Did You Notice? … The sigh of relief among NASCAR officials the second Erik Jones reached Victory Lane? Jones is just the third 20-something driver to win this year, joining Austin Dillon (Daytona) and Joey Logano (Talladega). All of them have won at restrictor plate races, known for parity and a different type of driver skill.
Most importantly, Jones’ victory followed a week where ISC president John Saunders claimed NASCAR has “an issue with star power.” He went on to explain the sport’s young drivers have yet to build their brands, hurting the sport in the short-term while trying to rebuild its fan base.
Big congrats to @erik_jones!! Way to wheel it for the Young guys!
Bet ole ISC Pres is enjoying some crow for dinner tonight!!
— Bubba Wallace (@BubbaWallace) July 8, 2018
So how far behind are the sport’s “young guns” in replacing drivers like Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. in the championship battle? I looked at the rate of first-time winners the last five seasons since Harvick moved to Stewart-Haas Racing and pulled his best Jimmie Johnson impression. (The 42-year-old has 19 victories during that span, second-best in the sport, three Championship 4 appearances and one title.)
CUP SERIES FIRST-TIME WINNERS SINCE 2014
Victories Since: None for either driver
2016: Kyle Larson (Michigan), Chris Buescher (Pocono)
Victories Since: Four for Larson, none for Buescher
Victories Since: One for Stenhouse, one for Dillon, none for Blaney
2018: Erik Jones (Daytona)
If you’re counting at home, that’s seven first-time winners in the past five seasons. That’s an average of a little more than one per season, not awful for a weekly field of 40 drivers. But only one of those (Larson) has won with any type of regularity since. Everyone else has won no more than two career MENCS races. That’s nothing compared to the championship-type pace of five wins Harvick has this year alone.
But there’s more. Three of the seven won their first at plate tracks, the type of forced parity some critics say diminish their value. A fourth, Allmendinger, won on a road course (his specialty) and has averaged just one top-five finish per year since. And a fifth driver, Dillon, has led a total of three laps in his two victories: he’s led less than 100 his entire career.
That’s the supposed superstar gap NASCAR is talking about. During that same stretch, Johnson has won 17 races in a title; Truex has 16 victories and his 2017 championship; Kyle Busch has a series-leading 20 Victory Lane trips and a title all his own (2015). All of those drivers have been around a decade or more. Their brands are already established; it’s a little harder for them to attract new fans.
But is this stretch of bleh first-time winners really outside the norm?
For a comparison, let’s look at the first-time winners from 2009-13.
CUP SERIES FIRST-TIME WINNERS: 2009-13
Victories Since: Keselowski (23), Reutimann (one), Logano (18)
Victories Since: Ambrose (one), Ragan (one), none for anybody else
So that’s eight first-time winners from 2009-2013. Only two of them, Keselowski and Logano, ever won with any regularity. Add in the current NASCAR playoff format, where every winner is virtually guaranteed a spot and the 2014-2018 victories have gotten a little extra publicity … I’d say it’s a wash.
But perhaps the more frightening statistic is that in the last 10 years, that means only a handful of drivers have broken the mold. It’s nearly impossible to rise up into superstar status, perhaps a little too tough. You can technically add Truex to the sport’s top tier, who had several down years after his first win came in 2007. But that’s a very small group that’s been able to penetrate the upper echelon. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have retired. But almost no one has stepped up to replace them. I see Saunders’ point.
At the same time, Blaney, Jones, Chase Elliott et al still have plenty of years ahead of them. There’s plenty of time for them to break out. Right?
Here’s a look at where each of them stands.
Chase Elliott: 0-for-95 starts
Ryan Blaney: 1-for-108
Erik Jones: 1-for-57
Kyle Larson: 5-for-165
Ricky Stenhouse Jr: 2-for-202
Austin Dillon: 2-for-175
Compare that to some of the sport’s recent top-tier drivers at the start of their careers.
Jeff Gordon: 14-for-108
Jimmie Johnson: 13-for-108
Tony Stewart: 13-for-108
Kurt Busch: 8-for-108
Brad Keselowski: 7-for-108
Carl Edwards: 5-for-108
Matt Kenseth: 5-for-108
Kyle Busch: 4-for-108
Kevin Harvick: 4-for-108
So in most cases, the sport’s big drivers won early and often. That means a generation of NASCAR fans (and executives) are used to people succeeding right out of the box.
It’s just put more pressure, perhaps unnecessarily, on these young drivers to rise to the top. They’re doing all they can. The fact they’re lagging behind is a little frustrating, most importantly to them, but it’s out of everyone’s control.
So perhaps NASCAR should focus on other problems in the meantime: manufacturer parity, inspection issues, aero push. Simply yelling at the youngsters doesn’t fix it.
Did You Notice? … Justin Haley’s penalty is still the talk of NASCAR nation this week? Days after Haley’s XFINITY Series win was stripped for dipping below the double yellow line it continues to be the center of conversation. Some great columns have been written on it: Matt McLaughlin claims Haley couldn’t have advanced his position as he was already the leader. Others believe NASCAR, known for being inconsistent with rules violations, had to follow the letter of the law.
Five days later, after several conversations with NASCAR folk, I’m still torn. I’m on the side of letter of the law. Haley, technically, dipped below the line. How many other times have we seen that happen and the driver gets penalized? Tony Stewart from the 2001 Pepsi 400 comes to mind, a move that may have cost him a shot at Dale Earnhardt Jr. that night.
But I’m also painfully aware of optics. One of the commenters here summed it up perfectly….
The finish of that race left us hootin’ and hollerin’ like we haven’t done in years…it was such an incredible move! Such a great story! And then one minute later, after they announced the penalty, it was like all of the positive energy (and oxygen) had been sucked out of the room.
I’ve heard that from so many people since Friday night. For one of the few times all season, NASCAR had a Cinderella story that opened eyes. And then? A controversial call by officials took it away. The driver fans saw cross the finish line first didn’t get the trophy.
I’m always a believer the second officials get involved, there’s more harm than good. And the policy of drivers who fail post-race inspection keeping their wins makes it worse. The optics just look absolutely terrible for them, a clear case of damned if they did and damned if they didn’t.
That’s a clear sign of a rule that may need adjusting going forward.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- What a shame Kaz Grala couldn’t get sponsorship to compete this weekend in the Kentucky XFINITY Series race. Grala has three top-10 finishes in six starts running with the No. 61 Fury Race Cars team. And with JGL Racing sidelined, his team to start the year it’s not like there were plenty of other options. Grala has sponsorship for New Hampshire but this missed race will cost him a shot at the postseason. It’s a shame this feel-good story also got ruined.
- Jesse Little making his Cup Series debut? It’s nice we see Chad’s son, a former Cup regular, move up the ranks but he’s only got 18 Truck Series starts. It’s a little bit of a quick jump, no? You wish these one-race deals to run 35th in a Cup car could be exchanged for, say, a full-time Truck season in a competitive ride instead. More seat time, not 15 minutes of fame, is what these development drivers need.