It no longer is about future for NASCAR’s next generation. While the new car has helped shift the balance in the sport, the surge of young drivers entering Cup within the past six years has made a significant impact.
Even with 41-year-old Denny Hamlin and 32-year-old Joey Logano still in title contention, the Round of 8 field is the youngest in playoff history at 30.1 years old. Hamlin and Logano are the only remaining playoff drivers over the age of 30 heading into Sunday’s Round of 8 race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC).
Six of the eight remaining title contenders began running Cup full-time since 2016: Chase Elliott, Ross Chastain, Christopher Bell, Ryan Blaney, William Byron and Chase Briscoe.
Four will make their first appearance in the Round of 8: Chastain (29 years old), Bell (27), Byron (24) and Briscoe (27).
The 26-year-old Elliott is going for his second Cup championship.
“I think it’s a healthy dynamic right now between drivers who have been a part of the sport and have done amazing things who are still there … and then to be able to race with a lot of guys around my age or a little bit younger,” said the 28-year-old Blaney.
“I think we are all very fortunate to be where we’re at and given some really cool opportunities.”
The young drivers in the playoffs represent the sport’s elite teams: Hendrick Motorsports (Elliott and Byron), Joe Gibbs Racing (Bell), Team Penske (Blaney), Trackhouse Racing (Chastain) and Stewart-Haas Racing (Briscoe).
The pipeline will continue with 24-year-old Noah Gragson moving to Cup next season and 20-year-old Ty Gibbs expected to join him, taking over the No. 18 car at JGR with Kyle Busch moving to Richard Childress Racing. They’ll join, among others, 23-year-old Justin Haley, 24-year-old Austin Cindric, 26-year-old Tyler Reddick, 26-year-old Erik Jones, 29-year-old Alex Bowman and 29-year-old Bubba Wallace.
Blaney admits that looking back five years ago he “never would have thought” that he’d be racing so many drivers in his age range for wins and a championship.
“It’s pretty cool to see,” he said.
Look back to 2017, it shows how much the sport has changed. Back then:
Byron won the Xfinity Series championship.
Bell won the Camping World Truck Series championship with crew chief Rudy Fugle, who is Byron’s crew chief in Cup.
Briscoe was in his first season in the Truck Series and scored his first NASCAR national series win in the season finale at Homestead.
Chastain made his first two Cup starts that season and had yet to win any of NASCAR’s national series (he has eight now across Cup, Xfinity and Trucks).
Elliott already had a title in the Xfinity Series but had yet to win in Cup — he has 18 victories now.
Blaney won his first Cup race, scoring a victory at Pocono for the Wood Brothers.
“It’s hard to believe it has been five years,” Blaney said of his first Cup win. “I was talking to (car owner Roger) Penske this year when we signed my new deal and I was like, ‘Can you believe it’s been 10 years since I walked in the door in 2012.’”
Byron, Bell, Briscoe, Chastain, Elliott and Blaney all took different paths to reach Cup. Byron’s journey was unique. He started via iRacing before he began racing cars as a teenager, well after most drivers get started.
He made his Truck debut at age 17 in 2015 and ran his first full season in 2016 before moving to the Xfinity Series the following year for his only full-time year there. He moved to Cup full-time in 2018 at age 20.
“I felt like my path was quickly accelerated in each series,” Byron said. “When I got the Cup Series, there was a ton of learning that I had to do that I hadn’t done throughout the other series. There was a lot of conversation whether I would have gotten that other learning done in the other series. I don’t really think I would have.”
Byron admits that there has been quite a bit of learning to do in Cup.
“Once you get to the Cup Series it’s a totally different deal than any other series,” he said. “It’s a huge jump between Xfinity. I think that’s why you see so much adaptation time. It takes time mesh with the right people. You have to learn all those things and kind of figure out what people work well with you in the Cup Series.”
Byron and the other young chargers are ready to show what they’ve learned while seeking a spot in next month’s championship race at Phoenix.
2. Hard Impact
In a visit on the Dale Jr. Download, NASCAR executive Ben Kennedy revealed that Cody Ware’s crash last month at Texas Motor Speedway saw the highest speed change — from the moment before impact to the moment after the car hit the SAFER barrier — since NASCAR has been using incident data recorders to record such information.
Ware suffered a fractured right ankle in the incident. He raced the following week at Talladega but skipped last weekend’s race at the Charlotte Roval because of the demands of a road course on his foot. Ware will be back in the car this weekend at Las Vegas.
“For him to be able to come out of that car relatively unscathed, I think, speaks a lot for the safety of the car from that perspective,” said Kennedy, senior vice president, racing development and strategy.
Kennedy also provided some details on the changes to the rear clip and rear bumper structure NASCAR will make to the cars for next season after a successful crash test last week.
Kennedy said on the Dale Jr. Download that the new rear bumper structure “is a little more flexible, a thinner material. If you look at it visually, … the impact looks much less severe, and you have much more crush zone.
“So we did (a crash test) at (a change of speed of) 33 mph, which would be a pretty high rate of speed for a rear impact and we did it at 18 mph as well, and then we looked at the data. I think if you look at the data overall, really trying to help on any impact in particular is bringing down that max G-load or that peak. … What we saw in some of those tests is that peak G-load come down quite a bit.
“Is it perfect? It’s not. Can it be improved? Absolutely. But I think it was a step in the right direction for us, as we think about those rear-end impacts.”
Corey LaJoie said this week on his podcast Stacking Pennies that the changes to the rear bumper and clip “takes about 50 of the G-load away on a rear impact.”
NASCAR will pay for the update of any center/rear clip that a team has in its inventory (up to seven center sections and 10 rear sections), a series spokesperson told NBC Sports. The spokesperson also said that NASCAR has covered at least part of the cost to update parts in the past.
3. Future Cup owner?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. said on this week’s Dale Jr. Download that JR Motorsports has talked to teams about the value of charters and who is willing to sell.
But Earnhardt said that after hearing what team executives told the media about the “broken” economic model for organizations, he decided that “I need to wait and pause. (The owners) are basically telling me this charter that I want to buy is a losing proposition or not money-making, it’s broken.”
“I thought as a potential buyer of a charter that what NASCAR would give them would be way more, so when I heard that NASCAR’s offer was very minimal, it made me go, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t expect that. I expected NASCAR to go, ‘OK guys, we feel it, we understand what you’re saying so here’s this new number to get you all in a little bit better position.’”
Curtis Polk, an investor in 23XI Racing and Michael Jordan’s longtime business manager, said that “the economic model is really broken for teams.”
Jeff Gordon, vice chairman at Hendrick Motorsports, said that the organization, which has won the past two Cup titles, will not make a profit this season. He also said it had been “awhile” since the organization had done so.
Team executives went public after their seven-point proposal to NASCAR to receive more revenue was rejected and that NASCAR’s counteroffer had “a minimal increase in revenue,” according to Polk.
Under the current model, sponsorship makes up about 60-80% of a team’s overall revenue, according to RFK Racing President Steve Newmark. He said how that is out of line with other sports.
Earnhardt noted how the value in charters have increased in recent years.
“A charter … has went in less than a decade from $2 million to $28-$30 million in value,” he said, alluding to the BK Racing charter (and assets) that were sold for $2.08 million by a bankruptcy court in 2018.
“Everybody is wondering if that $28-$30 million valuation is real or it’s a bubble. For me, I went from being able to kind of somewhat justify that purchase to saying no way, not at that number.
“Knowing what I know about what NASCAR came back with as an offer, knowing that these teams are operating at a loss, no way I’m going to go spend $30 million to get a charter that is going to operate at a loss and I’m going to get a minimal amount of money out of the TV deal.”
4. Xfinity playoffs
The Xfinity Round of 8 begins Saturday (3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock).
Noah Gragson and AJ Allmendinger have combined to win the last six series races. No other driver has won in the series since August. Gragson won four races in a row. Allmendinger has won the past two races.
Gragson has an average finish of 3.5 in seven previous Xfinity starts at Las Vegas but has yet to win at his hometown track. Allmendinger has an average finish of 5.6 in three starts, including a win.
Gragson has won the past two races on 1.5-mile speedways: Texas and Kansas. After Saturday’s race at Las Vegas, a 1.5-mile track, the series goes to Homestead-Miami Speedway, another 1.5-mile track before ending the round at Martinsville.
“Just really good race tracks for us is the biggest thing,” Gragson said of this round. “Vegas, we’ve got a really good average finish … Homestead, obviously we’re very good. I really enjoy Martinsville, too, and we were able to win last year.
“Super excited to get to those race tracks and kind of get a reset. I was joking with the guys (before the Charlotte Roval race), we had a really good September, we’ve had a terrible October. Hopefully, we can turn it around.”
Gragson will move to Cup next season, joining Petty GMS Motorsports. Allmendinger will run full-time in Cup next year for Kaulig Racing. Even though this could be his last chance to win a championship in the Xfinity Series, Allmendinger said there’s no added pressure.
“This is a bonus to me,” he said after last weekend’s win at the Charlotte Roval.
5. Rockingham repave
A repave of Rockingham Speedway, which hosted Cup races between 1965-2004, is scheduled to begin later this month, according to a report by Queen City News.
The project on the 1.017-mile track is expected to be completed Dec. 1.
The project is being paid from the $9 million the track received as part of the American Rescue Plan.
Justin Jones, vice president of operations at Rockingham Speedway, told Queen City News that the goal is to bring in various racing series, including NASCAR.
“My goal, when I first took this position, was to rebuild the foundation of Rockingham in hopes of inserting Rockingham back in the foundation of NASCAR,” Jones told Queen City News.
Matt Kenseth won the track’s final Cup race in February 2004. The track’s last NASCAR race was a Camping World Truck Series event in April 2013 won by Kyle Larson.
Other current drivers who won at Rockingham include Joey Logano (2008 ARCA race), Parker Kligerman (2009 ARCA race), Ty Dillon (2010 ARCA race), Tyler Reddick (2014 ARCA Series East) and Chase Elliott (2011 Pro Cup Series).