INDIANAPOLIS — With Ross Chastain’s victory in Sunday’s EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at the Circuit of The Americas, he became the latest driver under the age of 30 to win a NASCAR Cup Series race. In fact, this was a feat that’s now occurred in 12 straight races now with no sign of slowing up in the future.
See, Bubba Wallace (28) started it in Talladega last Fall and Chastain just kept it going in COTA. He bested 28 year old Alex Bowman while 27 year old Christopher Bell was third. 26 year old Chase Elliott came home fourth with Tyler Reddick (26) rounded out the top five. 28 year old Ryan Blaney was sixth to give all top six finishes being under the age of 30. If you factor in 8th place Austin Cindric (23) and 9th place Erik Jones (25), you get 8 of the top 9 under the age of 30.
So, why now? Why is the youth movement here and is it here to stay?
I think that’s a two-fold question that honestly coincides with each other. We’ve been talking about this youth movement coming for the last several years now, so it’s none too surprising that it’s here.
The fact that it’s here and that it’s been a topic of discussion is Part I which is that these drivers may be young, but they’re not new to NASCAR. The landscape of the sport is changing and it’s getting younger and younger. Yes, Wallace was 28 when he won but 2021 was also his fourth full-time season in NASCAR’s premiere series too.
Kyle Larson then won 5 of the 12 races in this span. He’s 29 years of age and has been a Cup driver since 2014.
Alex Bowman has won twice. He’s 28 and too has been around in Cup since 2014. William Byron is just 24 but this is his fifth full time season in Cup but his seventh in the sport all together.
You also get Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe who technically are in their first and 2nd years in Cup respectively, but Briscoe has a lot of miles on him in being 27 with Cindric having raced since he was a teenager. Chastain, has raced nearly 100 times a year at times and has arguably as many NASCAR races under his belt than anyone since 2016.
So, experience is a factor and these guys while young in terms of age, they’re not young in terms of racing experience.
Another factor is most are driving for big teams already. All four Hendrick Motorsports drivers are under the age of 30. 2 of the 3 at Penske but if you include their satellite team with the Wood Brothers, 75% of them are under the age of 30. Joey Logano is the oldest at a ripe old age of 31.
Half of the Stewart-Haas Racing fleet is under 30 with Briscoe (27) and Cole Custer (24). Only Bell at JGR is under 30 while 3 of their 4 are 36 or older.
In all, 17 of the current full-time drivers are under 30. 5 more are 31 or even 30. That’s 22 of 32 full time drivers being 31 or younger. So, as you can see, there’s more younger drivers in the sport today and most are with big teams.
They may have to take different paths to seats and ones they may have to take risks in getting there, but it’s working.
Another layer to this is the new car. It’s changed everything too. The way this thing races is completely different than the old car and by virtue of that, no one has a real advantage yet.
“I think that we were coming out of an era in the sport where you could engineer a piece of equipment that was so much — so far superior to everybody else’s, but now we do truly basically have the same stuff,” Trackhouse co-owner Justin Marks said following their win on Sunday.
“I say it’s an execution car. It’s a car that shines when people work together and really try to prepare well and methodically and think about it. It’s a driver’s car. We have two incredible race car drivers.
“The thing is this car — I really believed since day one that this car delivers an opportunity for these companies to feel like real teams and to really invest in teamwork, the way the 9 and the — I’m sorry. The way the 1 and the 99 work together and how everybody feels motivated and empowered.
“The pitch was, let’s build a great team together, let’s do all of this together. That was the inside of the building pitch. The outside of the building pitch is this sport is ready for challengers. It’s ready for disruptors. It’s ready for people to come in and challenge the status quo and how we do things, have some fun, look good, try to be fast, win races, have a good time doing it.”
Daniel Suarez agreed.
“I think what NASCAR did with this Next Gen car is something that in my opinion we’re already seeing the results,” said Suarez. “We are going to look back in a few years from now, five years from now, and we’re going to be all very, very thankful we did this thing called Next Gen car because it just brought opportunity for new players in the game.
“So yeah, I definitely think that the competition and the way that we are competing with the Next Gen car is way more level than before.”
Erik Jones, who’s been vastly more competitive with Petty GMS Racing agrees too.
“With the Next Gen car, I think it’s opened so many doors for us,” he said last month. “Having the same parts and pieces – we just have to take that wheel they’ve given us and make it a little bit rounder. Dave’s done a real good job at that.”
In the first six races of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season the fans have seen five different pole winners, six different race winners and four different driver point standings leaders.
Chase Elliott took over the reigns leaving Atlanta and holds onto it leaving COTA. He wrangled it away from Joey Logano who leaving Phoenix, was latest of the four driver point standings leaders taking the top spot following his eight-place finish in the Arizona desert. Elliott and Logano join Austin Cindric and Kyle Larson as the four drivers to hold the point standings lead this season.
2021 series champ Larson (Daytona), Cindric (Auto Club, COTA), Christopher Bell (Las Vegas), Ryan Blaney (Phoenix) and Chase Briscoe (Atlanta) have all won a pole this season, granted Briscoe’s was due to points. Still, Briscoe, Cindric and Bell were first-time pole winners in the NASCAR Cup Series becoming the 241st, 242nd and 243rd different drivers to win a pole in the series, respectively.
Rookie Cindric (Daytona), Larson (Auto Club), Alex Bowman (Las Vegas), Briscoe (Phoenix) ,William Byron (Atlanta) and Chastain (COTA) have all won a race this season. Cindric, Briscoe and Chastain were first-time winners in the series at that. Briscoe became the 200th different winner in the NASCAR Cup Series with Chastain No. 201.
Through six races into the 2022 season we have also seen 18 different drivers post top-five finishes – the most through the first six races of season ahead of the 2020 (17) in the last 10 years (2013-2022).
We’ve had a new driver score his first top five finish of the season in every race run this year. The first couple of races are obvious, but Alex Bowman, Ross Chastain, Kyle Busch and William Byron got their first top fives in Vegas. For Phoenix it was Tyler Reddick and Kurt Busch’s turn. In Atlanta, it was Corey LaJoie while Christopher Bell did so in COTA. I’d say Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Cole Custer, Brad Keselowski, Chris Buescher, Harrison Burton, Justin Haley, Ty Dillon, Michael McDowell, Todd Gilliland, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. or Cody Ware are up next. They’re the only ones left.
Also, prior to Atlanta the first four races of 2022 have produced an average number of different leaders per race of 10.75 – the most since 2014 (12.0) – and an average of 26.0 lead changes per race – the most since 2011 (35.0). That number will grow in a positive way with Atlanta featuring a record of 46 lead changes among 20 drivers and COTA having 13 lead changes among 9 drivers in 69 laps.
And to boot, 5 of the 6 of the NASCAR Cup Series races have concluded with a Margin of Victory of less than a second and the season’s average Margin of Victory the closest since 2016.
The margin of victory in the season opening Daytona 500 was .036-seconds. That was the third closest in the 64 year history of the race. For Fontana, Kyle Larson topped Austin Dillon by just .195-seconds. That was the second closest finish in 31 tries at the Auto Club Speedway. In Vegas, Alex Bowman beat Larson by .178-seconds for the third closest finish in 29 races on the 1.5-mile Nevada race track. For Phoenix, Briscoe beat Ross Chastain by just .771-seconds.
Finally in Atlanta, William Byron topped Chastain again by .145-seconds which ranks fourth all-time in 116 races on the Georgia race track.
In COTA, it was 1.331-seconds and the only reason it was that wide was due to the on track run-ins for the top three on the final lap in the final few corners.
A final layer to this is, with a new car and changing how you race it, you also change in your preparation too. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. These veterans have done the same thing for years upon years and it’s worked. Now, you’re asking them to change everything they’ve known and had success doing as well as change their weekly prepartion.
With less practice available and more sim time being the preferred method, it’s swaying the advantage to the younger drivers already.
I mean look at the veterans and what they did prior.
2020 saw the string of dominance between Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick end. Neither of the three made the Championship 4. In the six years prior, they won half the championships and annually made it to the final race each year with a shot at the title.
Busch, had 5 straight Championship 4 appearances. Harvick had 5 in 6 years. Truex Jr. had 4 in 5 years including 3 straight top two finishes.
They were done at that point.
Only Truex (last year) has made it back. Truex, won four times in 2021. He’s yet to score a top five this season.
Busch, has 1 top 5 himself. His main problem is, he’s not winning. He has just three wins in his last 78 races. He had 18 in the previous 88 starts.
Similar thing for Harvick but he’s not even getting close to wins where Busch at least is. Harvick won nine times in 2020 but all came in the first 29 races. In fact, if you go back to the end of the 2019 season, he had 10 wins in 32 starts. But, over his last 49 starts, he’s been shutout. He has no top fives all season.
Then you have Denny Hamlin. He’s made the last three Championship 4’s. This season, not only does he not have a top five, he has 0 top 10’s at that.
This has opened the door for sure. The older guard that should be dominating isn’t.
Harvick is oldest at 46. He’s on a 49 race winless streak.
Kurt Busch is next at 43 but is driving with a second year team. He does have 2 top fives this season but has just two wins in his last 95 tries.
Hamlin is 41 but has 2 wins in his last 47 starts.
Truex Jr. is also 41 with but 1 win in his last 24 starts and 4 over the last 81 tries, he has 5 wins.
Aric Almirola is next at 38 but has 1 win in his last 119 tries. He’s retiring at seasons end.
Brad Keselowski is 38 but has 1 win in his last 50 tries and driving for a new team this year than the past that hasn’t won a race since 2017.
Michael McDowell is 37 with 1 career win in total.
Kyle Busch is then next up at 36 with 3 wins in the last 78 tries.
In turn, you get the way the racing is done very differently.
NASCAR racing is one of different eras. You have the one we’re currently in which is dubbed the “Modern Era.” However, in this latest era, you can really break it down to more precise groupings inside of it.
A prime example is how much NASCAR has changed since the start of the 2017 season. The stage era as well as a win and you’re in format as altered everything as we know it.
Prior to 2017, races were run from green to checkered without any manufactured cautions for stage breaks. It’s changed the way you race with those 10 stage points being so crucial. So is that playoff point for the stage winner.
Also, the endings are different. You rough people up more just to get by. If you can win, you clinch a playoff spot and gain 5 playoff points in the process. If you win in the playoffs and are still championship eligible, you automatically advance to the final round.
Has that altered the racing too?
Ross Chastain moved AJ Allmendinger out of the way to win last Sunday in COTA. Allmendinger didn’t like that maneuver and made it clear his feelings on it.
“At the end of the day, we all have to look ourselves in the mirror,” he said. “If you are okay with it, you’re okay with it. Each person is different.
“Everybody at Kaulig Racing, all the men and women, it’s just a lot of sleepless nights for them right now trying to just get these cars to the next race. So, I was doing everything I could do to try to sweep the weekend for them. We were that close.
“So like I said, at the end of the day each person has to make the move that they’re comfortable with, and that’s fine. So we’ll — at the end of the day it’s — we know we had a shot to win the race. It’s tough to win a Cup race, so when you put yourself in a position to legitimately run up front all day and have a shot to win it, it’s a pretty great day. Unfortunately, just we needed about two more corners.”
Chastain, admitted that this could strain their relationship because of it.
However, this wasn’t the first time he says that he cost Allmendinger a win but in the case of this one, it could put some distance between the two with how the final few corners transpired.
“I’ve cost AJ a win at Daytona in the Xfinity Series, and he was obviously a quarter mile away from winning here,” Chastain said.. “He has taught me a lot, and I’m sure that our friendship will hurt for this. I feel like I had started to win some of his friendship back, and just being nice to each other when you see each other. It took a while.”
As far as making the last move, it’s not like Allmendinger didn’t get into Chastain first.
Did the fact that Allmendinger did that initial move on him and the onus that Allmendinger’s team isn’t going for points make Chastain get a “payback” and take the win now and apologize later?
“No, it’s just a race car,” he said. “I know who I’m racing around. I’m aware of my surroundings. And honestly, through the carousel I thought with Alex to my right and AJ ahead of me, I didn’t think there was a way to win. When we got to 19, everything happened, and it was not the plan.
“The plan was stay out front when we took the white, and I just babied it. I eased it into 12 too much, and he got to me. It only took a small little bump in 15. I was so loose through there all day. You saw it in qualifying. It’s where I slipped up and missed the fast five and was managing that all day, and it only took a small little bit.
“No, I don’t race anybody any different.
“I hate that because I’ve lived through that in my career for 12th place in Xfinity. I’ve fought, and I’ve roughed people up and gotten into people. I’ve wrecked Justin Marks. He was going to win Road America in 2016, 2017. I wrecked him and James Davidson for no reason. It’s not lost on me that I make some of the same mistakes. It’s just staring down a Cup Series win. I just couldn’t let that go.
“I mean, I know he is going to be upset with me, but we raced hard, both of us, and he owes me one.
“But when it comes to a Cup win, man, I can’t let that go down without a fight.”
Hamlin had this happen to him in Martinsville last Halloween. We saw how the Daytona 500 ended with teammates getting into one another in each of the last two years. Fontana saw teammates again with a run-in. You’re seeing more crashes at the end of races due to the intensity and wins meaning more now because of it.
Joey Logano says NASCAR has put these drivers in more and more precarious positions lately and it’s all intentional. That’s also not necessarily a bad thing either he notes.
“You’re in this position more and more every year,” said the Team Penske driver. “There are moments on the race track that test your character. It tests who you are and how you want to race and what are you going to do to win a championship now.
“NASCAR has all put us in a position to make challenging decisions on what is right. I’ll be 100% honest with you, I don’t even know what’s right. You try to play out all the scenarios in your mind before the weekend starts so you know what to do in the moment, but half the time, it’s something that comes up of maybe something that you didn’t think about or maybe you didn’t have the answer to yet but you’re forced to make a decision in a split second. That’s what we have to think about.
“That’s also very entertaining for you guys. That sucks for us sometimes. You just got to do what you’ve got to do. It’s something all of us drivers think about a lot.”
He’s not wrong. Just look at how the schedule has shifted too. We went to a football stadium for the Clash. We doubled the road courses from 2018 (3) until now (6). We’re adding more short tracks and losing 1.5-mile’s.
That sets up end of race drama.
“You have to be consistent,” Logano says on how to battle for a win in the end. “What’s consistent? I’m going to win. I’m out there to win the race. That’s the goal and you do what it takes to do that. But, you have to have your moral code and know what is okay to do that. Is it dumping somebody is okay to win a race? I don’t think so. That’s not really in my cards. Now, bump-and-run? I’ve proven that I think that’s okay. The facts are that you have to be okay with that happening to you. Am I okay with being wrecked? No. Am I okay with being moved out of the way? I don’t have to be happy about it but I have to be okay with it if I’m going to do it. I feel like that should be the code. Whatever your happy with being done by you have to have be okay with it if it was someone else.”
So, as we see, what makes you think this youth movement is done or going to halt any time soon? This may be the new way.