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Tony Stewart: ‘Absurd’ kids can race full-size car when they can’t get a driver’s license

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Former Cup champion Tony Stewart questions why kids too young to get a driver’s license can race full-size race cars.

Stewart, who is presenting the Vankor Texas Sprint Car Nationals at the dirt track next to Texas Motor Speedway this weekend, expressed his opinion Friday when asked about the success this season of veteran drivers in NASCAR.

“The stats prove that you don’t have to be a teenager to win races,’’ said Stewart, whose team has had Cup wins from 42-year-old Kevin Harvick (three victories) and 38-year-old Clint Bowyer (one victory).

“I’m still one of those guys that I think it’s absurd for anybody that is under the age of 16 to be driving a full-size race car when society doesn’t even trust you to drive home from the grocery store two blocks away at 30 mph.

“I personally know drivers that I feel like have the talent and deserve to have the opportunity. There’s other guys that I know in open-wheel racing that I know deserve the opportunity, but because they’re not a teenager, they’ll never get an opportunity and never get the shot. We’re on some silly craze that you’ve got to be a teenager.’’

Stewart’s comments come a week after an NBC Sports story examining how young some drivers were starting in Late Models. Last month, 13-year-old Jake Garcia became the youngest driver to race at historic Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville.

Timmy Tyrrell, known as Mini Tyrrell, was 9 years old when he made his Late Model debut in 2014 at Shenandoah (Virginia) Speedway. He has won the track’s Late Model title the past two seasons.

Kyle Busch recently said on the issue of how young is too young to race in Late Models:

“I don’t think it’s necessarily an age thing as much as it’s an experience thing. I look at go-karts, how did that particular individual do in go-karts and Bandoleros or Legend cars – what has his history been in vehicles? Has he won races? Has he been good? Has it been worth him moving up each and every time that he gets to a new vehicle?

“I don’t think it’s smart to just start at 10 or start at 13 in a Late Model, that absolutely should not be possible.’’

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Friday 5: As the youth movement progresses, should there be minimum age limits?

Photo: Jake Garcia Racing
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By his father’s account, 13-year-old Jake Garcia fared well while becoming the youngest driver to compete in a Late Model race at historic Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville last weekend.

Garcia finished 13th in a 19-car field in a race won by Michael House and placed ahead of former Cup driver Sterling Marlin, who was 15th. The performance came about two months after Garcia’s Late Model debut — before he had turned 13.

Garcia’s first Late Model race, though, was actually late when compared to Timmy Tyrrell, or Mini Tyrrell as he’s know around the track. Tyrrell made his first Late Model start when he was 9 years old in 2014 at Shenandoah (Virginia) Speedway. Tyrrell has won the past two Late Model track championships there.

As NASCAR celebrates a youth movement in Cup — more than 20 percent of the drivers in Monday’s race at Martinsville Speedway were age 24 or younger — children are moving up to the Late Model ranks at an earlier age.

There remain some barriers. The minimum age for a NASCAR license is 14 years old, so no one under that age can race in a NASCAR-sanctioned division at a NASCAR-sanctioned track. Tracks without such sanctioning can decide if to allow youngsters to race and some do.

That also leads to questions of if it is right to put a child in a Late Model car before they are a teenager or just as they reach that age. There are those who raise concerns since auto racing can be dangerous even with all the safety enhancements.

Timmy Tyrrell, father of Mini Tyrrell, said he’s heard the “nasty comments” about putting his son in a Late Model at such an early age and the accusations of him being “reckless” with such a decision but says that is not the case. 

“As a father, first and foremost, I want to wrap my kid in bubble wrap whatever he does,’’ Timmy Tyrrell told NBC Sports. “Nobody wants to see their child hurt. I go above and beyond, making sure his seats are perfect, his helmet, his HANS, everything.’’

Tyrrell said the decision to move his son to Late Model wasn’t done by just him but based on evaluation of others in racing. That’s the same approach Stevie Garcia used before allowing his son, Jake, to run Late Models. Jake Garcia is in a driver development program set up by Willie Allen, the 2007 Rookie of the Year in NASCAR’s Truck Series. Jake Garcia tested four times at Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville — a .596-mile venue that once hosted Cup races — to learn the car and track and showing he could handle racing there.

Allen said they had cameras on the car and some data acquisition devices to help Garcia study those tests and understand what he needed to do to race there.

Garcia impressed Allen with how he performed.

“He’s super calm and composed for his age,’’ Allen told NBC Sports. “I see a lot of other drivers that worry about the wrong stuff at the race track all the time. He’s just focused on how to make himself better and attacking the track and that’s what it is all about.’’

Garcia or anyone else younger than 14 cannot run in a NASCAR-sanctioned division at South Boston (Virginia) Speedway because it is a NASCAR-sanctioned track, but General Manger Cathy Rice wonders if there will be a day when the minimum age requirement is lowered.

“Kids mature so much now, so early,’’ Rice told NBC Sports. “I’ve been in this sport, this is 30 years this year that I’ve been here, I’ve seen the trend of the maturity in the kids. Maybe NASCAR will look at 12 or 13, I don’t know, the insurance and everything you have to deal with, there’s a lot to it.’’

Former Cup champion Kyle Busch, who started in Late Models at age 15 before he was caught for being too young, says there can be cases for younger drivers to race in Late Models.

“I don’t think it’s necessarily an age thing as much as it’s an experience thing,’’ he said. “I look at go-karts, how did that particular individual do in go-karts and Bandoleros or Legend cars – what has his history been in vehicles? Has he won races? Has he been good? Has it been worth him moving up each and every time that he gets to a new vehicle?

“I don’t think it’s smart to just start at 10 or start at 13 in a Late Model, that absolutely should not be possible.’’

Busch admits the move to Late Models was significant when he made it.

“I was scared to death of the thing,,’’ he said. “With how much faster it was than a Legends car, how much cornering speed it had more than a Legends car and what anything I had ever been in and what I had been used and accustomed to as far as what the grip level was and the G-forces and things that it gives you.

“It was just a big deal at 16 years old for me. I think that there’s kids that can handle it, obviously. I don’t think that it’s all that important to be as young as some of these cats are getting in Late Models and stuff at 10 or 13 years old, whatever it is, because I look at myself not being 15 doing that, and I look at William Byron not being 15 or 16 and doing that. He got a late start like I did, so you can still have a late start and still be good and be able to make it to the big time.’’

Reigning Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. admits that “I’m sure there are some kids that are ready for it and obviously we’ve seen kids at 13, 14 or 15 be successful at short track racing, Late Models or whatever, you name it.

“I would say that there is nobody that should say you can’t do it. I guess the hard part is what happens when somebody is thrown in there that really can’t do it or he thinks he can or parents think you can.

“For me at 13, I would say I probably could have driven a full-size car, obviously it was illegal and I wasn’t allowed to in New Jersey, I had to be 18. I lost quite a few years in racing because of that, but I think I was mature enough and knew enough about racing so I guess it’s more about the individual than it is a generalization. I can’t imagine what I could have learned from the time I was 14 until I was 18 – you’re talking about four years of racing, that’s a lot of races, a lot to learn and a lot of divisions to get up through as well.’’

2. Kyle Busch Double

Kyle Busch’s runner-up finish Monday at Martinsville Speedway marked his 43rd career second-place finish. He also has 43 career Cup victories.

Busch ranks 12th in the modern era (since 1972) for most first- and second-place finishes in Cup.

Here’s the top 12 in first- and second-place finishes since 1972:

1. Jeff Gordon … 168

2. Dale Earnhardt … 146

3. Darrell Waltrip … 142

4. Jimmie Johnson … 129

5. Richard Petty … 126

6. Cale Yarborough … 112

7. Bobby Allison … 109

8. Mark Marin … 101

9. Rusty Wallace … 97

10. Tony Stewart … 93

11. Kevin Harvick … 90

12. Kyle Busch … 86

3. Leader of the pack

Kevin Harvick has led the most laps in Cup this season at 433, but he also ranks third in the Xfinity Series in laps led at 141.

Combined, he’s led 574 of the 2,667 laps run in both series — 21.5 percent — even though he’s not run in every Xfinity race.

4. No fooling

What do Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Jarrett, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and David Pearson have in common?

They all won a Cup race in the modern era (since 1972) on April 1, according to NASCAR stats.

Dale Earnhardt’s first career Cup win came at Bristol on April 1, 1979. He also won at Darlington on April 1 (1990).

Newman (2012) and Johnson (2007) won at Martinsville on April 1. Jarrett won on the date in 2001 at Texas. Waltrip won on that date in 1984 at Bristol. Pearson won on that date in 1973 at Atlanta.

5. Last break of the year

While there are two more off weekends this season for Cup (June 17 and Aug. 26), those off weekends will include Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series races.

This is the final weekend without any type of NASCAR racing through the end of the season — Nov. 18 in Miami.

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