Long: Amid anxiety over retiring NASCAR drivers, a new era emerges

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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It’s easy to lament where NASCAR is headed with Dale Earnhardt Jr. retiring from the Cup series after this season.

Fans have bid farewell to Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards (well, he may return) since last year. Then came Tuesday’s news about Earnhardt.

And it won’t be long before seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and former champions Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick reach the end of their careers.

For long-time fans, this is crushing news. Drivers they have grown accustomed to seeing on TV nearly every weekend from late February to the middle of November are leaving. In comes a new crop of drivers that fans are not as comfortable with or knowledgable about.

Picking a new favorite driver isn’t made on a whim for many fans. If you’re going to pledge your loyalty, one has to be all in.

And that’s why this could be one of the greatest times in the sport for young drivers.

Now is your time Kyle Larson. Now is your time Chase Elliott. Now is your time Ryan Blaney.

Now it is time for all the young drivers to make their mark on the sport, reach out to the fan base and become the leaders who will guide NASCAR for the coming years.

From 2000-02, fans fretted about the transition NASCAR went through. That period brought Earnhardt, Johnson, Harvick, Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch into the series.

They combined to change the sport on the track — with how they raced — and off the track — with how they presented themselves.

Their roles increased as Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd and others retired. Many fans worried that the new drivers could never replace their favorites.

But it’s not about replacing. It’s about moving forward. Just as it is now.

No driver can replace Earnhardt. No one can or will be asked to shoulder so much of the sport as Earnhardt has throughout his career.

No driver can replace Gordon, who helped usher in the sport’s most popular era — not bad for a kid who was known to crash often his rookie year.

No driver can replace the cantankerous Stewart, who became a fan favorite for his gruff, tell-it-like-it-is manner and his fearlessness on the track.

That’s the thing. The young drivers just need to be themselves, not someone else.

They also must win. That will grow their fan base and give them a powerful voice for years to come.

They’re starting to gain power.

Consider the drivers age 26 and under. It includes Joey Logano, Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, Larson, Elliott and Blaney.

That doesn’t even include those in the Xfinity Series, which features William Byron, Ryan Reed, Daniel Hemric and Cole Custer, among others.

And in the Camping World Truck Series, there’s Christopher Bell, Todd Gilliland, John Hunter Nemechek, Harrison Burton and Kaz Grala.

No one could have anticipated that Johnson, who had one Xfinity win before moving to Cup, would go on to tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most championships.

Somewhere in this group of young drivers there’s a multi-time champion. Maybe a couple of them. Maybe one who wins more than five championships.

Maybe one who changes the sport in ways one can’t even imagine.

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Saturday NASCAR schedule at Talladega Superspeedway

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Both the Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series will race Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway.

Cup cars will start the day’s action by qualifying for Sunday’s playoff race, followed by the Truck playoff race and then the Xfinity playoff race.

Talladega Superspeedway (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Saturday: Sunny. High of 78.

Saturday, Oct. 1

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 9:30 a.m. — Truck Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Talladega Xfinity starting lineup: Austin Hill wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Austin Hill will lead the field to the green flag Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway after scoring his first career Xfinity Series pole.

Hill won the pole Friday with a lap of 182.036 mph. He will be joined on the front row by fellow playoff contender Ty Gibbs (181.981 mph).

MORE: Talladega Xfinity starting lineup

Playoff drivers will start in seven of the top eight spots. The exception is Sheldon Creed, who will start third after a lap of 181.870 mph. Hill and Creed give Richard Childress Racing the first and third starting spots.

Justin Allgaier (181.529) qualified fourth and Brandon Jones (181.305) completed the top five. Noah Gragson, who has won four races in a row, starts sixth after a lap of 181.134 mph and is followed by playoff drivers Josh Berry (181.052) and AJ Allmendinger (180.932).

The Xfinity Series race is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET Saturday on USA Network.

Talladega Truck starting lineup: John Hunter Nemechek wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — John Hunter Nemechek will start on the pole for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race.

Nemechek earned the pole with a lap of 178.767 mph.

Nemechek is one of four playoff drivers starting in the top six: Chandler Smith (second, 177.732 mph), Zane Smith (fourth, 177.061) and Ty Majeski (sixth, 176.744). Majeski clinched a spot in next month’s championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

MORE: Talladega Truck starting lineup

Also qualifying in the top five were Carson Hocevar (177.068) in third and Matt Crafton (176.960) in fifth.

Failing to qualify are Tim Viens, Spencer Boyd, Jason White and Natalie Decker.

Saturday Talladega Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather

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The second race of the opening round of the Xfinity playoffs takes drivers to Talladega Superspeedway.

Noah Gragson secured his spot in the next round by winning last weekend at Texas. Ryan Sieg holds the final transfer spot. Riley Herbst is the first driver below the cutline, one point behind Sieg. Also below the cutline are reigning series champion Daniel Hemric (-8 points), Brandon Jones (-12) and Jeremy Clements (-28).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:09 p.m. … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:21 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Driver introductions are at 3:30 p.m. … The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. … The Brookwood High School choir will perform the anthem at 4:02 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 113 laps (300.58 miles) on the 2.66-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 50.

TV/RADIO: USA Network will broadcast the race at 4 p.m. Countdown to Green begins at 3:30 p.m. on USA Network. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 78 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Noah Gragson won and was followed by Jeffrey Earnhardt and AJ Allmendinger.