For next gen­er­a­tion of driv­ers, it’s full speed ahead

Five of top eight starters for race in Ari­zona are age 26 or younger

The Washington Post Sunday - - HOCKEY - NASCAR BY BOB BAUM

avon­dale, ariz. — The NASCAR kids keep com­ing on strong.

Five of the high­est-start­ing eight driv­ers in NASCAR’s lineup for its Cup Se­ries race Sun­day are 26 or younger.

Ryan Blaney, start­ing next to pole sit­ter and team­mate Joey Logano on the front row, is 23. Kyle Lar­son starts in the sec­ond row, and he’s all of 24.

Blaney fin­ished sec­ond in this year’s Day­tona 500; Lar­son won at Michi­gan last year and fin­ished sec­ond in the last two Cup races.

The age keeps drop­ping down the grid, and the fourth row con­sists of Chase El­liott, who is fi­nally old enough to drink, and Erik Jones, who doesn’t turn 21 un­til the end of May. El­liott was third last week in Las Ve­gas and won a pre­sea­son qual­i­fy­ing race at Day­tona.

“Ob­vi­ously there’s a lot of tal­ent out there,” said Martin Truex Jr., win­ner last week in Las Ve­gas. “We’ve seen what the young guys are do­ing. They’re nip­ping at our heels and mak­ing me feel old.”

Also in the field is rookie Ty Dil­lon (24) and Trevor Bayne, who six years ago be­came the youngest win­ner of the Day­tona 500 one day af­ter his 20th birth­day. He’s 26 now and prac­ti­cally a Cup vet­eran.

Of course, pole sit­ter Logano is no old-timer at 26, but he’s well es­tab­lished as one of the cir­cuit’s stars. He has 17 NASCAR wins, in­clud­ing last year’s No­vem­ber race in Phoenix.

He’s also in a lit­tle bit of a firestorm — he came to Phoenix em­broiled in controversy af­ter hard rac­ing with Kyle Busch last week led to a scuf­fle on pit road.

But Logano isn’t con­sid­ered part of this group of fresh new NASCAR stars, among them Lar­son, who keeps flirt­ing with an­other win.

“It would be nice to get a win, and we have chal­lenged now for most of, the last prob­a­bly five, races,” he said. “It’s re­ally cool to run up front. I’ve never had this speed this early in the year. I’m soak­ing it all in and en­joy­ing it.”

Truex said to­day’s young driv­ers are helped by the co­op­er­a­tion be­tween teams in the same own­er­ship group or part of an al­liance. Truex and his Fur­ni­ture Row Rac­ing group ben­e­fit as the sis­ter team to Joe Gibbs Rac­ing. The deep re­sources and shar­ing prac­tices dif­fer greatly from when he started his ca­reer driv­ing for Dale Earn­hardt.

“When I started, we had two cars at DEI and it was two dif­fer­ent teams and two dif­fer­ent build­ings and not shar­ing ev­ery­thing,” he said. “So things have changed a lot, and I think it’s helped those guys a ton get off the ground, but ob­vi­ously we’ve seen a ton of tal­ent come into the se­ries, and it’s been ex­cit­ing to watch.”

Blaney drives a Ford for Wood Brothers Rac­ing, but the team is es­sen­tially a “B” team for Roger Penske, who has Logano and Brad Ke­selowski star­ring for Team Penske.

“They have been re­ally good to us as far as shar­ing in­for­ma­tion,” Blaney said. “We sit in on all their meet­ings and I feel like a part of the team. At the same time, we are still the Wood Brothers, a sin­gle-car team on the dragstrip in Mooresville. We have a great re­la­tion­ship with Team Penske and they are a big part of why we run so well.”

Blaney be­lieves he’s clos­ing in on that first win. He started third in Las Ve­gas last Sun­day.

“Our cars have been com­pet­i­tive enough to win all three races [this year],” he said. “It just was cir­cum­stances. It is just about putting a full race to­gether. It is re­ally tough to win one of these Cup races.”

BRIAN LAW­DER­MILK/GETTY IM­AGES

Ryan Blaney, 23, above, who fin­ished sec­ond in the Day­tona 500, will start next to team­mate and pole sit­ter Joey Lagano on Sun­day.

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