The Frontstretch: NASCAR Has 21 Reasons to Up Minimum Age by Amy Henderson -- Friday January 18, 2008

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NASCAR Has 21 Reasons to Up Minimum Age

Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday January 18, 2008


Word on the street is that NASCAR is toying with the idea of changing the minimum age for racing in the Sprint Cup Series from 18 to 21. Already there has been a negative reactions from race fans as it impacts a few teams' development drivers, namely Joe Gibbs Racing's phenom Joey Logano. Logano, 17, would not be eligible to race in the Cup series until mid-2011, a year and a half behind schedule, and the rule would throw a speedbump at Rookie of the Year honors as Logano would not be able to compete until after his birthday, May 24.

Race fans have flooded message boards with reasons why this is a terrible idea. They cite everything from drivers beginning racing at a younger age to the "it's just a way to stick it to teams" excuse. Frankly, I just don't get their reaction.

This is a great idea. And one that has the opportunity to save an ailing series, to boot.

In fact, I'd like to see NASCAR take it one step further and institute a rule for rookies coming in over the age of 21: at least one full season in the Nationwide Series before being considered for a Cup license.

Why? There are a myriad of reasons why drivers should wait. While it is true that many racers begin racing something when they are five years old, most of their experience is not-cannot be-in a full-bodied stock car. Even in states where drivers can get waivers to race young, it is rare indeed for anyone to get in a late model asphalt race car before the age of 16. Even Kyle Busch, whose parents furnished a falsified birth certificate to allow him to race, did not start in late models until he was fifteen. That means a driver can be in a Cup car within two years of sitting in a full-size stock car. That's like going from Pop Warner to the NFL.

Sure, Busch was able to do it. So were Reed Sorenson and Brian Vickers-sort of. Vickers wrecked his teammate to back his way into a win in 2006, and Sorenson has yet to seriously contend for a visit to victory lane. Vickers left Hendrick Motorsports of his own free will, but has not found nearly the success he had hoped for. You have to wonder how long, in this corporate age of racing, their sponsors are going to put up with their lackluster performance.

By bringing up young drivers, fast and talented though they may be, with very little experience in NASCAR, near the top level, owners could be setting these young racers up for failure. If they don't perform, it is a very real possibility that a sponsor will demand a change behind the wheel. Some guys bounce back from that, others do not. Ask Casey Atwood.

Atwood was a talented young man when Ray Evernham picked him to pilot a Dodge for his fledgling team. He even almost won a race. But Dodge ran out of patience after just one year. Atwood was shuffled to the Jim Smith-owned No. 7 car the next season, and by the following year was out of a Cup ride. Atwood had just turned 22 years old. He's never found a good NASCAR ride since. The talent was there, but when lack of experience and top-flight equipment failed Atwood, he was never able to recover. Had Atwood gotten more experience in the then-Busch Series, he might have had a better chance to succeed in Cup.

Sure, Sorenson is with Chip Ganassi, who has shown remarkable patience with Sorenson, but should sponsor Target balk at the lack of results, would Ganassi still back the young driver? Ask David Stremme that one… Vickers is the veteran NASCAR driver with his struggling Red Bull Racing team, but one has to wonder if he really has that much job security.

Experience in a lower series would better prepare these young men for the variety of tracks, drivers, and conditions they will face in the pressure cooker that is Sprint Cup. Making them wait another year or two will not do anything to strip them of their natural talent, but rather hone it to the level of precision needed at the Cup level.

A second benefit of forcing drivers to get more experience in the slightly smaller, slightly slower cars in the Nationwide Series is safety. Not just to them-drivers have been killed in those cars too when they crash at high speeds-but to the drivers around them. Watch a Nationwide Series race, and you'll see that the cars tend to string out a bit more at the tracks that do not require restrictor plates. Veterans cut young guys a little more slack, if they can. The races are shorter, less mentally and physically taxing. The more track time a driver has under those circumstances, the more prepared he'll be to take on the tighter, fiercer competition in Sprint Cup. He may be less lightly to cause a damaging wreck. And that is safer for everyone.

Allowing a driver to work in the slightly less pressured Nationwide Series also give them the chance to mature-a lesson that Kyle Busch could have perhaps used, instead of throwing him into a high-pressure situation he had a hard time coping with. That could win a driver fans, and ultimately sponsorship.

One other reason that an age hike could benefit NASCAR as a whole has to do with the declining health of the Nationwide Series. Making owners wait to bring drivers directly to Cup would force them to use the series as the training ground it should be. Sure, owners could run another car for their Cup star, sponsorship allowing. But many owners would be hard-pressed to give their time and attention to their established guy if the youngster had to run the series to take the wheel of a Cup car in the future. When push comes to shove, and an owner has to find a Nationwide Ride and sponsor for a young phenom, or risk losing him to another team or because of ineligibility to move up, the owner will work harder to do so. And that could well save the series.

It won't hurt anyone to wait until a driver is 21 before allowing him to drive Sprint Cup. It's safer, it's potentially better for the driver's career overall, and it would help return the Nationwide Series to a series that has its own identity. Statistics show that a driver is in his competitive prime in his early 30's – that means a 21-year-old entering the series would still have ten years before he even reached that prime, and they stand to be ten better years for all involved. Seems worth the wait.

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01/18/2008 07:21 AM

Move the age up. These kids are not mature enough to race at places like Daytona and Talledega, not to mention Atlanta and Charlotte. There is a reason caution numbers have gone up over the past several years and it isn’t all NASCAR’s meddling.

Kurt Smith
01/18/2008 07:30 AM

I think there is merit to the idea that someone should spend a year in the Nationwide Series…but that would be happening already if sponsors were willing to take a chance on an unknown. As it is they don’t have to.

01/18/2008 08:49 AM

A great idea that’s just gonna have to sting a few people now, but will benifit the sport in the long run. Maybe if you finish in the top ten in the Nationwise points 2 years in a row (like Jr. or Truex), then an exception might be made. Just like the Chase and the COT, we’ll get over this hurdle just fine.

01/18/2008 10:18 AM

When I first saw the headline on this idea earlier this week initial reaction was “great idea”. It moves all three series into a better balance and from a competition standpoint a hwole lot more interesting. It also allows a driver to develop a fan base that will then move to Cup with the driver. This is one of the best ideas NASCAR has had in years. Oh yeah that also had to do with common sense idea of waiting to be 18 to race in top three series. Wow fours yearsa between really good ideas. Not a good record for the NASCAR brass.

01/18/2008 10:50 AM

This is laughable. Were you sleeping when Vickers won a Busch Championship in 2003? I think that may have been adequate preparation and proof of him deserving to move up, regardless of his age.

01/18/2008 11:29 AM

It’s a good idea. But, if you’re going to suggest that the young ones run in the Nationwise series, you must put a limit on the number of fulltime Cup drivers who would run too. I think its ridiculous that half the field in a Nationwise race are Cup drivers. My number would be ten. Ten fastest qualifiers, of course.

01/18/2008 12:16 PM

Great idea. Think every driver moving to Cup must have raced at least one full season in CTS or Nationwide series.

01/18/2008 01:29 PM

I agree 100% with rasing the age to 21. These kids need more experience on the track and off the track bofore being allowed to race with the top racing series in the world today.

M. B. Voelker
01/18/2008 01:49 PM

As a Kyle Busch fan I have mixed feelings about this.

Its a pretty good bet that if he had spent another year or two in a lower series he’d have more opportunity to gain skill and maturity to go with his prodigious talent. That would have saved him and his fans a certain amount of embarrassment (or maybe not — ask any Tony Stewart or Kevin Harvick fan).

Yet, the fact that Kyle was able to win twice in his Cup rookie year shows that he was indeed ready to compete at that level and there would have been small point to making him compete beneath his level. In fact, it could have backfired by getting him so accustomed to easy wins that he’d have had even more trouble adjusting.

And what would be the point of making Montoya, Villenueve, and their fellow top open wheelers spend a year in Nationwide?

Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards both came to Cup directly from the truck series and were competitive from the start. Should they have been forced to take a detour on the way?

Should Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson, both of whom performed at the highest level as Cup rookies, have been made to run full years in the lower series? They only made a few starts and neither was a Busch winner.

Should Boris Said, Ron Fellows, and the rest of the road ringers have been made to run a year in the Nationwide series as the price of their twice a year Cup rides?

Isn’t it, overall, a better idea to refrain from interfering with the way team owners run their businesses and permit them to hire any adult they believe is capable of doing the job as long as he’s capable of earning a Nascar license for the track type in question?

PS — I wish people would stop bringing up Casey Atwood. Yes, he had his troubles. Yes, they were related to his maturity level — he clung to an immature belief that all he had to do was show up at the track and drive and refused to go to the shop and do the rest of the things required of a top-level driver. But since he couldn’t get his act together even when Fitzbradshaw brought in a sports psychologist to try to straighten him out there is no evidence that more time in Busch would have done the job.

01/18/2008 02:52 PM

I don’t think making someone spend a year in (whatever) is important, or relevant. I do, however, think that the age limit is a great idea. If for no other reason than to help the Truck and NW series attract competition and sponsorship.

Marty C
01/18/2008 03:50 PM

Agree with you 100% on all issues, especially the maturity issue. These guys need to grow up a little before they get into the BIG LEAGUES!

01/19/2008 03:55 PM

M.B.- Both Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson DID run full seasons in the Busch Series before their stellar rookie years in Cup. Tony did not, as you point out, win any races at that level, but he obviously learned about the tracks and how to race on them. Jimmie ran two full seasons in Busch, finished in the top ten both years driving for a woefully underfunded team, and he won at Chicagoland in 2001. I’d say that those years in Busch paid off-both drivers are two-time Cup champions-team owners would do well to pay attention to that.

I also think that had Kyle Busch had the time in the lower series, without so much pressure, to mature and learn the subtleties of racing, he’d prpbably have twice as many wins by now and possibly been a serious championship contender. As it is, he was tossed into a pressure cooker and that made it that much harder to sit back and learn how to behave on and off the track. He is an immensely talented one young man, and had he been given the time to learn properly, he’d be
one of the top contenders for the Cup every year.


Contact Amy Henderson

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