Long: Sign of the times – Young drivers are in, veterans are on their way out

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Whether 19-year-old William Byron is ready for Cup doesn’t matter. He’ll be there next year for Hendrick Motorsports because he fills a need.

He’s young, talented and less expensive than a veteran driver.

So Kasey Kahne is out and Byron is in. That’s not the only such move for next season. Rookie Erik Jones will replace former Cup champion Matt Kenseth at Joe Gibbs Racing. Alex Bowman takes over Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ride at Hendrick Motorsports.

Those mirror other moves made in the last few years, creating a seismic shift in the driver lineup — one that hadn’t been seen in nearly half a century.

With Byron’s move to Cup, there will be at least eight drivers 25 and under who are expected take the green flag in next year’s Daytona 500.

They are (with age they’ll be for next year’s 500):

William Byron (age 20)

Erik Jones (21)

Chase Elliott (22)

Ryan Blaney (24)

Alex Bowman (24)

Chris Buescher (25)

Ty Dillon (25)

Kyle Larson (25)

Only this year’s race with 11 drivers age 25 and under and last year’s race at nine have had more young drivers in the field than next year’s race looks to have. The record could be equaled or topped next year with 24-year-old Darrell Wallace Jr., looking for a ride and the possibility that smaller teams may go with young drivers. Nearly half the field for next year’s 500 could feature drivers in their 20s.

This shift toward youth has built since 2014 when there were eight drivers age 25 and under in the Daytona 500 starting lineup. The last time there had been so many young drivers in the “Great American Race” was 1962. That race saw 24-year-old Richard Petty finish second and 22-year-old Cale Yarborough place last in the 48-car field.

The latest changes come as young drivers replace veterans partly because of economics. It’s a shift for car owners, who responded during the recession a decade ago by cutting driver development programs and hiring veterans for lower salaries. The chance to run in Cup ended for many drivers. Those that did run, had little luck. Only one Cup Rookie of the Year from 2008-12 remains in the series (Joey Logano).

Now, as the sport goes through what some refer to as a correction, sponsors are cutting back more. Less money to teams means less money for drivers. Young racers are significantly cheaper.

“You’ve got a lot of young guys coming in being offered and accepting contracts that are a fifth to a tenth of what veterans are getting paid,’’ Earnhardt said last weekend at Watkins Glen International. “That’s money that can go into the team, you know? These sponsors aren’t giving teams the money that they used to. So, the owners and everybody’s got to take a little cut. Everybody’s got to dial it back.’’

Furniture Row Racing car owner Barney Visser puts it more succinctly: “I would think that there are going to be a lot of jets sold (by drivers). The money just won’t support what some of these guys have been making. The sponsorship just won’t carry it right now.”

Even for as talented as the new generation is, it’s taken them time to succeed for various reasons. Ty Dillon, Bowman, Elliott and Jones have yet to win a Cup race. Buescher won in his 27th career start. Blaney scored his first victory in his 68th series start. Larson didn’t win until his 100th series start. Austin Dillon’s first win came in his 133rd series start.

“It’s just such a big step altogether that there’s nothing in the Truck or Xfinity Series I think that fully prepares you for what it takes to really be successful at the Cup level,’’ said Jones, whose best finish is third in 25 career Cup starts. “I think it’s been just really a whole year of relearning for me, not really relearning but just learning more about the Cup Series and what it takes and how to race these guys.’’

It’s not as much what happens on the track and what happens off it that has been an adjustment for Jones to Cup.

You get to the Cup Series, your week is slammed, and you don’t really ever experience that when you’re in the Xfinity or the Truck Series,’’ Jones said. “I wish I would have learned to study and prepare more for the weekend because I never really did when I was in Xfinity and Truck. I just kind of learned more about that and still am trying to learn more about that as the year goes on.’’

That’s led to questions about Byron because of his lack of experience — even with the success he’s had. He ran 24 Truck races (winning seven) and he’s run 20 Xfinity races (three wins) so far.

“William, he has surprised us every time he gets in a car,’’ Hendrick said. “My goal is to not to let too much pressure be on him, to let him go out and have fun and learn and we’ll try to get better as an organization. We’ve got Jimmie Johnson … he will be a mentor to all three of them (Byron, Elliott and Bowman). We still have Jeff Gordon involved and Dale Earnhardt is going to be involved.

“They’ve got a lot of coaches. The main thing is just not putting too much pressure on them and let them go out and learn. If William continues to do what he’s done in every series he’s been in, he’ll adapt fine and he’ll learn. You might as well let him learn in what he’s going to be driving for years to come.’’

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Truck results, points following Atlanta race

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Brett Moffitt earned his second career NASCAR Camping World Truck Series win when he took the lead on a restart in overtime Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Click here for race results

Daytona winner Johnny Sauter finished third and leads the points heading into next week’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Sauter has a 31-point lead on Matt Crafton. Grant Enfinger is next, 33 points behind Sauter.

Click here for points report

Brett Moffitt takes advantage of Kyle Busch’s woes to win Atlanta Truck race

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Brett Moffitt went from third to first on the restart in overtime and powered his way to his second career Camping World Truck Series win Saturday.

Moffitt’s victory marked the first for Hattori Racing Enterprises, which made its debut in 2013. Noah Gragson placed second and Daytona winner Johnny Sauter was third at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

MORE: Race results, points report

A late caution for an incident involving Josh Reaume and Dalton Sargeant set in stage a series of events that cost Kyle Busch a chance to become the second driver in series history with 50 wins.

Busch led a parade down pit road for fresh tires. Busch’s team planned to take four tires but problems on the right front led to the team telling Busch to pull out of his pit stall after the right front was secured. Only problem was that the lug nuts on the left rear were removed. Busch didn’t get too far beyond pit exit before his left rear tire rolled off. Busch finished 21st.

Stage 1 winner: Noah Gragson

Stage 2 winner: Kyle Busch

How Brett Moffitt won: He restarted third in overtime behind Myatt Snider, who had taken only two tires. Moffitt had four. Snider had no chance. Moffitt got around Snider cleanly and surged to the lead.

Who else had a good day: Daytona winner Johnny Sauter finished third to give him back-to-back top-five finishes to open the season. Sauter has finished no worse than third in each of the last six Truck races, dating back to last year. … Noah Gragson bounced back from a 23rd-place finish at Daytona to place second at Atlanta.

Who had a bad day: Justin Haley had a flat right rear tire nine laps before the end of the first stage. He lost two laps on the green-flag stop. Haley never made it back on the lead lap and finished 22nd. … The audible by Kyle Busch’s team on a slow pit stop before overtime proved disastrous. Busch took off as told after both ride-side tires were changed but the lug nuts on the left rear were removed. The left rear came off shortly after Busch exited pit road.

Notable: Jesse Little finished a career-high eighth. His previous best in 13 previous series starts was ninth.

Quote of the day: “This is unbelievable to be in a race car at this point, let alone in Victory Lane,’’ said winner Brett Moffitt, whose deal with the team came shortly before the season started.

Next: Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Xfinity race results, point standings following Atlanta

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Kevin Harvick won the Rinnai 250 at Atlanta Motor Speedway to snap a 22-race winless streak in the Xfinity Series.

Harvick led 141 laps and swept both stages.

He beat Joey Logano, Christopher Bell, John Hunter Nemechek and Elliott Sadler.

Click here for race results.

Elliott Sadler leads the points standings after two races. He’s the only driver to start the year with two top-five finishes.

Sadler has a four-point lead over JR Motorsports teammate Tyler Reddick.

Completing the top five are Ryan Reed (-14), Ryan Truex (-21) and Spencer Gallagher (-22).

Click here for the point standings

Kevin Harvick wins Xfinity race at Atlanta Motor Speedway

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Kevin Harvick dominated to win Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, earning his fifth series win at the track.

Driving the No. 98 Ford for Biagi DenBeste Racing, Harvick led 141 laps and won both stages of the 163-lap race after starting fifth.

Harvick led Joey Logano, Christopher Bell, John Hunter Nemechek and Elliott Sadler.

The win is Harvick’s 47th in the Xfinity Series and his 98th overall in NASCAR’s three national series. It snaps a 22-race winless streak for Harvick in the Xfinity Series.

“It’s just been a really good place for me, obviously getting my first Cup win here (in 2001) and being able to run good cars throughout the years,” Harvick told FS1. “The race track has stayed very similar to what’s it been for a number of years. I think if you look at the techniques and things that I do in the car and they give me what I want in the car as far as the field, it applies here.”

Nemechek’s top five comes in his first career Xfinity Series start driving the No. 42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing.

Chase Briscoe, also making his first Xfinity start, finished 15th in Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 60 Ford.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Kevin Harvick won after zooming from 10th to first in a one-lap shootout after pitting for four tires.

STAGE 2 WINNER: Kevin Harvick

MORE: Race results and point standings

WHO HAG A GOOD DAY: Joey Logano earned his third straight runner-up finish at Atlanta in Team Penske’s No. 22 Ford … Elliott Sadler is the only driver to have top-five finishes in the first two races of the year … Ryan Truex (ninth) and Ryan Reed (10th) earned their second straight top-10 finishes to begin the year.

WHO HAD A BAD DAY: Cole Custer wrecked out on Lap 11 when contact with a swerving John Hunter Nemechek sent his No. 00 Ford into the outside wall before the start-finish line. He finished 39th. … Kaz Grala finished 23rd after he lost power because of a battery problem during the Stage 2 break … Ty Dillon finished 13th, one lap down after receiving a pit penalty for his crew going over the wall too soon with 35 laps to go … Daytona winner Tyler Reddick finished 19th, two laps down after losing his right-rear tire with 25 laps to go.

NOTABLE: Harvick, 42, is the second-oldest driver to win at Atlanta in the Xfinity Series (Harry Gant, 54). … Harvick is the 14th different winner in the last 15 Xfinity races.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Kevin’s just really good at it. Doesn’t matter what car he’s driving or what. He’s really good at Atlanta, and apparently we’re second best to that.”- Joey Logano to FS1 after finishing second.

WHAT’S NEXT: Boyd Gaming 300 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway at 4 p.m. ET on March 3 on FS1.