There was a time not long ago when the future stars of NASCAR couldn’t be found anywhere. As drivers like Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart slowly raced into the twilight of their careers, the drivers who would rise up and take over their spots atop the sport were nowhere to be seen.
Just a few years later, on a hot, slick weekend in Texas and Michigan, the young talents of the series shone bright, offering a promising glimpse into the future of American motor sports.
In a series known often over the past few years for dominance by veterans, such as Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter, the younger drivers of the series have begun to flex their muscles with increased opportunities. Byron earned his second victory in just his eighth series start, and another two-time winner, Cole Custer, received his high school diploma during pre-race introductions.
The trend of youth shining continued in Saturday’s NASCAR XFINITY Series race up in the Irish Hills at Michigan International Speedway. While a brave groundhog was the first newcomer to steal the show on the weekend, it was Daniel Suarez, passing his friend, teammate and mentor Kyle Busch on the final lap to claim his first-career NXS victory.
At just 24 years old, it’s easy to forget that Suarez is still a relative newcomer to the NXS side. The series points leader has flirted with victory often in both Trucks and XFINITY throughout the last two seasons, but on Saturday, Suarez entered new ground as a winner in NASCAR’s second series. He now joins Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Erik Jones as two drivers under the age of 25 to win in the XFINITY Series this season.
The early stages of the weekend were impressive, but the most surprising display of strength from NASCAR’s upcoming stars came in Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400.
Joey Logano, 26, dominated most of the 200-lap race at MIS, but behind him, rookie Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson continued a recent string of good runs with second and third-place performances. Research from NASCAR later indicated that with an average age of 23, Sunday’s top three drivers were the youngest top three in NASCAR history, breaking a mark set in 1951.
Looking beyond this weekend’s performances, there are many other young drivers around that are also earning their share of good results.
On the Cup side, Ryan Blaney continues to run around the top 10 each week for the Wood Brothers. Austin Dillon occasionally flirts with victory. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., and Chris Buescher each show occasional flashes of success, though neither can seem to sustain them.
In the XFINITY Series, Suarez and Jones are just two of a great group of young drivers, including Bubba Wallace, Ty Dillon, Brandon Jones and Brennan Poole.
Dipping down the Truck Series also yields more great prospects, ranging from Brad Keselowski Racing teammates Daniel Hemric and Tyler Reddick to Christopher Bell and John Hunter Nemechek.
A peak a bit further down shows more prospects on the rise, too, just as Harrison Burton – son of former Sprint Cup driver Jeff Burton – and Ty Majeski, a stout late model driver with multiple big wins to his name.
Where just a few years ago there didn’t seem to be many good young talents to replace the aging stars of the Sprint Cup Series, there are now many more drivers than the series and its teams could ever hope to hold.
Where Gordon and Martin used to duel for the win, now Larson and Elliott beat and bang for position. Where Keselowski and Clint Bowyer used to win in XFINITY competition, drivers like Suarez and Jones now rise to the occasion to earn victories of their own.
On the Cup side, the youngest drivers in the paddock haven’t managed to bridge the gap just yet. While they’ve all come close, Elliott, Larson, Dillon and Blaney have all come up short of victory lane in each of their attempts.
Still, given performances like Elliott’s runner-up showing in Michigan, it’s clear that victories are coming. It’s not a matter of if, but when one of these drivers and teams can finally complete and errorless race.
Once one of NASCAR’s biggest worries, the youth movement portrayed emphatically with great showings at Texas and Michigan are as strong as they’ve ever been. That will only help the sport as they try to find replacements for future retirees.
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