NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Time to Let the Young Guns Grow Up

I am not a very patient person, especially when it comes to NASCAR. I can’t wait for the pre-race ceremonies to be over, for the five dollar footlong song to enter its final verse, and for the pace car to get out of the way to start the race.

And I know I’m not alone.

As fans, we are men and women who thirst to know what will happen the next lap, the next pit stop, the next race… like reading a book we can’t put down. More than anything, we want the immediate realization of our own particular visions of a “perfect NASCAR,” whether that be a sport where Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back to pre-2005 status or a sport where every race ends with a photo finish. So we complain, angry that our visions aren’t reality, and look back to the “good ol’ days” when NASCAR once had what we believe it now lacks.

When I hear fans complain about the Cup drivers of today not having any personality, particularly among the sport’s youngest stars, I can only shout, “Be patient!” For personality is no quick fix. But it’s not just the fans who need to be patient, but the teams who hire and, too often, fire these drivers in the first place.

I believe that NASCAR, as it stands today, is a fertile ground for future legends. I believe the next Richard Petty or Cale Yarborough is out there. Perhaps it is someone among today’s 43-car fields that just hasn’t had the right set of circumstances fall their way. But I feel the only way these drivers will ever reach their full potential and become the wily veterans of tomorrow is if NASCAR and its teams can keep these drivers in the sport for as long as possible.

Consider, if you will, the 1988 Winston Cup season, a year defined every bit as much by drivers from the early modern era of NASCAR as by those who rose to prominence in the 1990s. For those who witnessed it firsthand, 1988 was a bittersweet year of dramatic changes and emotional goodbyes. The season began with Bobby Allison’s third Daytona 500 victory and Neil Bonnett’s two consecutive wins at Richmond and Rockingham. It seemed another year of veterans schooling the youngsters was at hand.

But neither of these drivers never won again. In June, Allison would deal with the agony of a career-ending crash at Pocono, suffering head injuries from which he has never fully recovered. Bonnett, already battered by a wreck in 1987, endured two more frightening collisions in ‘90 and ‘93 before a third at Daytona took his life in ‘94. The end of that year also saw legends Yarborough and Benny Parsons run their final races, while Buddy Baker stepped down from full-time competition. Lost, too, was Riverside International Raceway, the sprawling road course plowed-up by urban sprawl after its final Cup race in June. Months before, Petty himself manned a bulldozer to commence the transformation of Richmond Fairgrounds’ bullring into today’s 3/4-mile spectacle; it was one of the few times he’d make the highlight reel beyond a devastating Daytona crash, part of an overall downturn in performance that would lead to his eventual retirement in 1992.

But for those like myself, who came into the sport after 1988, the year was instrumental in creating the NASCAR we came to love. The debut of restrictor plates at the ‘88 Daytona 500 coincided with the introduction of sleeker, more aerodynamic Pontiacs, Buicks and Oldsmobiles. Ford and Chevrolet followed suit in ‘89, creating the iconic machines that immediately preceded the Car of Tomorrow. There were four first-time winners: Lake Speed, Phil Parsons, Alan Kulwicki and Ken Schrader, each one of them popular rookie standouts from the earlier half of the decade. Sophomore sensation Davey Allison, heir apparent to “The Alabama Gang’s” legacy, racked up 12 top fives, finished second to his dad at Daytona, then notched a pair of wins, including the first on Richmond’s new layout. Three more victories in 1988 went to Dale Earnhardt, his first year of driving that intimidating black GM Goodwrench Chevrolet (after two straight titles in Wrangler colors in 1986-’87). In November, Bill Elliott claimed his lone season title, fulfilling the promise of his legendary 1985 campaign. To do so, Elliott held off a young upstart named Rusty Wallace, the Missouri driver suddenly a championship threat with six victories that year. Ken Bouchard claimed Rookie of the Year honors in 1988, having edged an aggressive Californian named Ernie Irvan who would win the Daytona 500 a few years later.

The curious thing about that season is how sweeping the transition was between the days of old school veterans like Allison, Yarborough and Parsons and the next generation headed by Earnhardt, Wallace and Elliott. In 1989, the latter three drivers combined to win 14 of the season’s 29 races, with Wallace as champion. The second strata of young drivers, including Allison, Kulwicki, Schrader and Irvan, then began positioning themselves for successful careers that extended into the first part of the 1990s. By 1992, all four had become persistent threats for race wins, leaving open the second strata for new faces like Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton and others, who became weekly contenders even quicker. Despite the untimely passing of Allison and Kulwicki, this new rookie crop kept the Cup series competitive through the 1990s, creating more exciting storylines as they went door-to-door with their elders.

Today, the problem is that what took place in 1988 has occurred on a much larger scale and over a longer period of time. Like 1988, tragedy took center stage in this recent shift with the 2001 passing of Earnhardt, whose significance in the sport needs no introduction. By that February day, a new breed of rookie, headed by 1999 Rookie-of-the-Year Tony Stewart, had just begun to make a name for itself in NASCAR, top-tier drivers getting top-tier rides in hopes they could immediately contend for the title. Encouraged by Stewart’s success in ‘99, and with a gaping hole at the top to fill with Earnhardt, a powerful “youth movement” swept the sport, changing the rosters so completely that no less than 33 drivers slated to compete for the Cup in 2010 joined the circuit in the last nine years. Unfortunately, a vast majority of these new drivers have struggled to reach that “Stewart standard.” Instead, they’ve defined themselves through inconsistency, perhaps accounting for Jimmie Johnson’s continued success these last four years. For the rest of the drivers from the 1990s, only a few retired with any fanfare [Dave Marcis (2002), Rusty Wallace (2005), Terry Labonte (2006), Ricky Rudd (2007) and Dale Jarrett (2008)]. Many of the other drivers from that period have been either squeezed out of the sport or, like Joe Nemechek and Dave Blaney, can only start-and-park for unsponsored teams. Despite their Cup experience, many of these bumped drivers even struggle to find rides in the Nationwide Series as big-money teams fill spots with their own development drivers, continuing the cycle all over again.

And it is here where I hope NASCAR and its teams adopt a change in strategy. I believe that NASCAR could benefit from maintaining smaller rookie classes as they have since 2008, preventing other second-tier drivers from getting squeezed out of the sport before they have a chance to reach their full potential. What’s more, teams should be more eager to make use of unproven talents who already have some Cup experience. This should not run afoul of teams desiring young drivers, since so many of the 33 newcomers are already quite young. Short-term struggles in performing at NASCAR’s elite level should be expected, not condemned, and teams should be more patient in grooming their young talent. After all, many of NASCAR’s most legendary figures are revered simply because they were a part of the sport for so long.

Perhaps, in time, all this patience will be rewarded with a new batch of racing superstars.

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