The Frontstretch: Did You Notice? ... NASCAR's A Young Man's Game, Chasing Survival, And Highway Robbery by Thomas Bowles -- Wednesday September 2, 2009

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Did You Notice? … That with Michael Waltrip and now Bobby Labonte possibly out of full-time rides in 2010, the Cup Series has become more of a young man’s game than ever before – and the age of gray-haired success stories may finally be gone for good. Looking at the lineup of 2010 full-time teams, just four men age 40 or older are set to show up with fully-sponsored cars: Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, Robby Gordon, and Greg Biffle (who turns 40 in December).

Who would have guessed Michael Waltrip’s retirement could ever mark the end of an era? Surprisingly, it kinda does.

Why is that such a big deal? A quick look back at the landscape of Cup Series champions shows that 40 used to be the age drivers would reach their peak … not fall into either retirement or obscurity. Just look at the average age of Cup Series champions from 1990 through 2000:

1990 – Dale Earnhardt (39)
1991 – Dale Earnhardt (40)
1992 – Alan Kulwicki (37)
1993 – Dale Earnhardt (42)
1994 – Dale Earnhardt (43)
1995 – Jeff Gordon (24)
1996 – Terry Labonte (40)
1997 – Jeff Gordon (26)
1998 – Jeff Gordon (27)
1999 – Dale Jarrett (43)
Average Age: 36.1

As you can see, aside from Gordon you don’t have a single champ younger than age 35 – and that’s not including the title bids of men like Martin, Rusty Wallace, and Ricky Rudd, all of whom were pushing 40 during their bids for NASCAR’s top hardware.

Now, let’s compare that to the age of champions throughout this decade:

2000 – Bobby Labonte (36)
2001 – Jeff Gordon (30)
2002 – Tony Stewart (31)
2003 – Matt Kenseth (31)
2004 – Kurt Busch (26)
2005 – Tony Stewart (34)
2006 – Jimmie Johnson (31)
2007 – Jimmie Johnson (32)
2008 – Jimmie Johnson (33)
2009 – ??
Average Age: 31.6

What a contrast, as all of the champions we’ve crowned since 2001 have been under age 35 at the time they’ve won the title. It’s yet another reason why Martin winning it all this year would be one of the most remarkable achievements in Cup history … but I digress.

Surely, there are several reasons for the drop in age, the most important of which is sponsor money going to younger drivers quicker, giving them a top-tier ride right away instead of having to fight for five, six, seven years in mediocre equipment to earn their shot. Just don’t expect that instant success to turn into the same type of career longevity you’ve seen from the previous generation. While much has been made of Martin’s return to full-time racing, remember that while he’s been around since 1981, the driver only received a top-quality full-time ride back in 1988 … just 21 years ago. Combine that with the fact Martin was initially planning to retire after just his 18th full-time season with Roush back at the end of 2005, and it’s not like he’s been pursuing a Dave Marcis-type regimen for four decades. Indeed, that late start allowed both he and Dale Jarrett to run competitively at 50 in Cup without a problem, because both men hadn’t spent the 30+ years in the sport that burnt out men like Elliott and Terry Labonte when NASCAR’s popularity explosion led to unmanageable demands on their time.

All of that preamble brings us to… Jeff Gordon. Gordon’s 18th full-time season is – you guessed it – 2010, which is also the year he both turns 39 and sees longtime sponsor DuPont up for renewal. Suddenly, the Wonder Boy has gone from the start of this youth movement to its elder statesman; and in a way, he dictates its ending as well as its beginning. Should he choose to retire after next year, well, there will always be an occasional Mark Martin-type exception to the rule of thumb. But I think a lot of people will start following Gordon’s lead and making 40 the age where they take a serious look at where they’re at in this sport.

One last note to put the exclamation point on how far we’ve come; I checked out the starting lineup for the Fall Atlanta race in November, 1999. There were seventeen drivers over the age of 40, including six who finished in the top 10. On the entry list this weekend? Only nine, with around half guaranteed a starting spot in the field.

Sometimes, with these statistics in hand you wonder why NASCAR hasn’t done more to try and establish a true senior tour (although I know the Truck Series certainly resembles one). Considering how popular the Bristol legends exhibition race was this Spring, why not extend that to a 10-race series of 100 lap features on short tracks all across the country? Race fans would kill to see some of their favorites come back part-time in competitive rides, and if you put the right tracks on the schedule the competition would be second to none. The best drivers may be peaking at a younger age … but that doesn’t mean everyone else over 40 needs to go away for good.

OK, enough rambling on this first point …

Did You Notice? … That among the Chase bubble drivers (7th through 15th), not one collected top 10 finishes at both Atlanta and Richmond this Spring? That groups those men into two categories this weekend … those looking to survive, where a top 10 finish should be enough to get them through, and those who need as many points as possible to fend off a Richmond disaster next Saturday night.
Let’s put them in their proper place:

SURVIVAL
Ryan Newman — 22nd at Atlanta in the Spring in the last race before his team remembered they were racing in the majors and not AAA. Even a top 15 Sunday should be enough to stay in the clear, as he had a solid fourth-place finish at Richmond back in May.

Juan Pablo Montoya — Yeah, the Colombian’s had a lot of Atlanta success early in his career … but not lately. After finishing fifth in his debut during the Spring of 2007, he hasn’t so much as cracked the top 15 since. If he can just cash in with a finish in the 10th-15th range this Sunday, a top 10 car at Richmond and a solid track record up there should be enough to earn his first postseason berth.

Mark Martin — This one’s a little deceiving, as Martin won the pole at Atlanta back in the Spring and was a top 5 contender before crashing out just past the halfway point. But it’s that type of bad luck that has dogged him throughout his career, and there’s certainly no room for that type of error at this point. The consummate points racer at the right time, expect the veteran to be thinking top 10 from the time the team unloads on Friday knowing his track record at Richmond would make him a near lock.

Kyle Busch — Clearly under more pressure than the rest of the bubble folk as he’s 34 points outside the cut line. But considering his win at Richmond in May, a finish of around sixth-10th at Atlanta may be enough to get him in. Expect that to be a tall order, though, considering the No. 18’s struggles at intermediate tracks — he was 18th at AMS back in the Spring.

FIGHTING FOR THE WIN
Kasey Kahne — After three straight finishes outside the top 10, he desperately needs to back up his seventh-place run at Atlanta in March with something better. Finishing 29th at Richmond in the Spring, he’s hasn’t run in the top 5 there in almost three years.

Brian Vickers — Perhaps no one needs to win more. Coming off his first victory in nearly three years in Michigan, the Red Bull driver will clearly have one of the best cars at an oval that suits his driving style. At 39 points out of the Chase, you have to think he’ll need to be in the top 12 heading to Richmond, where he’s finished – eek! – with just one top-20 finish in the last five years. Sure, that happened to be a 15th this May, but if he’s on the outside looking in next week, that’s just not gonna cut it.

Clint Bowyer — Believe it or not, the short track star struggled to 18th at Richmond this year while scoring a top 10 at Atlanta, a place that’s long been RCR’s Achilles’ Heel. Go figure. Oh well, he’s so far outside the top 12 that he probably needs to win both races to have a realistic chance.

Notice I didn’t mention Matt Kenseth or Greg Biffle at all. That’s because both drivers failed to score a top 10 at either Atlanta or Richmond in the Spring, which puts them both in the category of “step it up … or else.”

By the way, if you want me to give a prediction I say Vickers moves into the top 12 while it’s The Biff sweating bullets come Richmond. But I think this is truly a weekend in which five or six different scenarios wouldn’t surprise me one bit.

Did You Notice? … The performance by Andrew Ranger this weekend? I can’t say it better than it’s already been said several other places; there’s no question the kid is for real on a road course. But before you go and throw him in a Nationwide ride, let’s correct one mistake circulating the nation: Montreal wasn’t his first chance to go national.

In fact, the 22-year-old has five previous Nationwide starts to his credit, all of which came behind the wheel of former car owner Armando Fitz’s No. 22 Dodge last year. With a 19th at Bristol and a 20th at Charlotte, he actually didn’t do half bad in the trial run down south … but when Fitz went under, no one else took a second look at the guy and he went back to NASCAR’s Canadian Tire Series full-time.

Well, after the run he put together on Sunday night, you better believe a ton of failing car owners this year are kicking themselves for missing a talent that was right in front of their eyes not once, but several times in ’08.

Did You Notice? … David Stremme reached a settlement with Roger Penske over his 2010 salary? Terms were not disclosed, but if I were him I’d flee the country before people with common sense realize he made out with more than a dime. After all, lasting 24 starts without a top-10 finish while driving for one of auto racing’s most successful car owners is highway robbery in itself.

And finally …

Did You Notice? … NASCAR’s upcoming schedule for this weekend? The cars don’t unload until Saturday morning, with qualifying scheduled for Saturday in what’s described as a preview of what we might see for the series in 2010.

Hold on a second here … did I hear you say qualifying was on a Saturday? You mean people might be able to watch their favorite driver take their 2-lap run instead of find out when they get home from work? And the teams get to come in a full day later and save thousands of dollars per week in overall cost?

Brilliant, NASCAR, simply brilliant! Too bad the rest of us thought of that back in, oh, 2006.

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Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
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Fred
09/02/2009 02:52 AM
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Did ya notice… that rough driving was not penalized at all this past weekend in Montreal?

Several drivers had continuous feuds that led to multiple cautions. Keselowski was completely taken out on the straightaway. And even Carl Edwards dive bombing into turn 2 on the final restart, which led to a huge mess. None of them were penalized at all.

I guess that after watching the highlights of Andrew Ranger driving the Canadian Tire series, Canada didn’t allow the NASCAR officials in charge of rough driving into their country, and they let Hockey rules apply… let them fight. :)

john
09/02/2009 11:15 AM
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I wonder how the money being earned factors into the retirement age — back in the day drivers had to keep driving to pay their living expenses, now they all have financial advisers who set them up to be able to retire and live comfortably.

 

Contact Tom Bowles

Recent articles from Tom Bowles:

Did You Notice? ... Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
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