Entering the 2018 season, NASCAR sat in a precarious spot. In the span of three seasons, five Cup Series drivers — Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth — hanged up the helmet. That’s a combined 235 victories and eight championships that retired in such a short span.
Compounding the matter, the rookies who took over most of these seats got off to a slow start. Some, like Kyle Larson, showed great signs of promise, but lacked the equipment to do battle week-to-week with the likes of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. Others, like Austin Dillon, struggled to take off.
Moreover, NASCAR’s TV ratings and attendance figures continued their long decline.
Combined with too many other issues to count, the light at the end of the tunnel for NASCAR’s future grew dim.
Fast-forward to Sunday, however, drivers like Chase Briscoe laid that fear to rest.
The White Zone: The young guns are winning
Ten in a row for the kids
Briscoe’s first career victory in the Ruoff Mortgage 500 at Phoenix Raceway set a NASCAR record for the longest stretch of Cup Series races won by drivers under the age of 30. That’s an average age of 27. Furthermore, drivers under 30 have won 14 of the last 18.
That list includes Larson (7), Ryan Blaney (2), Alex Bowman (2), Bubba Wallace, Austin Cindric and Briscoe.
Granted, that’s just six different under 30 winners in that span, but it’s not just winning. The youts led the laps, too. Drivers under 30 led the most laps in 12 of the last 18 races. Unsurprisingly, Larson tops that list.
This season, alone, Tyler Reddick all but locked up victory at Fontana, before he cut a tire. Ross Chastain led a race-high 83 laps, last Sunday, at Las Vegas.
Mind you. This all happened in a series that until 15-20 years ago, even after Gordon took the Cup Series by storm in the 1990s, you didn’t get a ride in it until your early-30s. That turned into mid to late-20s in the 2000s, and now late-teens to early-20s is the standard.
Now, the most popular driver is a 26-year-old named Chase Elliott. The reigning series champion turns 30 in July. The last four winners have a mean age of 26.75 and the most dominant drivers in the last three average 27.67.
Now this streak won’t last forever. Someone over 30 will break through, and probably before Larson eclipses 30 in July, and I don’t see Joey Logano, Harvick, Truex or either Busch brother going winless. Furthermore, young guns like Wallace need to step up their performance, or find themselves out of a ride.
If you take just one thing from this, however, take this: Don’t ask who’s gonna fill their shoes, as the late George Jones sang. The shoes are filled, for at least the next 15 to 20 years.
That’s my view, for what it’s worth.
TOP IMAGE: Sean Gardner/Getty Images