As a Cup champion will switch teams for the second year in row, a key question becomes what is more valuable in NASCAR’s top series: Youth or experience?
Brad Keselowski moved this year from Team Penske to what is now RFK Racing to be an owner/driver. Kyle Busch moves next year from Joe Gibbs Racing to Richard Childress Racing.
In both instances, the move came near the peak season, statistically, for each as a driver. David Smith — who operated his own analytics website and worked for NBC Sports before joining RFK Racing before this season — noted that the age 39 season was a driver’s peak season. Keselowski turned 38 before this year’s Daytona 500. Busch turns 38 next May.
As the Cup lineup trends younger, what is the place for drivers in their late 30s?
Cindric is worthy, having nearly won back-to-back Xfinity championships the previous two seasons. Gibbs won in his first Xfinity start last year. He’s won more than 20% of his Xfinity starts.
“We know Ty Gibbs is ready to race (in Cup),” David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development told NBC Sports in July.
Cindric and Gibbs were among eight drivers in last weekend’s Cup playoff race at Kansas Speedway who are age 25 or younger.
The average age of last weekend’s Cup race — won by 28-year-old Bubba Wallace — was 30.4 years.
That’s a slightly younger average age than the field for last weekend’s IndyCar season finale at Laguna Seca. The average age for that race — won by 25-year-old Alex Palou — was 30.8.
Car owner Rick Hendrick started the change toward younger drivers in Cup, hiring a 21-year-old Jeff Gordon to run the full season in 1993. Two years later, Gordon won the first of his four championships.
It took time for other others to follow, but the sport has gradually looked to younger drivers. That became more important when the economy forced companies to scale back sponsorship of teams. Younger drivers don’t cost as much as veterans. That helped drive some of the sport’s movements in recent years.
Joe Gibbs Racing planned to keep Busch after Mars, Inc. announced last year that it was not returning to the team and sport after this season. JGR had a company to sponsor Busch’s No. 18 team until the deal fell through because of economic factors.
Without a sponsor, JGR could not offer Busch what he felt the only active two-time Cup champion deserved, something he alluded to last month at Watkins Glen when he foreshadowed change.
“You want to be able to go somewhere that you feel like you have a legit shot to race to win,” Busch said. “You know, trust me, I don’t feel like it’s fair to me or my family or anything else if we’re going to have to spend less time together moving forward because we are going to have to change our lifestyle, no question.
“There’s a big change coming. And so, is it worth it to go run around and not have an opportunity to win right away versus building something versus jumping in something that can win. All those questions are certainly being weighed out.”
Busch said this week, after announcing he will join RCR, that he was told at one point that returning to the No. 18 car at JGR was no longer an option.
Asked how could a deal not get done with JGR, Busch said: “Only thing I can say to that is it didn’t happen. Apparently, they’ve got other irons in the fire, maybe other sponsors for other drivers and that’s the road they’re going down.”
Asked if he felt JGR was looking at a cheaper option than paying a former champion, Busch paused and said: “Fair assessment.”
For as much as people prefer sports to be about the events, it’s often about business. Without the financial resources, teams can’t compete. Owners such as Roger Penske, Gene Haas and Hendrick can have an advantage because they have other companies and can connect those companies with sponsors, making deals more valuable to companies.
It’s not surprising that Hendrick (nine titles), Penske (two) and Haas (two) have combined to win 13 of the last 16 Cup championships. Joe Gibbs has two titles and Barney Visser, whose Furniture Row Racing team no longer is in the sport, has the other title in that time.
This is what teams such as RFK Racing and Richard Childress Racing face to win a championship.
None of RFK’s cars made the playoffs this year. Both of RCR’s cars made the playoffs. Tyler Reddick enters Saturday night’s elimination race two points above the cutline, while teammate Austin Dillon is three points below.
Richard Childress Racing seeks to have a driver finish in the top 10 in points for the first time since 2014. Busch is expected to help the organization, which has three wins this year, become even more competitive.
“I know how serious (Busch) is about wanting to win that next championship,” said Childress, who last won a Cup title in 1994 with Dale Earnhardt. “I think with his knowledge of cars and his knowledge as a racer, he’s going to bring some stuff to the table.”
Kevin Harvick said in July he would be for having Busch join Stewart-Haas Racing because of how Busch could help a team.
“I know there’s a lot of things that go on around Kyle, but in the end Kyle is still one of the best that’s ever come through this garage,” Harvick said. “There’s a lot of teams that can say that they’ve never had one of those types of drivers. He literally could rebuild an organization if somebody took a chance that hasn’t had one of those types of drivers.”
Harvick, who is 46 years old, has won twice this season. He’ll likely need to win Saturday night to advance to the second round after a fire and crash sidelined him in the first two races of this round.
Hamlin also has shown what an older driver can do. The 41-year-old seeks his fourth consecutive appearance in the title race.
“I still think that there’s a level of experience that really, really matters in our sport,” said Hamlin, who owns 23XI Racing with Michael Jordan. “I feel as good as I’ve ever been in the car. My craft, I feel as good as ever.
“I’ve been lightning fast even though the win column hasn’t shown it as much this year. So I’m pretty happy with where I’m at considering my age. When I see Harvick, still being competitive and winning at this age, it just makes me look at my future and say, you know, I’ve got a longer runway than I thought.”
2. Former champs seek to avoid elimination
Busch and Harvick have combined to win three of the last eight titles. Busch’s championships came in 2015 and ’19. Harvick won the 2014 crown. They account for 32% of all Cup title race appearances.
Neither driver has been eliminated in the first round since the playoff format debuted in 2014. Harvick was in a must-win situation in 2015 and won to advance to the second round.
He is in a similar situation after a fire eliminated him at Darlington and a crash ended his race early last week at Kansas. Harvick goes into Bristol 35 points from the transfer spot and all but needs a victory to move on in the postseason.
“It is what it is,” Harvick said last week at Kansas of his deficit. “We were racing to win anyway today, so that is what we will do again next week.”
Busch entered the 2015 first round elimination race outside a transfer spot by one point and finished second to Harvick at Dover to advance. Busch and Harvick took the spots of Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray, eliminating them.
Busch is two points out of a transfer spot this time. While he doesn’t need to win, he is winless in his last 17 short track races, dating back to 2019. His longest short track winless drought is 18 races from 2012-15.
Busch has 23 total wins at Bristol. He has eight Cup wins on concrete and won the spring race there on the dirt. He also has nine Xfinity wins and five Truck victories there.
“If I can have past Bristol results be Bristol results, then, yeah, shouldn’t be a problem,” Busch said after the Kansas race of advancing to the next round. “But if I have Bristol results similar to what’s happened this year every week, then no, it’s going to be an uphill battle.”
3. What it will take to advance
A look at what it will take for drivers to advance to the second round of the Cup playoffs.
Christopher Bell — Has clinched a spot in the second round. Reached the second round in last year’s playoffs before he was eliminated.
William Byron (+48 to the cutline) — Needs to score eight points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Was eliminated in the first round in 2020, made it to the second round in 2021.
Denny Hamlin (+47 to the cutline)— Needs to score eight points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to the title race each of the past three years.
Joey Logano (+40 to the cutline)— Needs to score 16 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to the title race every even-numbered year of the Cup playoffs: 2014, ’16, ’18 and ’20.
Ryan Blaney (+36 to the cutline)— Needs to score 20 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has been eliminated in the first round only once. That was in 2020.
Alex Bowman (+30 to the cutline)— Needs to score 26 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to at least the second round in each of the past four seasons.
Chase Elliott (+28 to the cutline)— Needs to score 28 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has made it to the championship race each of the past two seasons.
Kyle Larson (+27 to the cutline)— Needs to score 29 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Reigning Cup champion.
Ross Chastain (+26 to the cutline)— Needs to score 30 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. First time in Cup playoffs.
Daniel Suarez (+6 to the cutline)— Needs to score 50 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. First time in Cup playoffs.
Tyler Reddick (+2 to the cutline)— Needs to score 54 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Eliminated in the first round last year in his first time in the Cup playoffs.
Austin Cindric (+2 to the cutline)— Needs to score 54 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. First time in Cup playoffs.
Kyle Busch (-2 to the cutline)— Needs to score 55 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Two-time Cup champion who has never been eliminated in the first round.
Austin Dillon (-3 to the cutline)— Needs to score 55 points to guarantee advancement to the second round. Has twice been eliminated in the first round.
Chase Briscoe (-9 to the cutline)— Needs to win or have help to advance (others falling out of the race early or finishing poorly). First time in Cup playoffs.
Kevin Harvick (-35 to the cutline)— Needs to win or have help to advance (others falling out of the race early or finishing poorly). The 2014 Cup champion has never been eliminated in the first round.
4. Bristol’s questions
Saturday night’s race at Bristol is a mystery for teams.
The spring Bristol race was on dirt, so this marks the first time on the track’s concrete surface. Other than wheel-force testing with one car per manufacturer, no teams have been on the track. And the right side tires are different from anywhere else the series runs (the left side tires are the same as those used at Pocono).
“It’s certainly an unknown,” Randall Burnett, crew chief for Tyler Reddick, told NBC Sports. “I think it makes for exciting races when you go into an unknown like that. … I think you’ve really got to do your homework, and I think our team strives on that.
“These tracks that we’ve had a lot of unknowns, I feel like we’ve unloaded well and rose to the challenge. I look forward to these kind of races.”
Chris Gabehart, crew chief for Denny Hamlin, calls Bristol the “the last challenge of the Next Gen car and the last unknown setup-wise of the Next Gen car.”
While the series will race at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the first time this year later in the playoffs, teams will be able to test there ahead of time. That will give them a better understanding of what is needed there than what teams have going into Bristol.
“I don’t know where you go get notes for Bristol,” Gabehart told NBC Sports. “It’s very unique, so I am so thankful to be going into Bristol with a very large (points) cushion. Some of those guys toward the back of the (playoff) standings, having to go to Bristol and run 500 laps with this car, it’s going to be a nail-biter.”
5. Back in the playoffs
Jeremy Clements said on Wednesday’s NASCAR America MotorMouths that an appeal panel rescinding the penalties against his team and putting him back in the Xfinity playoffs this week felt like “we won again. We’re celebrating again.”
Clements won at Daytona last month to earn a spot in the playoffs, but NASCAR penalized the team three days later for an intake manifold infraction found at the NASCAR R&D Center. Among the penalties was that Clements’ victory would not count toward playoff eligibility.
“We ended up noticing that there were other winning engines there and they didn’t have their intakes, and we, unfortunately, brought ours just because we didn’t know and it didn’t need to be,” Clements said on why the team appealed.
Part of the argument from Clements and his team was that other organizations did not have their intake manifolds inspected and that the Clements team shouldn’t be penalized for bringing their intake manifold to the R&D Center.
Clements said the appeal panel “just had common sense and that’s what prevailed. Just so happy to get this victory back and be back in the playoffs.”
With Clements back in the playoffs, it meant one person was dropped. Ryan Sieg, who was holding the final playoff spot after Clements’ penalty, fell out of a playoff spot with Clements back in.
Landon Cassill holds the final playoff spot going into tonight’s regular season finale for the Xfinity Series at Bristol (7:30 p.m. ET on USA Network). Cassill leads Sieg by 19 points. Sheldon Creed trails Cassill by 32 points.