rd place finish in Chicagoland–then backing it up with a very solid 2nd place run at New Hampshire, it’s got everybody talking about the new generation of NASCAR drivers. And well it should.
What’s even better, the No. 42 Target Ganassi machine may just be the tip of the ice berg. What? How can that be? Why only a couple years ago we were laughing at the purported rookie classes in the Cup series and how no matter how hard we tried, there was no young talent to be had. Where did all these young drivers come from, and wait…who are they?
Believe it or not, something NASCAR has done has actually reaped the rewards it intended. It took a while, but all good things… In 2006 NASCAR realigned its developmental series–what used to be called the Busch North Series and the Winston West Series. Both series were well respected within their own regions, but they catered more to the shade tree mechanics, race teams run out of local garages and traveled in beat up trailers to truly local events. As a driver, if you were noticed by a Charlotte team in one of the little races, it was through sheer luck. You probably didn’t have the time and money to set up the kind of promotion machine needed to garner national attention. Thus, the lone names that climbed out of the series were few and far between–like Steve Park and Ricky Craven.
NASCAR expanded both series calling them originally the Camping World East and Camping World West. Both included teams from almost half the country and ultimately, tended to draw in the pockets and efforts of Cup teams for support. Their circuits encompassed a larger portion of the country and appeared at tracks well known by the larger racing community.
At the time I bemoaned the loss of the local racing–as many of the old teams simply couldn’t afford to drive to Tennessee or Iowa in order to compete. However, as time has passed it is clear that the Cup dollars actually helped to build a stronger platform for NASCAR over time. We now have Cup rookies like Larson and Dillon, Nationwide stars Chris Buescher, Chase Elliot, Dylan Kwasniewski, Gray Gaulding and yes, down in the truck garage we’ve discovered Cole Custer–Saturday’s 16 year old winner of the UNOH 175.
All of these young men have risen through the ranks of the now K&N Pro East/West series and are backed by strong teams. Where it used to take a driver until they were age 30 to find the spotlight of NASCAR, the “Little League” system is now lining up teenagers to sign the big-time contracts. Sort of like the tried and true recruiting efforts that the MLB and NFL have designed over time. Below the K&N series, we even have the Legends and Bandolero series designed for getting kids into the cockpit well before they could ever dream of handling a full-sized race car.
Through these efforts NASCAR has created a pool of young, eager talent ready to step up into the big time. Which can only appeal to sponsors who like to see a sure fire return on their marketing dollar–nobody is going to back John Smith from Nowhere USA if you’ve never heard of them before. By the time Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon arrived in the Spring Cup Series, they had been spotlighted on enough auto racing media over several years to already be household names, making them a strong investment opportunity for not only sponsors, but also their racing teams. We should expect the same kind of grooming for the new class of youngsters.
All of this results in one thing–a deep well of talent ready for the sport to dip into whenever it is needed. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle and other aging racers won’t be driving forever. One day they will vacate their rides, and it’s important to NASCAR as a business, and to my Sunday afternoon’s enjoyment, that we have an able crew of youth equipped to rise up to the challenge.
Sometimes NASCAR does get it right. Sometimes…
2014 Sonya Strictly by the Stats
Top Three Rookies for 2014 Sylvania 300
1.) No. 42 Kyle Larson Started 10th Finished 2nd (1st in RoTY standings)
2.) No. 3 Austin Dillon Started 22nd Finished 11th (2nd in RoTY standings)
3.)No. 51 Justin Allgaier Started 24th Finished 20th (3rd in RoTY standings)
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