19-year-old William Byron was named to replace Kasey Kahne at Hendrick Motorsports in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2018. Are teams rushing youngsters through the ranks too fast in an effort not to lose them to another team, or are drivers more prepared at a younger age than in the past?
Bryan Gable: William Byron‘s rise through the ranks of NASCAR has been particularly quick. Yet there has never been a hard, fast rule about how much time a driver needs to develop. Despite being in his teens, Byron strikes me as a driver who will be able to hold his own in the Cup Series. Furthermore, it has become customary in the last 15 to 20 years to have drivers begin their Cup Series careers in their early- to mid-20s. The old development model of having a late-20s driver race for a backmarker team until signing on with a top organization around age 30 is long gone. As a result, drivers breaking into NASCAR are younger, but many of them are better prepared than their predecessors because they are expected be more experienced. Byron’s background in iRacing is a great example of how there are now different ways for young drivers to prepare as well.
Samarth Kanal: There is an element of Hendrick wanting to lock Byron into a Chevy before other teams get their mitts on him, but it clearly sees a talent in him. There’s no doubt that Byron will be prepared and ready to go. Perhaps there’s a natural trend toward younger drivers because they’re marketable to sponsors, more affordable to teams and prepared with a great deal of discipline – both mentally and physically.
Amy Henderson: It’s a little bit of both. Drivers start racing at such a young age that they have a good bit of experience simply racing, but some could still benefit from more time in the lower series, especially when they’re as young as Byron. There’s no denying Byron’s talent, but Casey Atwood was talented, Reed Sorenson was talented. Perhaps with more experience, they’d have been successful in the Cup ranks. On the other hand, XFINITY Series experience doesn’t always translate. Jimmie Johnson never did well driving the smaller, lighter cars in that series. Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon didn’t set the world on fire in their NXS days either. So success in one series doesn’t guarantee it in another, but in general, the more time a youngster can get against his peers in those series before making the huge jump to Cup, the better.
Last week, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said that the changing economics of the sport means that younger drivers are accepting lower salaries that price drivers like Matt Kenseth out of the game. Is this true?
Kanal: Dale Earnhardt Jr. doesn’t seem to be telling a lie here, and it makes sense that young drivers would command a lower fee than the veterans as they’re not as established. Sponsors seem to be dropping out of the sport, which correlates with NASCAR’s decline in ratings and attendances. Target is the latest company to do so, as Chip Ganassi Racing hasn’t provided enough of a return on the retail giant’s investment. Younger drivers appeal more to younger people, and there is already a trend toward younger drivers not only because of what Earnhardt said but also because they might actually make more money. Darrell Wallace Jr., for example, is without a seat, but his Nickelodeon sponsorship could well pay dividends for him and whichever team picks him up.
Henderson: It’s true in any sport, but in the long run, it’s good for NASCAR. It wasn’t that long ago that $1 million was more or less standard driver pay, with the added incentive of a percentage of the purse. So here’s a thought: if the driver’s salary depends more on that percentage, and the better they finish, the more they make, they should, at least in theory, race harder to make that money. Heck, give a larger percentage for a better finish and sweeten the pot. The more places costs can be cut means better competition overall as more and more teams are able to compete on a more equal level. In this case, the drivers will have to adjust their thinking and take a lesser base, owners will have to up the ante by offering more of the winnings, and in the end, that’s nothing but good for the sport. Yes, you might see a couple of drivers walk, but well, their choice, and it’s not as though they’ll make more running in another series.
Gable: I cannot confirm that Earnhardt is correct, but his statement makes sense logically. NASCAR’s original group of Young Guns, including Earnhardt and Matt Kenseth, entered the sport at a time when sponsorship was abundant and everyone was searching for the next Jeff Gordon. Drivers did not have to think twice about taking big contracts, and they did not have to put as much effort into finding sponsors for themselves. Fast forward 20 years and many of the lucrative sponsorship deals have disappeared. Less stable sponsorship also means there are less top-tier rides available.
In this climate, a young driver’s No. 1 priority becomes establishing himself or herself in the sport. Establishment becomes a lot easier with sponsorship. Additionally, young drivers know that asking for a big paycheck could be a roadblock to getting established in NASCAR. It makes more sense to take a smaller, guaranteed salary than risk not racing at all by holding out for the big money. The veteran drivers, however, have grown accustomed to having the sponsors come to them and larger salaries, neither of which are feasible in NASCAR at present. Salaries will go down for anyone who wants to stay in the sport, especially if costs continue to rise. Unless something drastic changes, teams will keep seeking out driver/sponsor package deals as well, even at the expense of a driver’s raw talent.
Jimmie Johnson becomes the oldest driver at Hendrick Motorsports by nearly 20 years in 2018, and if Kenseth doesn’t find a ride, Johnson will be the oldest full-time Cup driver next year. How much longer can Johnson, who turns 42 next month, stay at the top of the game?
Henderson: Realistically, Johnson has another 10, maybe a dozen wins left, which would put him third all-time. The one-race title is such a crapshoot that he may well contend, but that means little anymore if you don’t get lucky at Homestead-Miami Speedway, so he stays at seven titles as the younger drivers get stronger. Another five years in the series is realistic for Johnson, who could retire tomorrow or in 10 years and still be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when his time comes.
Gable: There is an old rule that drivers, even the great ones, start to tail off around their 17th full-time season or their 550th start, whichever comes first. Johnson hit 550 starts in the Cup Series earlier this year, and 2018 will be his 17th full-time season. If time in the sport matters more than raw age, Johnson’s inevitable decline would have to come sooner or later. However, Johnson has demonstrated throughout his career that he has the ability to rise above conventional rules and trends. He remains one of the biggest fitness buffs in NASCAR, and he will be driving for Hendrick Motorsports as long as he wants to. Ultimately, Johnson might only be at his peak as a driver for another year or two, but he could remain a championship contender for another five years.
Kanal: Johnson has enough to stay in the game until he’s around 50, as he’s still one of the strongest drivers in the field and is still good enough for an eighth championship. The question is as to whether Hendrick will stay as good as they’ve been. If Hendrick declines, Johnson could drop out sooner than he wants to.
Last weekend’s race broadcasts from Watkins Glen International had a distinctly different feel for fans, with commentators positioned around the track more like they are in a typical radio broadcast. What did you think of the production?
Gable: I enjoyed the broadcast format. It is pretty clear, though, that the radio-style setup lends itself best to a road course. Most ovals have at least one vantage point from which an observer could see the entire track, so there is no real need to spread out the broadcast crew. I would like to see NBC try the radio-style broadcast again during the XFINITY race at Road America. The best place to test it out for the Cup Series again would probably be Talladega Superspeedway. The longer the track, the more effective this format will be.
Kanal: The radio thing worked well at Watkins Glen, as there are a lot of blind spots on road tracks. It was also seamless, which was impressive. Trying it at a superspeedway could be good as that format could work on a huge oval, but I can’t see it working at a shorter track such as Bristol Motor Speedway.
Henderson: I loved it. I’ve always thought racing was a great radio sport, right up there with baseball, and this format was why. It made the race exciting. Leigh Diffey did a fantastic job—he has such a deep understanding of motorsports as a whole, and I hope the xenophobic crap on social media won’t discourage him from doing more broadcasts if the opportunity arises in the future. It’s better suited for the bigger tracks, but I’d like to see parts of it, especially the wider camera shots, and more mention for more cars in the field than just the leaders.