Race Weekend Central

We Are Young

Call it a fountain of youth….

NASCAR’s recent resurgence has come about for a number of reasons. The low downforce aerodynamic package turned dull into dynamic. Goodyear’s new tire puts drivers back in the hot seat as grip erodes into slip. Even the much-maligned Chase for the Championship with its “win-and-in”, elimination-based postseason breathed new life into the sport.

And now, it’s the kids’ turn.

It’s no exaggeration; the current crop of Sprint Cup rookies is perhaps the best class we’ve seen in the sport’s nearly-70 year history. While drivers like Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, and Chris Buescher get constant attention for being true NSCS “freshmen”, other young guns with more Cup experience like Kyle Larson, Landon Cassill, Matt DiBenedetto, and Trevor Bayne are turning heads and getting noticed for abundant talent beyond their years.

Sunday afternoon at Dover was merely another example of what we’ve seen coming in NASCAR.

Call it a youth movement.

And these youth sure can move. Victory Lane in the Sprint Cup Series might feel like uncharted territory to most of these bright-and-shiny kids, but it won’t stay that way for long. Trevor Bayne scored a storybook win at the Daytona 500 in 2011 at the ripe new age of twenty, and we all saw what Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott nearly did in Delaware last weekend.

It’s a world inhabited by the young, and that goes for somber ol’ NASCAR, too….

Look beyond the Cup Series and you’ll see all kinds of young talent perched on the edge of greatness. Erik Jones is the most recent (and most visible) youngster on the NASCAR horizon, but there’s a long line of future winners and champions forming right behind him.

Consider the weekend 23-year old Alex Bowman enjoyed at Dover. After losing his Cup ride with Tommy Baldwin Racing and going more than six months without a start, Bowman climbed behind the wheel of a JR Motorsports Camaro and finished third in last Saturday’s XFINITY race.

With youth comes resilience.

While this wave of young talent is impressive to watch, it brings an air of melancholy to my all-too-fast-approaching “golden” years. According to survey results published just two weeks ago by Marist College, “middle age” is now defined by reaching the age of 65, whereas previous data put the classification back at the somewhat-youthful age of 45. Recent research compiled in the United Kingdom found that 74 is now the point in life when someone achieves “old” age.

And still the talent wheeling around NASCAR tracks continues to trend ever younger. Many of the students I teach at my college are years older than Masters Elliott. Blaney, and Larson, even as student enrollment numbers trend lower each semester.

But is youth not contagious? Can we not learn to celebrate the accomplishments of life in the same way that Kyle Larson reveled in his runner-up performance at Dover? Should we not take a page or two from the boyish instruction manual of Erik Jones?

Isn’t NASCAR’s current “youth movement” good for all of NASCAR Nation?

The positive energy surrounding NASCAR’s emerging corps of Millennials reminds me of what my college advisor articulated to me at the beginning of my sophomore year. He asked me what my future plans were, and I told him I hoped to become a college professor. I explained how I wanted to live a life devoted to writing, reading, teaching, and continuous study of my chosen field.

Little did I guess that said “chosen field” would be motorsports.

Dr. Gregory grinned, nodded, and responded to my statement of intent. His first words to me were: “It’s a fountain of youth.”

My advisor told me that being a college professor kept him young despite being more than seventy years of age. “I should have been dead years ago,” he said, “I smoke too much and drink too much, but, up here (he pointed to his brain), I’m 18 years old. I know how young people think, I know what they value, and I know what inspires them. Being around young people every day is a fountain of youth.”

And Dr. Gregory was right. While I’m not ancient, I am at the age where most of my students are three decades (or more) behind me. As I think about the aches and pains of my life, they think about the exciting potential for theirs. I learn from these young people just as much as they learn from me.

Which is why NASCAR Nation is beginning to enjoy such a resurgence. It’s not just the new cars, the new rules, and the improved competition – it’s the brighter future, as well. The fountain of youth in our sport runs deep.

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