News Bulletin: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is to replace Matt Kenseth in the No. 17 in 2013. OK, I know. Old news. And perhaps “old” might be the real operative word in this driver move that heralded the start of Silly Season 2012.
Over the past week, I’ve read many an article dissecting just what this all meant to Kenseth, Roush, Joey Logano, Gibbs, etc. etc. Some wondered why, why, why? Others mentioned the almighty dollar, some the fabled robot demeanor and a few talked of Kenseth’s age as being the reason why Jack Roush no longer could find a seat for the one Sprint Cup champion in his impressive stable of drivers. All are believable reasons for the end of this contract. But the age thing really stuck with me, as I passed the fourth decade marker a bit back.
40? Kenseth was 40? Wow, it just didn’t seem that long ago that I plunked down my $20 for his first Cup win t-shirt. Where had all the time gone? And who else on the weekly roster might be facing similar difficulties in the near future, as their shelf life becomes a larger part of the successful sponsor/driver relationship? The column of names that meet this criteria is a little shocking: Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle and Jeff Burton. And guess who else is a mere two years away from joining? None other than Dale Earnhardt Jr. Yes, every marketer’s golden boy is not immortal.
When I gathered all those names, wins and even championships in one place a little voice started talking. This 40-plus club represents more than a group of drivers – they were the changing tide of NASCAR during the 1990s and early 2000s that heralded a huge wave of popularity in the sport. Each one arrived on the Cup scene with a stampede and sirens blaring.
It was an exciting time. Each season brought with it a parade of rookies who showed no fear, hungry to meet a few walls and tear up some fenders. They walked with attitude, sometimes created a ruckus in the pits and in general gave the racing fan something to get excited about. Victory came to them quickly, and for some often. As fans, we rode the wave with them and couldn’t wait for the next race, the next track and emptied our wallets hoping our new hero would take us to new heights. Heady times, indeed.
But times have changed in the past few years. Yes, the economy sank to the bottom of the sea. War stole headlines more often than not. And we blamed the downturn in NASCAR’s popularity on the inability to compete with putting food on the table. But, that was not the complete picture. Our sport has been lacking something critical recently – youth.
It’s been years since we’ve enjoyed a real run for Rookie of the Year. Logano came as an anointed prince – his success a foregone conclusion, which took all the fun out of cheering for an underdog. The rise and fall of over eager wannabes adds to the thrill of observing veterans put on clinics in reading the draft and using the wall to corner. Young guns draw the jaded attention of aging fans and sponsors, inciting us to get up off the bench and yell.
I’ve no doubt that Kenseth still has years of competitive driving in him – maybe even another Cup or two. With age comes wisdom, and the maturity to know when to back off instead of plowing through somebody’s rear bumper. And when to put the hammer down and never let up. He and his comrades have much to teach those up and coming wheelmen in this series.
It may taste sour to see our most adored drivers being delegated to the back seat, however NASCAR needs the young blood of Stenhouse Jr. and others like him to reinvigorate the series. It’s time for us to look to the future as often as we enjoy fond memories. The likes of Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski require new competition, as much as they desire to stand up to those like Kenseth.
The great Kenseth domino has tipped. I’m thinking this was possibly the best news for NASCAR I’ve heard in quite a long time.
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