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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NASCAR Awards: Scene on the red carpet

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The NASCAR community gathered at the Music City Center to commemorate the 2022 season and celebrate Joey Logano‘s second Cup title.

The event can be seen at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock.

Here is a look at the scene on the red carpet before Thursday night’s NASCAR Awards:

Joey Logano and Brittany Logano (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Ryan Blaney and Gianna Tulio (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Kyle and Samantha Busch (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Chase Elliott (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Alex Bowman and Crystal Marsh (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Tyler Reddick and Alexa De Leon (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Denny Hamlin and Jordan Fish (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Daniel Suarez and Julia Piquet (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Chase Briscoe and Marissa Briscoe (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Christopher Bell and Morgan Bell (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Austin Dillon and Whitney Dillon (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Kyle Larson (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

William Byron and Erin Blaney (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Kevin Harvick (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Ross Chastain and Erika Turner (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Austin Cindric (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Kurt Busch (Photo: Dustin Long)

 

Harrison Burton and Jenna Petty(Photo: Dustin Long)
Mario Andretti (Photo: Dustin Long)

Chase Elliott wins NMPA Most Popular Driver Award

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chase Elliott won his fifth consecutive NMPA Most Popular Driver Award on Thursday.

The announcement was made during the NASCAR Awards at the Music City Center. The show will air at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock.

Elliott is one of only five drivers to win the award since 1984.

Bill Elliott won it from 1984-88, 1991-2000 and 2002. Dale Earnhardt won the award posthumously in 2001. Darrell Waltrip won it in 1989-90. Dale Earnhardt Jr. won it from 2003-17. Chase Elliott has won it every year since.

Noah Gragson was voted as the Most Popular Driver in the Xfinity Series. Hailie Deegan was voted as the Most Popular Driver in the Camping World Truck Series.

Kevin Harvick to make decision on future by Daytona in February

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Former Cup champion Kevin Harvick says he’ll know by Daytona in February his plans beyond 2023.

Harvick’s contract with Stewart-Haas Racing ends after the upcoming season. 

Harvick said Thursday before the NASCAR Awards that “it could go either way at this particular point” on what he’ll do, but he affirmed that “going into Daytona, I’ll know what I’m going to do.”

The Daytona 500 is scheduled for Feb. 19. Harvick anticipates making an announcement by then.

“We’re at a point where everybody needs to know what’s going on,” Harvick said. “There’s too many tentacles to everything that happens. Whether it’s the race team, driver management company, every element needs to know. It’s not fair to anybody to have to start the season not knowing.”

Harvick turns 47 on Dec. 8. Next season will be his 23rd in Cup. His debut came a week after Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. Harvick was selected by car owner Richard Childress to drive for Earnhardt’s team. 

Harvick has gone to win the 2014 Cup championship and 60 races at Richard Childress Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing. He’s tied with Kyle Busch for ninth on the all-time Cup wins list.

Harvick won two races last season. His victory last August at Michigan snapped a 65-race winless streak. He followed that by winning the next weekend at Richmond. 

Harvick has won at least two races in nine of the past 10 seasons. He has scored 41 of his 60 Cup wins since he turned 37 years old.

“Kevin, I think, is probably the No. 1 leader of the drivers, as he should be,” two-time Cup champion Joey Logano said Thursday. “He’s been around the longest. He’s very accomplished. He’s very smart. He’s been through the ups and downs. He’s lived it. There’s wisdom in experience. It’s great to hear his opinion on where we are as a sport.”

Harvick’s business interests include a management company that represents Cup drivers Ryan Preece, Harrison Burton and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., along with other athletes. Harvick also has worked as a broadcaster on NASCAR Xfinity races for Fox Sports, earning positive reviews. 

Harvick’s son Keelan, who is 10 years old, races and has competed in karting in Europe. 

“He’s got one more race in Italy … and then we’ll start all over again,” Harvick said of his son.

Harvick went overseas after the season finale at Phoenix to watch Keelan race.

“I think he’s definitely matured a little bit since he’s been making these trips,” Harvick said. “I think it’s important to have that culturing aspect of life to be comfortable to do things like that anywhere in the world.”

The NASCAR Awards program airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday, Dec. 3 on Peacock. To sign up for Peacock, go here.

BJ McLeod, Live Fast team move to Chevrolet

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Driver/owner BJ McLeod and Live Fast Motorsports will race in Chevrolets beginning with the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series season.

Based in Mooresville, North Carolina, Live Fast has been a Ford team.

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Live Fast is owned by McLeod, Matt Tifft and Joe Falk. Jessica McLeod, BJ’s wife, is the team’s chief operating officer.

“Our team is excited to make this transition to Chevrolet,” BJ McLeod said in a statement released by the team. “Chevrolet Camaros have proven great success on the track, and Live Fast Motorsports is looking forward to becoming a part of this advance.”

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The team will use ECR engines.

McLeod had one top-10 finish in 29 starts in the Cup Series last season.