Ca­reers of young driv­ers gather speed

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - GE­ORGE DIAZ ON MO­TOR RAC­ING sports@la­times.com

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.

Chuck Bur­ton As­so­ci­ated Press

NASCAR driver Ricky Sten­house Jr., left, chats with 23-year-old col­league Ryan Blaney in May.

Chris Trot­man Getty Im­ages

DANIEL SUAREZ, who was born in Mex­ico, re­cently fin­ished sixth in a race at Dover, Del.

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