For much of 2016 — and 2015, 2014 and 2013 for some drivers — fans, teams and critics alike have waited for one of NASCAR’s upcoming stars to soar above the field for a breakthrough win. While we were all treated to one with Chris Buescher’s weather-shortened win at Pocono Raceway, the wait continued for one of them to win outright, without any sort of fluke or surprise that would inevitably place an asterisk by their win.
Multiple drivers had come close.
Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney both had opportunities arise through the first half of their rookie years. 2014 rookies Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon each came agonizingly close on one or more occasions, and former XFINITY Series champion Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., even provided occasional glimmers of hope.
NASCAR’s next generation had come close so many times over the past three years. Stenhouse, while inconsistent, was often strong on short tracks, but never quite had the best car in efforts that fell short to Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick over the last three years. Larson had rallied at Auto Club Speedway in 2014 only to finish second to Kyle Busch, and finished second again to Busch’s teammate Matt Kenseth this spring at Dover International Speedway.
Dillon proved himself to be a contender last season at Michigan International Speedway and again a few times in 2016, but had ultimately fallen short. Elliott had led into the late stages of the race at multiple tracks, including both Pocono and Michigan in June, and Blaney had been right on the cusp.
The question of whether a young star winning was no longer a question of ‘can,’ but rather of ‘who’ and ‘when’ as the 2016 season raged on.
In the end, the first one to finally get over the hump was Larson, who surged past Elliott on a late restart to take Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 over Elliott.
It only took 99 starts, a stat Larson’s glad to point out didn’t reach triple digits, but the Californian dirt-track ace finally made good on his potential and Chip Ganassi’s investment in a big way on Sunday, scoring a much-needed win and earning his first-career Chase bid with it.
“It was a big one. It was a big one. I hate to put the onus on somebody else, but boy I’m sure glad to,” Ganassi said of the winless streak.
The victory is huge for Larson, but it also proves symbolic of how difficult it’s been for NASCAR’s younger stars to break through against the series’ elite.
One of the continual stories in the NASCAR paddock over the last five years has been the series’ youth movement. Multiple talented young drivers have entered the ranks in recent seasons, taking advantage of the ladder system most Cup teams have in the XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series. The movement’s led to talented shoes like Erik Jones and William Byron making waves as they work their way toward the Cup Series.
However, while there have been multiple great talents finally getting a chance, very few drivers have parlayed those chances into actual victories.
Look at the XFINITY Series. A lot of great names have competed the series over recent seasons — 2016 alone has provided Erik Jones, Brennan Poole and Brandon Jones among others — but few have been able to win and further their careers. Instead, they’re often found competing for positions in the back-half of the top five as Cup stars like Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Austin Dillon contend for victories week-in and week-out.
Few NXS regulars ever make their way to victory lane, and fewer make it there consistently – Elliott, Buescher, Regan Smith and Jones are the only series regulars ones with multiple wins in the series since 2014.
Sure, the above drivers all eventually earned Sprint Cup Series deals as a result of their success, but in a series that prides itself as a place where names are made, very few have actually made their name known.
Move up to Cup, and the odds for newcomers become even more dire.
With the stars of the series locked into the top rides year-over-year, breaking through has proven more difficult in recent years than in nearly any point in NASCAR’s history. Larson’s win on Sunday makes him just the third first-time winner since NASCAR’s move to the Gen 6 car in 2013, and only the 12th first-time winner in the last decade.
“You can visualize the win that early in your career. It’s going to happen. It’s going to happen. But it just never happened,” Larson said of his first two seasons.
Larson’s quote can be attributed to many of the upcoming stars in paddock. Stenhouse, Dillon, Larson and perhaps even Danica Patrick have long envisioned their first victories, of lighting up the tires as smoke pours out behind their vehicles in a victory burnout, but the visions have failed to become reality as the wins never came.
For Larson, that dream has come true, and given the recent runs of the other blossoming stars around him, it’ll likely come true for many others soon enough.
NASCAR’s major stars of the 2000s are slowly aging out of the sport. Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick are all over the age of 40. Others, Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards among them, aren’t far behind in their mid, and sometimes late-30s.
A wealth of young stars are set to enter NASCAR’s highest level, and with Larson’s win the floodgates may have finally opened.
More young drivers are bound to win soon. The only question at this stage is which ones it will be.