By Jordan McAbee
“Age turnover” is something that happens in every sport. The NFL team with the highest average age will eventually get a significant makeover, and could be the youngest in just a couple of years. With NASCAR, though, the “age turnover” (as I like to call it) doesn’t quite happen as rapidly.
Part of the blame with this slow progress can be blamed on the lack of talent in the driver pool. Brett Mottiff won the 2015 Rookie of the Year award and he’s struggling to even find a ride for the 2016 season. The Sprint Cup Series got some pretty good new talent in 2014 (Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon), and 2013 wasn’t overly-terrible (Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Danica Patrick), but from 2012 to 2010 we got three Rookie of the Years that I haven’t heard mentioned since: Stephen Leicht, Andy Lally, Kevin Conway.
Now, it’s borderline crazy to think that NASCAR would land a high-talent rookie every season, but it’s been a major swing-and-a-miss in four of the last six seasons. Right now the jury’s out on 2013, but Stenhouse and Danica have been quite underwhelming, to say the least.
I also think we got a little spoiled in the early years of the 2000s, as the rookie classes from 2000 to 2005 gave us drivers such as Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, and the 2015 Sprint Cup champion, Kyle Busch.
With that being said, there are some young stars in the Xfinity Series that are just waiting for the opportunity to get into a Cup car, but, to put it simply, there just isn’t a whole lot of room–at least in cars that are on par performance-wise with the rest of the series.
The Promising 2016 Rookie Class
Slowly but surely the wily old veterans are moving on to broadcasting duties and their rocking chairs, though. The 2016 season will be the first year that Jeff Gordon isn’t racing full time since 1993, nearly a quarter of a century. The iconic #24 Chevrolet will be taken over by the rookie Chase Elliott, who won the 2014 Xfinity Series championship and came home runner-up to Chris Buescher last season.
In addition to that, Ryan Blaney will be driving the Wood Brothers #21 Ford for the whole 2016 Sprint Cup season, which will be the first time that organization has attempted a full schedule since 2008 season. He has four wins in both the Xfinity and Truck Series despite running just 101 races between the two.
Rounding out this year’s promising rookie class are a couple of drivers with questionable equipment. First there is Chris Buescher, who won the 2015 Xfinity Series championship and will drive for Front Row Motorsports, a team that really hasn’t made much noise except for some restrictor plate races. Finally, there is Brian Scott, who will be taking control of the #44 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports. During the 2015 Cup season, Scott showed some promise in the #33 Circle Sport Chevrolet, which is an organization that lacks funding to really be competitive. Scott will definitely get a boost by moving over to RPM, but there’s still a clear ceiling there.
What Have You Done for Me Lately?
NASCAR is an extremely fast paced sport, and I’m not just talking about the speeds on the track. Up-and-coming drivers typically have a window of about two to three years to prove themselves. If they haven’t done enough to show that they are worth keeping around, team owners will be on to the next project–sometimes before the season is even over.
Take, for example, Joey Logano. He came into the Sprint Cup Series in 2009 as as much of a “sure pick” as you could get. He dominated the Xfinity Series and was taking over the #20 Toyota recently vacated by Tony Stewart. To say he was in the cat bird’s seat would be an understatement.
In Joey’s rookie campaign, he got lucky and won a rain-shortened race at Loudon while finishing 20th in the points standings. The following year, Logano was 16th in points with zero wins and the “bust” label starting to get thrown around. He stayed two more years at Joe Gibbs Racing, finishing 24th and 17th in his final two years at the organization while collecting just one more victory.
In 2013, Joey Logano made the jump to Penske Racing and paired up with Brad Keselowski. It was just the change of scenery that he needed. Logano went on to finish 8th in the points standings in his first year with the organization and then broke out as a serious contender in 2014 with 5 wins and a 4th-place points finish. Last year, Joey notched six Cup wins and was considered a championship contender before everything happened with Matt Kenseth.
So what does it all mean? Well, it’s hard to say. It’s no secret that drivers need time to develop before reaching their potential in this sport, but at the same time, that development needs to happen quickly. It finally seems like NASCAR is getting some better-than-average young talent, though, and it’s coming at a time when the sport needs it most. Tony Stewart will be saying farewell to NASCAR after his 2016 campaign, and there will probably be more veterans that step away in the next four or five years.
Better step up your game, kids. There’s going to be some excellent opportunities available in the form of Cup rides in the coming years.