Every sport faces periods of their existence where a changing of the guard takes place. Accomplished veterans reach the twilight years of their careers and are replaced with new faces looking to make their names known.
Many sports’ transitions of athletes have carried second-generation names in the past, and NASCAR is no different, with a rich history of family tradition. Names like Petty, Allison, Jarrett, and Earnhardt highlight iconic generations of drivers in the sport’s history.
In 2016, the name Elliott joined the list when Chase Elliott was tapped to replace retiring four-time champion Jeff Gordon in the NASCAR Cup Series. Not only did Elliott already have an established fan base, but he also had results to earn himself a Cup ride, with standout performances in the Xfinity Series.
Elliott came in at a time when the youth movement was commencing. Drivers such as Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne rode off into the sunset between 2015-2018. Others were finding themselves pushed out of rides to make room for young hot shots. And in some cases, a driver would leave for a new ride while the open ride would be filled with a new rookie.
The movement continues to take effect in the new decade. In 2020 alone, 18 full-time Cup drivers were 29 years old or younger.
Looking at Elliott, it is easy to forget just how young he is (he turned 25 on Nov. 28) and that he just completed his fifth full-time Cup season. Elliott brings a level of maturity and patience that can be compared to fellow Hendrick Motorsports champions Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. The ability to perform under pressure that he showed in 2020 adds an extra level to his talent.
It wasn’t too long ago that we saw Elliott come painfully close numerous times to earning his first Cup win. Fast-forward two years and a few months since his first win at Watkins Glen International in 2018 and he is now a champion. He became the youngest driver to win a championship since Gordon in 1995 and the third youngest to do it in the modern era behind Gordon and Bill Rexford.
The youth movement today has been led by Elliott and contains the rising superstars Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Erik Jones, William Byron and more. Before 2020, while we had seen guys like Elliott, Blaney and Jones grab multiple wins, none of them could get over the hump and compete for a championship. When Elliott won the Round of 8 finale at Martinsville Speedway to punch his ticket to Phoenix Raceway, he was one step closer to changing that.
But Elliott wasn’t done there. Facing past champions Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, plus veteran Denny Hamlin, Elliott overcame the hurdles and won his first championship in his first try with the playoff format. As the siren and cheers rang in Dawsonville, Ga., Johnson had a torch-passing moment with Elliott, and the youth movement seemed to have truly arrived.
The last time I can think of such a drastic change between veterans vs. rookies was in the early 2000s. Then, it included Earnhardt, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Johnson, Edwards, Kurt Busch, Kahne, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin. These are now household names, and five of them have become champions. Each one of the drivers mentioned above recorded 18 wins or more.
Elliott now has eleven wins, putting him at 59th on the all-time wins list already. Elliott and Johnson both won their first title in their fifth-full time season at the top level. The difference is that Elliott was 24 at the time that he won his first title, while Johnson was 31.
Many young guns will be looking to follow Elliott’s precedent. Blaney jumps out as someone who could top the list. While he was eliminated from the playoffs in the first round, Blaney was often the fastest Team Penske car this year. Sure, Logano and Keselowski made the Championship 4 and had more wins, but Blaney found himself in contention numerous times this year. Miscues on pit road and bad luck hindered Blaney from achieving more this season. If his team can clean up issues on pit road and finish races where it runs, look for Blaney to be in the championship hunt next season.
Elliott’s success at Hendrick was not the only success the organization had with its young drivers. Bowman earned career win No. 2 at Auto Club Speedway in dominant fashion and finished a career-best sixth in points. Despite a summer slump, Bowman showed improvement from last year by running up front more. Teammate Byron didn’t quite have the year that was expected, but he earned his first career win at Daytona International Speedway in July. If both young drivers can stay consistent and overcome challenges, 2021 could be career years.
One thing that many people were also watching this year was the rookie battle. With Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer, Christopher Bell and John Hunter Nemechek headlining the rookie race, they impressed in more ways than one. While Custer’s win at Kentucky Speedway propelled him to Rookie of the Year, Reddick was often the fastest and most notable rookie to be at the front. And that is not to take anything away from Custer and Bell. Custer started out slow, but there were times this year where he showed flashes of stardom; the move to win Kentucky was one we haven’t seen from a rookie in years. Bell had a lot of things happen out of his control, but his running position and miraculous saves begot attention. Even Nemechek outperformed his equipment numerous times this year.
Nemechek is heading to Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Camping World Truck Series in 2021, but the other three will certainly be ones to watch amid youth movement. Each one showed potential that will only grow with experience.
When you evaluate the potential or current success of the youth movement, there is reason for excitement. Many of these guys have pure, raw talent and exciting driving styles. The major factor for this group to rise to the top is consistency. So many of them have been able to run up front and win every now and then, but in order to run for the championship they have to finish the deal. That will only grow with experience and maturity.
While three drivers in this under group will turn 30 next season, we will also get three more drivers 28 or younger. Kyle Larson makes his return after signing with Hendrick Motorsports, and he will no doubt be in contention for wins. Rookie Chase Briscoe‘s style may be the most similar to his team owner, Tony Stewart, that we’ve seen since Stewart retired. If he continues his epic rise through the ranks, the kid has the potential to be something special. And Ross Chastain will get his shot in strong Cup equipment behind the wheel of the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 42 Chevrolet. Chastain’s ability to fight for every ounce in his car will go a long ways.
2020 was the start of more consistent success from the young guys, even if they don’t win the title in the next year or two. Elliott has established himself as a perennial title contender and is arguably the favorite next season. With a star-studded roster from the oldest veteran to the youngest rookie in 2021, it will be compelling to see how the two generations meet and who will ultimately come out on top.