Parker Kligerman, who will be on NASCAR America from 5:30-6 p.m. ET today on NBCSN, joins Nate Ryan and Dustin Long in discussing key topics in NASCAR in this week’s Bump & Run.
Six drivers in the top 16 in points are age 26 or younger — Erik Jones (20 years old), Chase Elliott (21), Ryan Blaney (23), points leader Kyle Larson (24), Trevor Bayne (26) and Joey Logano (26). After seven races in the season, is this an official changing of the guard in the Cup series?
Parker Kligerman: Considering earlier this year when we did this feature, when asked to name a certain driver we had our eye on for 2017, I answered with a group. Specifically the 26-and-under group. Because, no doubt in my mind, this year is a turning point. There are enough uber-talented drivers in cars with astronomical funding levels. It was only logical we would see these young drivers become a conversation point.
With that said, I do not think the guard has changed yet. Not until we get to the Championship Four, and we are not talking about an eighth championship for J.J., or a second for Brad K., Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, or Matt Kenseth, or a first for Denny Hamlin or Martin Truex Jr., but we are talking about how the average age of the Championship Four is far from midlife crisis age, and the 26-and-under drivers are the main contenders. Maybe even the winner. Only than can I say the guard officially has been changed. Right now, the guards are just swapping shifts.
Nate Ryan: It definitely is evidence that a new era is dawning, but I’m not ready to say the group once known as the “Young Guns” is ready to ride off into the sunset. It’ll be at least a few more years — and several victories, plus maybe a championship — for that youthful crop to have displaced Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth et al.
Dustin Long: No, it’s not a changing of the guard. Seven races is not enough. Just look at the number of wins those six drivers have combined to score this season: One. That’s not a changing of the guard. Yes, this group is gaining more attention with four of them in the top six in points heading to Bristol, but until they show this type of dominance — and win more often — for a full year will it be a changing of the guard.
The next two weeks feature Cup races at short tracks (Bristol and Richmond). Which driver or team will you be watching closely to see how they fare?
Parker Kligerman: Kyle Busch: I know … How boring! But bear with me: Kyle is EXCEPTIONAL at these two tracks, but his race cars have been nothing of the sort in 2017, aside from Martinsville (a short track). In my time at Kyle Busch Motorsports, it was these two tracks that I watched him very closely and realized I had some serious work to do to be able to consider myself win-worthy. His ability to deal with a very, very loose race car on the entry of the corners is what makes him so good at Richmond. But he can shoulder only so much. Will JGR bring cars worthy of his talent, similar to Martinsville?
Nate Ryan: Joe Gibbs Racing and in particular Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Either could win at both races, and that would help quell the incessant questions about why JGR has struggled off the starting line in 2018.
Dustin Long: Denny Hamlin. He has only one finish better than 10th so far this season. He won at Richmond last fall. I would expect him to run well at both tracks and climb higher in the points. This also could be a chance for him to score some stage points. He has only 14 this season — nine came at Martinsville in the first stage. If Hamlin doesn’t run well in these two races, then it would raise some red flags, especially with how the JGR cars have not been as strong on the bigger tracks. This is a two-race stretch for Hamlin to collect some much-needed points.
Which streak is likely to continue: Hendrick Motorsports is winless in the last three years at Bristol and Richmond; Joe Gibbs Racing has won five of the last eight races at Bristol and Richmond.
Parker Kligerman: I think HMS stays winless. Odd, I know, to bet against the team that just won the most recent race. But it’s hard for me to feel confident in any car out of that stable except the 48. And I know the 48 has momentum, but from what I saw at Martinsville, there is work to be done. Add in the 24 has not closed one out yet. The 88 seems to be looking for a bit of consistency, and the 5 is still lost. I don’t like the chances of HMS in the next two races.
Nate Ryan: Hendrick Motorsports, though I wouldn’t count out a breakthrough by Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose resurgence at Texas Motor Speedway seemed legitimate.
Dustin Long: Hard not to go with Hendrick remaining winless at Bristol and Richmond in recent times. I’ll be interested to see how the Hendrick cars do the next couple of weeks since these tracks, particularly Richmond, have not been their best. After some sub-par performances, these tracks are an opportunity for the HMS teams to build some momentum. Question is if they will.
Watch Parker Kligerman on NASCAR America today from 5:30-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.