Did You Notice?… NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon retired in November 2015 at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a shot at the Cup Series championship. He was 44 years old. Just five years later, William Byron trounced the field at that same track Sunday (Feb. 28) to take Gordon’s former No. 24 car to victory lane at age 22.
Bye-bye, Generation X. Hello… Gen-Z?
Welcome to the NASCAR youth movement Hendrick Motorsports embraced. Byron’s win was the second in his last 14 races, and on the heels of 25-year-old teammate Chase Elliott earning the 2020 Cup championship, Chevrolet’s top team is back on top of the stock car world once again.
“After the first win, I think what clicked for me was the hunger to taste the same feeling,” Byron said after doubling his career total. “How exciting it is to win and what that means to the guys around you. I think once you get that taste in your mouth, it’s hard to – you can’t really get rid of it.”
That’s the problem for a lot of aging, big-name drivers feeling the heat of fresh blood breathing down their necks. There’s been just one winner (Michael McDowell) in the sport’s top three series thus far is over the age of 26.
The trending list of rising talent includes 18-year-old teenager Ty Gibbs, grandson of Hall of Fame NFL coach Joe, and who won his NASCAR Xfinity Series debut at the Daytona road course, making peanut butter crackers all the rage. Twenty-six-year-old Christopher Bell (Joe Gibbs Racing – Cup) and 22-year-old Austin Cindric (Team Penske – Xfinity) have also cashed in.
But it’s Hendrick, the New York Yankees of NASCAR, at the forefront of generational change. At the time of Gordon’s retirement, the average age of their four-car team was 40 years old. Now? Kyle Larson is the old man of that quartet at age 28. Alex Bowman (age 27) won the pole for the Daytona 500 and challenged deep into the playoffs last year. Sprinkle in Elliott and Byron and you’ve got a team contending for the next decade-plus.
Give owner Rick Hendrick credit, investing in his team’s long-term future while absorbing short-term cost (0-for-12 in Championship 4 appearances from 2017-2019). He even knew when to shuffle head wrenches, promoting seven-time champion Chad Knaus to Director of Competition while bringing in Rudy Fugle (an old man at age 36) to crew chief Byron this year.
In just three races, they won.
“It definitely was the right opportunity,” Fugle said Sunday. “I wanted to prove I could do it at this level. We want to do it a whole lot more.”
Sounds like NASCAR stars from the past decade like Kyle Busch (35 years old), Brad Keselowski (36), Martin Truex Jr. (40), Denny Hamlin (40), Kurt Busch (42) and Kevin Harvick (45) could have their hands full. All of them but Hamlin have won at least one Cup title; it’s the remaining list of active Cup champions sans Logano (30).
Yet all of them are suddenly sitting on the back burner, at least for now. Isn’t it funny how quickly the script can flip? At the time of Gordon’s retirement, only one driver (Logano) made the 16-driver playoff under the age of 30. Three races into 2021… we’re guaranteed to have at least two.
The question is, how many more. Can Chase Briscoe win as a rookie? Will Tyler Reddick one-up his second-place finish at Homestead? A few more postseason surprises and one of the big names above is going to miss out.
Did You Notice? … What gets revealed when unfamiliar names find their way to the front of the pack? Michael McDowell was asked this week if guys are racing him a little bit harder now that the No. 34 team has become a threat. His answer was basically yeah, selectively, as joining the NASCAR country club up front doesn’t come with automatic friendships attached.
“I won’t throw out names because I don’t want to turn it into that,” McDowell said. “But I literally saw a driver wave another driver by and then race me for the next seven laps like it was the last lap.”
The truth of it is other than Ryan Newman these days, not every Cup driver gives 110 percent on every lap. They’re like oh, I like this guy, or I need to take it easy on equipment so I’ll let someone drive by without a fight. But then another car comes along that they don’t know much about. Or maybe that driver made contact with the other one at a race a few weeks back. Suddenly, both cars are racing tooth-and-nail with the type of effort that’s subjective based on personality.
It’s the type of situation that makes NASCAR unique among major sports. It’s also inherently unfair. Would a baseball pitcher, up by one run, throw softballs over the center of the plate to a cleanup hitter just because they’re friends? The sport already has enough of these “friendships” in the form of multi-car organizations where drivers play it safe around their teammates. The danger of a 1-2-3-4 finish where no one tries to pass each other in the name of “team orders” seems precariously close at hand.
So drivers adding whether or not Johnny was nice to you during the week into their thought process? It makes NASCAR more wrestling and less athleticism. But it’s happening more and more these days with a driving corps financially comfortable and increasingly insulated due to the realities of COVID-19 restrictions.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- You just can’t praise McDowell enough after three straight top-10 finishes for the first time in his Cup career. He’s sitting fourth in the standings with an underdog program that’s never once cracked the top 15, driving with the type of confidence drivers get after they prove they can win. Bravo.
- What’s left to say about Noah Gragson that hasn’t already been said? The luck was awful. The dipsh*t comment was worse. David Starr and owner Carl Long have every right to be upset. But Gragson’s penchant for controversy also shows (dare I say it) personality NASCAR always needs. Drama is best cooked up with a recipe of good versus evil. Gragson, whether he realizes it or not, is formulating himself a starring role as the villain.
- Sure, Elliott has positioned himself well early as the reigning NASCAR champ. But three races in, 2021 stinks of missed opportunities at the Daytona road course (twice) and not-as-much speed everywhere else. Higher expectations fall short when you’re not the first driver on your own team to win this season.
- Speaking of Elliott, his brouhaha Ryan Blaney has left his bestie down for the count. Since a last-lap wreck cost them both in the exhibition Busch Clash, he’s got more wrecks (two) than laps led (zero) in points-paying races while slumping to 24th in the standings.
- NASCAR fans were shouting “Chris who?” at their TV set when Buescher led a career-high 57 laps at Homestead. That’s nearly as many laps (68) as his two-car Roush Fenway Racing team led in all of 2020! “Honestly,” Buescher told Frontstretch’s Daniel McFadin this week, “it’s the most relaxed I’ve been in a race car in a really long time.” The full interview, to me, showcases yet another young talent poised to lift up a middle-tier program in a way McDowell’s done with Front Row Motorsports the last three weeks. Parity in NASCAR this season. It’s definitely a thing.