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(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Massie’s Minute: NASCAR Owners, Stop Giving Rides to 20-Year-Olds

After Joe Gibbs affirmed that he has long term plans in place for both Christopher Bell and Erik Jones, there’s been widespread talk about which Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver at Joe Gibbs Racing Bell will replace.

If it’s not going to be Jones on the way out, then who would it be? There’s no way Gibbs would get rid of the face of the franchise, Kyle Busch, and recently signed Martin Truex Jr. probably won’t be a one-and-done. That leaves Denny Hamlin on the hot seat, a situation that should never occur.

Hamlin is a 33-time Cup Series winner and nearly won the organization a championship in 2010. Now, had Hamlin spent the last several years in mediocrity, then the case could be made that it’s time to move on from him, but he’s won two races this year. No multi-time winner should ever be replaced. Ever.

Bell is regarded as the next big thing, a diamond in the rough, who has absolutely dominated the Gander Outdoors Truck Series and NASCAR Xfinity Series.

Does that mean that Bell will go on to have a Hall of Fame Cup career? Absolutely not. If it did, then Austin Dillon would be winning races on a weekly basis.

I do not see the point in replacing a proven driver with an unproven prospect. Up-and-coming talents rarely pan out to be as great as they are projected to be. Brian Vickers never lived up to his hype after replacing Joe Nemechek. Buckshot Jones, Scott Wimmer, Scott Riggs, Bobby Hamilton Jr. and Reed Sorenson were all drivers who had success in the lower levels, but failed to do much in the Cup Series.

Remember Casey Atwood? He was supposed to be the next Jeff Gordon, yet Ray Evernham let him walk after only one uneventful season, never to be seen again. Atwood was moved up too quickly and his career suffered as a result.

Even future Hall of Famers Kyle Busch and Joey Logano were moved up too soon and failed to catch on with the teams that developed them. It took about 10 years for both drivers to really get to the level that they were once projected to be at. Sure, Busch has always won races, and he had a remarkable year in 2008, but in no way was he as dominant, consistent and mature back then as he is now.

They say the average age where a driver is at their prime is 38 years old. Yet, with the current trajectory of where the Cup Series is headed, drivers keep getting forced out at younger and younger ages in favor of people who can’t legally buy alcohol.

Kevin Harvick is only 43 years old. He won eight races last year. There should be no rumors of him retiring to replace Darrell Waltrip in the FOX booth. He should be able to maintain his No. 4 ride for at least the next five years without getting harassed by the media. Kurt Busch just turned 40 and Hamlin is 38, a.k.a he just hit the magic number. Both are competing at a high level and shouldn’t be questioned about retirement or replaced in favor of younger drivers for several years.

Have we already forgotten that Mark Martin and Harry Gant both won races at 50 years old?

Gant was 51 when he won four straight races in 1991. If that happened today, then every reporter in the media center would act as if a race didn’t just happen and only ask him questions about retirement. And his owner would replace him with a 20-year-old with money when Gant failed to make it five in a row.

Could you imagine the outrage today if Richard Petty drove until he was 55 years old despite an eight-year winless streak?

Rusty Wallace said on the Dale Jr. Download that he hadn’t considered retirement at all until he started getting questions about it. Wallace said that Roger Penske told Wallace that he should probably retire. Well, of course Penske did — he was making moves to try to get up-and-coming star Kurt Busch in the No. 2 car.

Numerous times, Wallace has said he retired too early. After all, he was in the playoffs in his final year in a time when only 10 drivers made the postseason. If I was one of the 10 best drivers in NASCAR, you would have to pry the steering wheel out of my cold, dead hands before you replaced me with a younger driver.

And how exactly did it go when Kurt Busch got in the No. 2 after Wallace? He won races, but had nowhere near the success that Wallace had and Brad Keselowski is currently having.

Gibbs should’ve never replaced Matt Kenseth with Jones. Kenseth was still a championship contender and probably would’ve had more wins this year and last year. He took a terrible Roush Fenway Racing No. 6 team and turned it into a car that could run in the top 10.

Meanwhile, Jones has only won one time, and it was at a race at Daytona International Speedway where nearly everyone wrecked. I’m not saying that Jones won’t be a great driver someday, but he was rushed to Cup too quickly.

Jones is only 22 years old. He shouldn’t be in a situation where people could potentially label him as a bust. The same goes for William Byron, who is only 21 and hasn’t done much the past two seasons. Yet, Gibbs and Rick Hendrick moved these younsters up super quickly because they dominated the Truck and Xfinity series and were considered to be the next superstars. Now, the same will be done to Bell, and the expectations will be set way too high for a driver still in the maturing stages.

Rick Mast said when he was coming along Cup owners wouldn’t consider a driver until they were 30 years old, even though Mast had success in what is now Xfinity in his 20s.

But then, Jeff Gordon came along and was super successful in his early 20s so all the owners had to get themselves a 20-year-old. But here’s the thing, Gordon is a once in a lifetime athlete. Hendrick was heavily criticized for hiring a driver so young, and he was extremely lucky that it actually worked out in his favor.

Gordon, Petty, Kyle Busch and Logano will probably be the only drivers ever to start in their early 20s and go on to have legendary status. And for Busch and Logano, starting that young didn’t do them any favors. The rest of the Hall of Fame drivers needed that extra time to develop and mature before getting thrown into the spotlight.

Now, I don’t think the method Mast talked about is the best way to go either. Waiting until a driver is 30 is too long to wait. But late 20s seems like a good age range for drivers to start their Cup careers. Dale Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson, Darrell Waltrip, David Pearson, Rusty Wallace and Bobby Labonte were all in their late 20s when they started running Cup full time, and all went on to have remarkable careers. I’m not sure that would’ve been the case had any of them started any sooner.

It was really encouraging to see Daniel Hemric and Ryan Preece as the rookies this year. Both drivers are in their late 20s and have worked hard with limited funds to get where they are.

Also, from a fan standpoint, nobody wants to cheer for a driver who looks like a little kid. They want to cheer for a grown man who looks tough or someone they can relate to. Who can relate to a spoiled rich kid who’s given a Cup ride without having to work hard for it?

Fans used to pick favorite drivers based on who came from their local track. I grew up going to Southside Speedway and South Boston Speedway and I know a lot of people who rooted for Hamlin, Elliott Sadler and the Burton brothers because they used to race at those tracks. Now, drivers are rushed up the ranks so quickly that fans can’t get to know them at the local level and they enter the Cup Series with a tiny fan base. No wonder races don’t sell out anymore — fans don’t have an authentic personal connection with any of the new drivers.

So owners, please slow down your driver developments and quit promoting drivers so easily. If a sponsor says they want a younger driver, tell them it’s your team and you’ll run it the way you want. Instead of hiring a driver that brings sponsorship, how about you instead hire smart marketing and business people that can recruit your own sponsors so you can hire the best proven driver available.

Those 20-year-old drivers will be even better when they’re 25, so don’t rush them to the top. Instead, go win some races with some 38-year-olds.

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About Michael Massie

Michael Massie
Michael Massie is a writer for Frontstretch. Massie, a Richmond, Va. native, has been a NASCAR superfan since childhood, when he frequented races at Richmond International Raceway. Massie is a lover of short track racing and travels around to the ones in his region. Outside of motorsports, the Virginia Tech grad can be seen cheering on his beloved Hokies.

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12 comments

  1. Avatar

    It’s interesting looking back… Remember when Tony Stewart won his first Cup race in ’99? It was the first win by a rookie driver since 1987. That opened the floodgates for rookie wins:

    Year Rookie Winner
    2000 Dale Jr., Kenseth
    2001 Harvick
    2002 McMurray, Newman, Johnson
    2003 Biffle
    2005 Ky. Busch
    2006 Hamlin
    2007 Montoya
    2009 Keselowski, Logano
    2011 Bayne
    2016 Buescher

    With only a couple of exceptions, quite a list of future HOF’ers on here in the last 20 years. The problem is, they came so frequently for so long, everyone now EXPECTS a rookie to win. When they don’t, it is a huge disappointment. Some even go so far as lamenting the more experienced drivers winning too much (See “Big 3”, 2018). The narrative stops just short of coming right out and demanding the old farts to park their cars and allow the new guys to win simply to appease the media, fans, and sponsors.

    Rookie winners are generally an exception, not the rule. But for some weird reason, due to a recent run of rookie winners, many seem to expect every young driver to win these days. There’s no learning curve given; get in and win or search for another ride. Unless, of course, you bring fat sponsor $$ – in which case you may stay as long as you like.

    • Avatar

      Actually your listing make one wonder why people are still enthralled by trying to get the next best thing in their cars. had the onslaught of talent in the 2naughts and in the last 10 seasons only 2 and both so far have not done much since. Bayne is essentially out of big time NASCAR series, and Buescher is still plugging away with lower funded team. He is also now in that later 20’s age range.

      • Avatar

        Brian – my guess would be this: people remember NASCAR to be better when those guys were just coming into the sport in the late 90’s early 00’s, so maybe they think more rookie winners will solve/mask all of NASCAR’s current problems?

        Last year there was so much desire and EXPECTATION for Elliott and Blaney to win, I can’t imagine the pressure they felt. No doubt those guys will have successful careers, but the demand for new guys to win RIGHT NOW is immense, and the impatience shown when they don’t is mind boggling.

  2. Avatar

    It seems the only drivers who get top rides these days are the ones related to former or current drivers, drove for Kyle Busch in the Truck series, or bring in lots of money. No one else has much of a chance.

  3. Avatar

    Do you know how drivers like Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, Darrell Waltrip, Ricky Rudd etc all became great drivers in top rides? They did it by earning them by paying their dues in lesser rides. Take a look at their careers and see who they started out driving for. This is no disrespect for those owners but they were the journeymen owners of NASCAR. Would they dominate every week, no but they would win a race every once in while and therefore kept their teams relevant. Multiple team owners have did a number on the sport. I just picked a random race off of Racing-reference.com. The 1992 Miller Genuine Draft 500 at Pocono. The race had 41 entries (2 more that didn’t make the race) that were owned by 37 (39 with the DNQs) different owners. Last week’s race featured 37 entries owned by just 19 owners. My point, there is not many places for an up and coming driver to get a ride and therefore prove they belong in the big leagues before they get their shot with the top rides.

  4. Avatar

    Right now younger drivers are cheaper. Erik Jones and William Byron are probably making a fraction of the base salary that Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne commanded. A cheaper driver with high upside means you can ask less money from sponsors. All of a sudden that $30 million budget goes down to $15 or 20 million because you aren’t paying the driver $10 million+ a year. The problem is these drivers aren’t finding instant success and failing to capture the attention of the fan base.

  5. Avatar

    i read something this week that hamlin said he’d be happy to walk away as he’ll get a huge payout from his contract.

    i guess it’s a bonus to have a younger driver and try to develop them and figure they’ll spend a few years selling pepsi or chips and them move to a beer sponsor.

    i also think it has a lot to do with how younger driver adapt to the change of the cars. look at jimmie johnson. he’s had a heck of a time with this car. jr wasn’t very adaptable either. younger guys want to learn so they’ll spend hours in the simulator. they also don’t have the demands of sponsors, ownership and families on their time.

    • Avatar

      Janice, I think Denny’s attitude speaks volumes and is a larger reason he will never be a champions. That quote makes it sounds like he just does it for the money. It takes more than that to be a champion.

    • Avatar

      Or it speaks volumes about the way the drivers feel about the current version of Nascar. One only has to look at Stewart, Gordon and Jr retiring at the same time even though they were still pretty competitive and had huge fan bases. Stewart also made it very clear he left because he was tired of all the gimmicks and playoff formats they have had to deal with. It was not about winning races as the primary goal anymore. Rumors have swirled that Edwards got bought out with a nice big check to get Suarez a ride last year and he hasn’t looked back either. Funny how they kicked him to the curb as soon as Truex became available.

      I don’t blame the veteran drivers one bit for having animosity on the subject. Being replaced by an inexperienced young driver that hasn’t paid their dues, even though I have been a championship contender year after year, wouldn’t sit too well with me either.

  6. Avatar

    Joe Gibbs is full of shit. The way he handled the same questions before Jones left Furniture Row and the subsequent release of Matt Kenseth (who I was not a fan of) tells you all you need to know. If he is moving Bell up to cup, someone is going to be out of a job and he knows who it is right now.

  7. Avatar

    Bell is a special circumstance. He’s a future cup champion. I guarantee it. To compare him to Austin Dillon because of zfinity success is stupid. Bell races for the best racing team in sports. JGR. If Austin raced for JGR he’d had 3x the amount of wins right now. Chris Bell is the closest thing to Jeff Gordon nascar has had, based on pure talent.

    • Avatar

      There have been many drivers touted as “the next Jeff Gordon”, very few of them actually have been. The truth is that we won’t know until he gets a chance. And even then a 1000 things have to come together for him to be successful regardless of his talent.