NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Holding a Pretty Wheel: NASCAR Has 21 Reasons to Up Minimum Age

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 reaction 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 racecar 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 15. 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 30s – that means a 21-year-old entering the series would still have 10 years before he even reached that prime, and they stand to be 10 better years for all involved. Seems worth the wait.

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