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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

Did You Notice?: How Fast Are NASCAR’s Young Drivers Winning?

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.

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

2014: Aric Almirola (Daytona), AJ Allmendinger (Watkins Glen)

Victories Since: None for either driver

2015: None

2016: Kyle Larson (Michigan), Chris Buescher (Pocono)

Victories Since: Four for Larson, none for Buescher

2017: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Talladega), Austin Dillon (Charlotte), Ryan Blaney (Pocono)

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

2009: Brad Keselowski (Talladega), David Reutimann (Charlotte), Joey Logano (New Hampshire)

Victories Since: Keselowski (23), Reutimann (one), Logano (18)

2010: None

2011: Marcos Ambrose (Watkins Glen), Trevor Bayne (Daytona), Paul Menard (Indy), David Ragan (Daytona), Regan Smith (Darlington)

Victories Since: Ambrose (one), Ragan (one), none for anybody else

2012: None

2013: None

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.

About Tom Bowles

Tom Bowles
The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

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15 comments

  1. Want to solve the “yellow line” debate? Pretend for one minute that was Kyle Busch in that car. Would you still think Kyle deserved the win or would you all be saying he cheated? Yep I think that clears up the “did he or didn’t he’ break the rule debate.

    • As the commenter mentioned in the article, I think it’s important to point out that from MY perspective, that call was BS no matter what. The fact that it was made against a no-namer (and extinguished what would have been a great story), was merely coincidental (and served to exacerbate the stupidity of it all).

      I don’t care if they’ made that call on Johnson, Harvick, Kyle Busch or anybody else. It was a S**T call.

  2. What NASCAR has is too many incompetent drivers at the Cup level and WAY too many incompetent writers, bloggers and analysts at all levels. Granted, looking at the jayski link page shows fewer than in the past. But we still have too many amateurs living in their mother’s basements blogging away about a sport they know nothing about.

    There are maybe 15 competent Cup drivers and 5 competent NASCAR writers in the sport. What we need to paraphrase Elvis Presley is “way less conversation.”

    And FS has about 10 too many writers that don’t make the cut. And that includes Bowles and Henderson.

    • Aw, come on they are all just trying to make a living. Nobody’s been talking about stock car racing for years. They talk about personalities, their favorite drivers spaghetti recipe, or his latest one race sponsor but not about the racing.
      Its like politics, your person is right, the other folks are wrong. At the end of the day the Frances and all the “stake holders” make money off the people who still believe. Next week the circus will be in a new town.

      But nobody is talking about the racing.

      • But why do they all write the same article from the same perspective over and over and over?

        !. There is nothing wrong with today’s young drivers that experience won’t cure. Give it a rest.

        2. There is nothing right with plate racing that abolishing it won’t cure. Stop defending it.

        3. NASCAR is dying. Let it rest in peace. Only an entirely newly-formed group of owners can save stock car racing and they won’t risk the money when there is no appeal to young fans for motor racing or cars in general.

        Ergo, there is no need for motorsports “journalism” at all.

        • Well, since you’re so smart and know everything about NASCAR, why don’t you start up your own commentary?

          • Tom Bowles

            Gosh, SmarterThanYo for someone who thinks the sport is dying/dead you sure read and comment on every single column. Man, if I hated a sport that much and couldn’t stand it anymore why would I spend my time 24/7 trying to degrade columns and writers?

            That’s what has always puzzled me about her (or whatever other alias names she goes under). So much time spent ripping people… for what?

        • Tommy, Tommy, Tommy. I’ll bite. SMARTERTHANYOU, SMARTERTHANYO, etc…is not me! I am the “she” you are referring to. As you gave me the same “speech” a few years ago. LOL. Tis easy to look up. Have one of your COMPUTER GEEKS assure you, tis not me. Also, sentence structure, etc. are very telling about who is who. You seemed focused on content directed at you and not structure. Kinda sad that did not occur to you. A “new name” cannot change that. Just trying to help you out…LOL. Of course you will deny…but whatever. Have a fantastic morning at STARBUCKS! I stand by KB, whether anybody likes it or not. By the way, that is my married initials. My maiden initials are KS. But I go by KB. And for the record the person you replied to, I am totally convinced it is all male. From a female’s perspective of course! Call it “she” intuition!

          • kb, if I may respond. You’re wrong if you think people think you are this SmarterThanYo. I for one know the difference. This “SmarterThanYo” is a lady lawyer from Wisconsin. I found this out when she posted her usual acid-laced comment on an article on this site (sight?) I think under a previous ID as either “MessangerFM” or “SmarterThanYou”, then she posted the exact word-for-word acid laced comment on another website where she had to use her Facebook ID. So, I for one know you are not her. And I’m fairly sure Tom knows too. By the way, that’s one of the reasons I’ve avoided Facebook like the plague. It can bring you seriously career ending trouble. Hopefully this spawn of Satan SmarterThatYo learns that.

            And know this, what she posted under the article about the entry list for the Xfinity race this weekend about Stenhouse took her to a new low. Go back and read it. if that isn’t a blatant death threat, I don’t know what is. She should be sought out and legally brought to justice.

          • Tom Bowles

            Thanks Ken! Yup, I did know. I know it won’t stop anything, it’s my once-a-year chime-in. If you don’t have a thick skin, well, you shouldn’t be writing… but sometimes, it’s a head-scratcher as to why people spew this venom. All. The. Time. As if it’s my column that’s single-handedly bringing down the sport. LOL.

            And kb, I’m happily writing this from a Starbucks. You should try their coffee sometime 🙂

  3. Stop beating this dead horse. The current top two drivers in the sport, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch had relatively slow starts according to your own statistics. And it took getting fired from Felony Motorsports for Busch to reach his potential, which now puts him among the greatest of ALL time, not just his own time. Give this story time to play out and the next superstar will emerge. But it won’t be Dilllon or Stenhouse, who have won only by luck and intentionally wrecking the competition.

    And how about you vow NOT to speak about this subject until it matters – in about 10 years! (If NASCAR lasts that long, which I hope it does not.) Having too few young winners is the LEAST of NASCAR’s problems. Having too few good races is the ONLY problem that matters. And Saturday night gave the sport yet another black eye and made it yet the subject of more jokes by sports fans. That is not “good optics.”

  4. Does anybody really care? I mean really.

  5. i’m rapidly growing tired of these young driver stories from all over the media.

    yes the old guys are retired, but previously we only got deluged with young guns stuff when Gillette had the young guns ad campaign.

    i wished morgan shepherd would race in a cup race and win it just to shut people up!

  6. Funny the picture of a “young” driver is Kyle Larson a CUPPER, who was gifted the win in the kiddie series this weekend, when NASCAR claiming to want to help the underdog and butchered their rule regarding “the yellow line” against a young Justin Haley. How ironic.

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