Dr. Diandra: Are young drivers taking over NASCAR Cup Series?

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No driver over age 30 has won a Cup points race this year.

I constantly warn against drawing conclusions based on only five races, but under-30 drivers also won the last six races in 2021. Kyle Larson accounted for four of those wins, while Bubba Wallace and Alex Bowman each won one. Since the trend spans two seasons, we know that this isn’t due to the Next Gen car’s introduction.

Discussions about a youth movement started well before this year. From 2015-18, the average age of Hendrick Cup drivers dropped more than a decade: from 38.4 years 27.4 years.

On the other hand, the average age of the final four drivers in 2019 was the oldest ever at 38.5 years.

Average Ages of Drivers

Let’s examine, then, the average age of full-time drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series. To include as much data as possible, I allow a driver to miss up to two races in a season to be considered a ‘full-time’ driver. That accounts for the occasional injury or suspension. I calculate each driver’s age as of that year’s Daytona 500.

A A vertical bar chart showing the average age of full-time drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series from 1980-2022

Not surprisingly, the average age of the NASCAR driver field has gone down over the years. But there have been some variations along that overall decline.
  • The maximum average age of the field was 38.9 years in 1998.
  • The youngest field was last year at 30.7 years.
  • The average for 2022 is up just a little: 31.3 years.
  • The big decrease in average age in 2007 is not due to an influx of younger drivers.
    • Ken Schrader, Sterling Marlin, Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin, Kyle Petty, Jeff Green and Joe Nemechek drove full time in 2006 but not 2007. Those drivers total 370 years.
    • The oldest driver went from being Ken Schrader (50.8 years) to Tony Raines (42.9 years).
  • The decrease in 2014 was due to both incoming and outgoing drivers.
    • Dave Blaney (50.4 years) and Jeff Burton (45.7 years) retired.
    • Alex Bowman (20.9 years), Kyle Larson (21.6 years) and Cole Whitt (22.7 years) joined.

Average Ages of Winners vs. Drivers

Now let’s add the average age of winners using red dots.

A vertical bar graph showing the average age of full-time drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series from 1980-2022, with the average ages of winning drivers shown as red dots
The green bars represent the average ages of drivers. The red dots show the average ages of race winners.

If you see a correlation in this graph, let me know. I can’t find one. During the last few years — the height of our ‘youth movement’ — the average winner’s age was higher than the average age of the field. The exception is this year. Again, we’re only five races in and that’s not enough to do statistics on.

Averages are easy to calculate, but they don’t tell you very much. That’s a good thing to keep in mind if you’re putting together a fantasy team. For example:

  • The average of 20, 40 and 60 is 40.
  • The average of 40,40 and 40 is also 40
  • So is the average of 0,0 and 120

The Age Distribution of Winners

Let’s start by looking from 2020-22, because that’s about as much data as I can put on a graph and not have it look like someone spilled a Funfetti cake mix. Below, I show the winner’s age at the time of the race won for the last 77 races.

A scatter graph showing the ages of race winners from 2020-2022 by driver
Only 21 drivers have won the last 77 races.

Each dot color represents one driver. The dots for each driver fall on a straight line because, well, we age linearly. You can pick out Kevin Harvick‘s nine wins in 2020 — and his lack of wins since. Kyle Larson’s 10 wins from last year are in the lower right.

There are a lot more dots below age 30 than above in 2021. In 2020, there are more dots above than below. To be precise:

  • 30.5% of all races in 2020 were won by drivers 30 or younger at the time of their win.
  • Drivers 30 years or younger won 61.1% of the races in 2021.
  • This year, they’ve won 100%, including two winners under age 25. But again, we’re only five races into the season.

Is the Field Younger?

To get around the limitations of averages, I looked at the percentage of full-time drivers age 30 or under in the field from 1980 – 2022.

A vertical bar graph showing the percentage of full-time drivers under age 30 from 1980-2022

This graph not only confirms our intuition about the youth movement, it shows that this isn’t the first such a movement. Since 1980, we’ve seen three waves of younger drivers: one peaking in 1985, one peaking in 2007 and the last peaking in 2020.

  • Twenty-two years separate the first and the second waves. The peaks are roughly equal at 45% of the field younger than 30.
  • There are 14 years between the second and third waves, but the third wave is stronger than anything we’ve seen since 1980. Youngsters made up 62% of the field.
  • Since 2019, drivers under 30 have comprised more than half of all full-time drivers.

These waves result from a some general trends.

  • Drivers enter Cup much earlier today than they used to.
    • No drivers younger than 20 drove before 2005.
    • In 1992, no drivers younger than 28 ran full time.
  • Drivers retire earlier today.
    • Between 1988-98, we had as many as four full-time drivers in their 50s in a season.
    • Today, Greg Biffle is the only driver over 50. The next oldest driver is 46-year-old Kevin Harvick.

Do the Ages of Winning Drivers Follow a Similar Trend?

Chase Briscoe was asked if there was a reason all the young guys seem to be winning races.

“In the past, it was always a lot more older guys and there wasn’t very many younger guys, and if there were younger guys, there weren’t very many that were in good cars,” he said. “Now, we just have a higher percentage every week of winning just from a numbers standpoint. I don’t think there’s really much to read into it as far as younger guys being better in this car. I think it’s just a case of the numbers and the probability of it all. We just have a better chance, typically, because there’s more of us.”

Briscoe is dead-on in his estimation of the proportions of younger vs. older drivers. If it’s just a probability effect, the proportion of younger drivers winning races would reflect their representation in the driver pool. If 40% of the drivers are under 30, 40% of the winners should be drivers under 30. Maybe the winners’ curve would lag the drivers’ curve because most new drivers don’t win in their first season.

The graph below is the same as the one above, but with the percentage of winners under 30 represented by gold bars.

The yellow bars show the percentage of drivers under age 30. The gold bars are the percentage of races won by drivers under age 30.
The yellow bars show the percentage of drivers under age 30. The gold bars are the percentage of races won by drivers under age 30.

It seems as though there’s a correlation in the 1980s, where the gold bars follow the same general trend as the yellow ones. But there’s no correlation with the rest of the graph. We have to dig deeper into the stats to understand this.

We had few young drivers in the 1990s. Those drivers notched zero wins the first three years, then they started outperforming. Or, rather, Jeff Gordon outperformed. He earned all the wins between 1995-98 except for one win by Jeff Burton and one by Jeremy Mayfield.

And that’s far from an isolated instance. The large number of wins in 2003 were due to Jimmie Johnson. 2015 belonged to Joey Logano. Which means we can’t treat the under-30 drivers as a monolithic group.

Driver by Driver

Diving down to the driver level, let’s compare the number of young drivers winning each year vs. young drivers who don’t win. In the graph below, I plotted winning drivers under 30 in gold and non-winning drivers under 30 in yellow. Those faint lines in the background are the same stats for drivers over 30, just to give you an idea of the proportion of drivers over/under age 40.

A stacked vertical bar graph showing the numbers of drivers and winners under age 30 in the NASCAR Cup Series
Gold bars represent drivers who won at least one race. Yellow bars represent drivers who did not win a race. The faint bars in the back are the data for the older drivers, included to provide context about the relative numbers of older and younger drivers.

The ratio of the gold bar’s height to that of the yellow bar represents the fraction of young drivers who won at least one race.

  • That fraction was highest in 2002, when seven out of nine drivers under 30 (77.8%) won at least one race. Only two of those drivers (Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch) are still active in 2022
  • In 2014, 11 drivers under age 30 raced, but only two won, for a percentage of 18.1%.
  • In the last few years, we’ve had more drivers under age 30, but a small percentage of those drivers win.

So while we’ve had an influx of young drivers in the past few years, a smaller percentage of those drivers are winning races. 

Conclusion

The NASCAR Cup Series has more young drivers than ever before, with drivers under 30 representing more than half the field since 2019. However, about the same number of young drivers are winning today as have won in the past. Under-30 drivers have won the last 11 Cup points races. Kyle Larson won five of those 11 races. Without him, those numbers are much less impressive.

Is 2022 the year our younger driver contingent breaks through? We can’t answer that question with any certainty until we have more data.