The Texas Motor Speedway promotional campaign poster last week of the new kids on the racetrack left one place out.
It is time for these perceived future stars of NASCAR to start winning. And the next three weeks could provide the perfect venues for them.
Short-track races at Bristol (2 p.m. ET Sunday, Fox) and Richmond followed by the restrictor-plate race at Talladega means ample opportunity for young drivers to earn their first victory.
These are the ones we’re talking about: Erik Jones (21 years old), 11th in the Cup series standings. Alex Bowman (turns 25 on April 25), 14th. Chase Elliott (22), 15th, William Byron (20) in 18th and Darrell Wallace Jr. (24) in 19th. That’s five drivers in the top-20 who have never won a race. Ryan Blaney (24), in third, has won just one (Pocono in 2017).
And then, of course, Talladega. Brad Keselowski and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are the current drivers who first hoisted a Cup trophy in their careers at that track. The historical list includes Brian Vickers, Ken Schrader and Davey Allison.
Daytona 500 winner Austin Dillon (age 27) is the only under-30 driver to win this year. The other winners from 2018 include: Kevin Harvick (42), Clint Bowyer (38), Martin Truex Jr. (37) and Kyle Busch (32).
“If you like good marketing, it is good,” Harvick said about the old-versus-young themes. “If you like winners, you go for the old guys.”
“I love every one of those kids … and I think they are all great for our sport,” Harvick said. “I am not taking personal digs on them. I am trying to have fun with it, and I told them that they should have fun with it, too. That is really what it is about.
“The dad and kid sitting in the grandstands from two different generations and mom and daughter sitting in the grandstands from two different generations, they root for the old guys and you root for the young guys. That is great for our sport, it really is.”
But the key is at some point, they have to win. Harvick said Dale Earnhardt Jr. could have even been more popular if he had won more races and a championship. Danica Patrick, he noted, had all the marketing behind her, but her lack of success ended her career.
“When you look at the dynamic between Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, that’s the dynamic that we have the potential to have right now with the group of young racers that have come in,” Harvick said. “But somebody has to step up and be that winner. Who’s the young winner? Who’s going to be the guy that’s going to go against Truex and challenge him for the championship that he’s defending and win races?
“I’m happy with where I’m at. We’re winning races and gaining momentum and doing all the things we need to do.”
Elliott won the Xfinity Series title in 2014 and moved to Cup two years later. Daniel Suarez won in 2016 and Byron won in 2017; each moved to Cup the year following his title. Jones, the 2015 truck champion, spent one year in Xfinity and then went to Cup in 2017.
Short tracks lend themselves to opportunities for young drivers: They often call for the style of racing they’re most familiar with, as those are the places where they honed their skills. The unpredictability of restrictor-plate racing also provides another opportunity.
Jones enters Bristol coming off a season-best fourth-place finish at Texas.
“Starting the year last year, I thought I was kind of laid-back and, you know, biding my time and finishing races well,” Jones said. “Then as the year went on, I got more and more aggressive and at times would get myself into accidents. We had a lot of DNFs in the midpoint of the year and toward the end of the year which [were] my own fault quite a few times.
“I think just trying to find that middle ground this year has been important to me and finding out a good balance of charging hard. You want to run as hard as you can every lap, but sometimes you got to take what is given to you.”
Blaney has had the best season of all the fresh faces on the circuit.
“I don’t really look at age,” Blaney said. “They’re just competitors to me. I don’t really understand the hate that everyone gets for the younger [versus] veterans. It’s not a rivalry. I don’t care if you’re 18 years old or 50 years old, we’re just competitors.”
The only “young guy” to win at Bristol the past five years has been Logano, and maybe that has to do with him adapting to resurfacing and attempts to create multiple grooves at the track. There’s also the fact that drivers such as Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards were veterans at the top of their games when they won at Bristol.
But if there’s an opportunity, don’t be surprised if one of these young drivers gets antsy.
“To be honest with you, it’s very difficult to move guys out of the way,” Elliott said prior to Martinsville. “It’s easy to make a mistake and to wreck them. I’m probably not good enough to move them out of the way and not wreck them.
“So, for me, I just better figure out a way to pass them without touching them would probably be the best option. But there are going to come times when you are going to be racing hard and you are going to touch and you are going to move guys — and people aren’t going to be happy and that is part of it.”