Friday 5: Youth movement growing stronger in Cup Series

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The youth movement in the Cup Series continues to gain momentum with this week’s announcement that Austin Cindric will drive the No. 2 car for Team Penske and Harrison Burton will drive the No. 21 for Wood Brothers Racing in 2022.

Cindric will be 23 years old when next season begins Feb. 20 with the Daytona 500. Burton will be 21, the youngest full-time Cup driver next season.

Last month, Kaulig Racing announced that 22-year-old Justin Haley will drive one of its Cup cars full-time next season.

The Cup Series is on pace to have more than half of the Daytona 500 field filled by drivers in their 20s for a fourth consecutive year. This year’s Daytona 500 marked the first time that the event had at least 20 drivers in their 20s for three consecutive years, according to Racing Insights. 

The sport has skewed toward those in their 20s with the departure of veterans Jimmie Johnson, Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon since 2015. All were in their 40s. Many of them were replaced by drivers in their 20s.

Hendrick Motorsports leads this youth movement with all four of its drivers in their 20s.

Kyle Larson is the oldest. He turns 29 on July 31. Alex Bowman is 28, Chase Elliott is 25 and William Byron is 23.

Elliott was the third-youngest champion to win a Cup title last year. Only Bill Rexford (age 23 in 1950) and Gordon (age 24 in 1995) won titles at a younger age.

Larson and Bowman have signed contract extensions this year through 2023. Both Elliott and Byron are signed through next year.

“My plan is for Chase and William to retire with us,” car owner Rick Hendrick said this week. “I love the lineup, and I want to keep the band together.”

Hendrick’s approach has gained noticed elsewhere in the sport.

“It clearly, with other things, worked well for them,” said Mark Rushbrook, global director of Ford Performance Motorsports.

It could work well for Team Penske, which will become younger with Cindric replacing Brad Keselowski after this season.

The combined age for car owner Roger Penske’s Cup lineup next season won’t add up to his age. Penske turns 85 on the day of next year’s Daytona 500. The combined age of his drivers that day will be 82 — Joey Logano will be 31, Ryan Blaney will be 28 and Cindric will be 23. Add Burton with Wood Brothers Racing, which is affiliated with Team Penske, and Penske will have among the youngest lineups in the series.

“I don’t say it’s a gamble, I think what it is is an opportunity,” Penske said of his lineup for next season.

Six drivers under the age of 30 have won at least one race this season to earn a playoff spot: Larson, Elliott, Byron, Bowman, Blaney and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell.

A key to the movement is how well organized development programs are. Toyota’s TD2 development program is rooted in analytics and sports science principles and has a deep pipeline of talent. The development program has helped grow Toyota’s driver lineup throughout NASCAR, but the manufacturer’s limited seats in various series have led to some of its drivers moving elsewhere.

Burton is the latest who will move beyond the Toyota developmental program, which he’s been a part of since he was 13 years old.

“My years that I spent with Toyota have all been amazing ones, and I really am thankful for the opportunities they’ve given me,” Burton said. 

Others from the Toyota chain now racing elsewhere include Larson, Daniel Suarez (Trackhouse Racing) and Erik Jones (Richard Petty Motorsports). Those who came from Toyota’s development program in its Cup lineup are Bell and Bubba Wallace (23XI Racing).

Ford’s development program has paved the way for Chase Briscoe, Cole Custer and now Cindric to move to Cup.

“We put a lot of focus on our own development program and bringing drivers up through that as you saw with Chase Briscoe,” Rushbrook said. “But the way the sport works, the timing of bringing drivers up and having them ready when seats are open, you can’t always plan on that or be ready for that.

“So when drivers are available that have come up through different systems, you need to take advantage of that and bring them into the overall Ford program or with the team in the right way with the right support.”

The Wood Brothers are becoming accustomed to having young drivers. Trevor Bayne won the 2011 Daytona 500 at age 20. Blaney scored his first Cup win with the team when he was 23 years old.

“It’s just like watching your kids grow up,” team co-owner Eddie Wood said of seeing the younger drivers develop.

2. Thanks are coming

Wood Brothers Racing co-owner Eddie Wood explained why the team did not thank Matt DiBenedetto for his time with the organization in Thursday’s announcement that Harrison Burton will drive the car next season.

“Well, in our eyes, we’re not done,” Wood said. “There are five races left before the playoffs. We’re gonna try to win a race and get in the playoffs. We obviously have to win a race, and then there are 10 races after that, so it just didn’t feel right. 

“I’m not ready to say goodbye. Everybody who has ever driven our car becomes family, and we view Matt as family. Everybody knows Matt. Everybody loves Matt. Matt’s a great driver. 

“He’s a great person, got a great big heart — got big arms, too — but it’s just a thing that we viewed that as we get through the year. We give our best effort. He’s gonna give his best effort and that way when it comes time to say goodbye and thank you, that’ll happen, but Matt will always be a part of our family.”

In his video to fans Thursday, DiBenedetto stated that the Wood Brothers are “family and always will be. … I’m so freaking lucky and still am to be driving the 21 car. Love it. I want to get that 100th (career) win for them bad.”

3. What a week

A few years ago, could anyone had imagined a week where two Hendrick Motorsports drivers were competing in short track events during the Cup season?

Chase Elliott competed in a USAC national midget race in Oklahoma and was to have competed also in Kansas but that event was rained out. He’s racing in the SRX event Saturday night at Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedway.

Kyle Larson also has been racing this week with the World of Outlaws in Ohio.

Hendrick Motorsports’ announcement this week that it had signed Larson to a contract extension through 2023 and would have hendrickcars.com sponsor him through that period came with an interesting item.

The sponsorship package was not only for 35 Cup races each season, but the company also will sponsor Larson in all non-NASCAR events in which he competes, including branding on the driver’s helmets, gloves and firesuit.

“For us, from a marketing perspective, it’s a brand extension,” said Brian Johnson, vice president of marketing for the Hendrick Automotive Group. “Kyle talked about brands being associated with drivers throughout history. We want to have the same effect with him.

“So whenever he’s in a late model or a sprint car or whatever he’s in. Whenever he competes, we want that hendrickcars.com brand with him. It touches a different audience. In marketing we’re trying to reach specific audiences through all of our different campaigns we can.

“A lot of those fans are just as passionate about cars. There are potential technicians there. There are potential customers there. We want to make sure we reach that segment, extend our brand but also support Kyle in his efforts.”

Car owner Rick Hendrick said: “It’s just a whole new group of fans. They buy cars. Kyle’s popularity is growing like crazy. He’s got so many fans on both sides. Now we’re seeing more people wearing sprint car stuff at the Cup races. If he’s racing, we want to be there (with hendrickcars.com).”

4. Unique race

One of the tracks that is viewed as being helped by the addition of traction compound in the corners is New Hampshire Motor Speedway. NASCAR, though, won’t apply traction compound for Saturday’s Xfinity Series race (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

That’s the case because the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour races before the Xfinity Series event and its tires don’t work as well with the traction compound. Traction compound also will not be applied before Sunday’s Cup race.

Noah Gragson said not having the traction compound is significant. He said the key in the Xfinity race will be “who can figure it out sooner just because it hasn’t been that way for us for a while.”

The traction compound has been used at New Hampshire Motor Speedway since 2017.

Modified racer Doug Coby explained on social media this week the challenge the traction compound presents for that series:

 

5. Champion’s list

The Cup series heads to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for Sunday’s race (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Eleven of the past 12 New Hampshire winners were either Cup champions when they won or later became series champions. The last 12 winners there:

Sept. 2013 – Matt Kenseth

July 2014 – Brad Keselowski

Sept. 2014 – Joey Logano

July 2015 – Kyle Busch

Sept. 2015 – Matt Kenseth

July 2016 – Matt Kenseth

Sept. 2016 – Kevin Harvick

July 2017 – Denny Hamlin (only driver without a Cup title on this list)

Sept. 2017 – Kyle Busch

July 2018 – Kevin Harvick

July 2019 – Kevin Harvick

Aug. 2020 – Brad Keselowski

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