Careers of young drivers gather speed
NASCAR’s young drivers are growing up. The members of Generation Next aren’t sitting around the garage, smitten by tales of their elders and genuflecting at the sight of their fire suits.
They are out to kick some old-man backside.
Respectfully so, of course. But still, it’s cool to see Kyle Larson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez take the wheel.
Everyone knows the sport is searching for the “Next Great Stock-Car Racer.” Dale Earnhardt Jr. will leave the garage after this season, joining Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. They all were superstars. Stewart and Gordon have the Cup titles to prove it, and Earnhardt has the family legacy and Internet clicks that move the needle each and every day.
That’s why somebody needs to be “next up.”
The good news is that there’s a strong talent pool to make a run at greatness. Larson, 24; Stenhouse, 29; and Dillon, 27, all have playoff-qualifying victories this season. Elliott, 21, would get in on points if the playoffs began this week.
Blaney, 23, is 13th in the standings. Jones, 21, is 18th. Suarez, 25, a native of Mexico, is 19th and recently scored his best Cup finish by placing sixth at Dover.
“I really wasn’t expecting to be in this position right now five years ago,” Suarez said at the start of the season. “And now to be here, it is something really cool, to be living there and now to be able to try to help a little bit the new generations that are coming here to the United States from Mexico or from all over the world.”
It’s not your grandpappy’s NASCAR anymore, as Suarez is quick to remind us. But NASCAR’s homespun roots provide an important connection between past and present. “Generation Next” needs to be cognizant of that before it gets distracted by modern-day technology.
A tweet is good. A handshake is better.
“Sometimes we have this preconceived-mold idea about what corporate America thinks they should be like,” NASCAR veteran Clint Bowyer said. “There’s only one thing they need to do: Perform. It’s a performance-driven business, and aside from that you have to be yourself.
“That’s what makes this sport what it is. It’s the closest the fan gets to that character, that driver, that personality. They need to be themselves, and that’s all anybody could ask other than winning races.”
They’re working on that. Stenhouse and Dillon, who have never been in the Cup postseason, are pushing guys such as Bowyer to the max.
“They’re doing a good job of stepping up to the plate,” Bowyer said.
Wallace at Pocono
Every sport has its historical context. So please ponder this one:
Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. will become the first African American driver to race in a Cup race since 2006 when he fills in for Aric Almirola at Pocono Raceway this weekend.
“I mean, this is a huge step for NASCAR, the whole sport in general, for bringing diversity to its top-tier level of NASCAR,” Wallace said during a teleconference Tuesday. “I’m glad to be leading the forefront of that right now. It just shows that we’re trying to bring in a new demographic.
“We’re trying to bring in a new face, get a younger generation, no matter what color, what age. We’re trying to get everybody involved to bring NASCAR back.”
Wallace, 23, follows Bill Lester, who raced at Atlanta and Michigan in 2006. Wallace gets to make history in the iconic No. 43 for Richard Petty Motorsports, sitting in for Almirola while he continues his rehab work after suffering a fractured vertebra in a nasty crash May 13 at Kansas Speedway.
“You got to be ready for what comes at you,” Wallace said. “For some reason, I’ve been beating myself up over for the last two years now, trying to get our first win in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. It’s not for the lack of effort.”
Wallace is an old guard in stock-car racing. He began his career when he was 8.
NASCAR driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr., left, chats with 23-year-old colleague Ryan Blaney in May.
DANIEL SUAREZ, who was born in Mexico, recently finished sixth in a race at Dover, Del.