The 2016 NASCAR season will soon be upon us. This feature and so much more can be found in this year’s Athlon Sports Racing Preview, available now on newsstands everywhere.
By Joe Menzer
Jeff Gordon has retired, and Tony Stewart is next in line for a rocking chair. Seven others who were full-time Sprint Cup drivers in 2015 either have already celebrated their 40th birthdays or will do so before the end of the 2016 season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., for goodness sakes, will turn 42 in October. Greg Biffle will turn 47 in December, and Matt Kenseth will be 44 in March. The others are six-time champion Jimmie Johnson (41 in September), 2014 champ Kevin Harvick (41 in December), Jamie McMurray (40 in June) and David Gilliland (40 in April).
None of these guys is going to drive forever — and most of them will be vacating some pretty sweet rides over the next few years. Having some true icons of the sport bowing out in relatively rapid succession would seem to be a cause of great concern for NASCAR, but, in fact, the opposite seems true. There is so much young talent lined up to take center stage that many long-time participants and observers of the sport could not be more excited to see what happens next.
“There are more really good drivers — phenoms is what I call them, literally — than ever in the history of racing,” insists former driver Kenny Wallace, now a television analyst for FOX Sports. “They’re lined up around the block.”
Jeff Hammond, a former Cup championship-winning crew chief who also now works as a television analyst for FOX, could not agree more. But he says the fact that there appears to be an abundance of young talent ready to blossom is no guarantee that all of it will pan out, something NASCAR will have to remember as it gingerly puts its best shoes forward in a budding new era.
“To say we’ve got an unusual amount of seemingly great young talent waiting in the wings, that’s very accurate,” Hammond says. “But today, hopefully more than ever, these young up-and-comers are more thoroughly vetted than in the past.
“If you’ve been around the sport as long as I have, you go back to when the Richard Petty-David Pearson era was kind of ending, along with Cale Yarborough. And you saw guys like Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte, potentially the Tim Richmonds of the world and Rusty Wallace coming on. And then you see them being replaced by guys like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, who are now being replaced by guys like Chase Elliott and the rest of this young talent.
“Then it really boils down to, how bad do these young men want to have a career in our sport? And are we going to give them enough time to mature and develop? Because I think the opportunities and the platforms to prepare them to become definitely winners in our sport and perhaps future champions have never been greater.”
Elliott, son of NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Bill Elliott, is at or near the top of virtually all lists of up-and-coming stars. But he’s far from alone.
Elliott will compete for Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year honors this year with Ryan Blaney, Brian Scott and Chris Buescher. But Elliott obviously is going to be in the best ride, replacing Gordon in the No. 24 Chevy for Hendrick Motorsports. He even inherits Gordon’s crew chief, Alan Gustafson. Elliott says he’s well aware of the heavy expectations that come with following in Gordon’s footsteps.
“The fans have been amazing to me, and I’m so appreciative of that,” Elliott says. “I know how rare this opportunity is and will work as hard as I can to make everyone proud.”
Rick Hendrick says he has no doubts Elliott will succeed.
“Chase brings the kind of intangibles that make him the total package as a driver,” Hendrick says. “Not only is he a special talent inside the racecar, but there’s a natural combination of competitiveness, work ethic and smarts that you rarely see.
“Chase’s personality and demeanor make him popular with teammates, fans and sponsors. He’s a great fit for our organization on many levels, and we feel he and Alan will be a successful combination. There’s a lot to be excited about.”
Yet Hammond says the key for Elliott will be patience. Not only patience from the young driver himself, but also from those around him within the Hendrick organization and outside of it — as in fans, media and sponsors alike.
“When you sign some of this young talent today, part of the process oftentimes is signing a sponsor to go along with them. Just like with Chase Elliott and NAPA,” Hammond says. “Hopefully Chase Elliott is a marketing success story for NAPA. But if he’s not, all of a sudden you’ve got the added pressure of the sponsor looking for performance to go with this hype that we’ve already drummed up for this young man. And now not only does he have the pressure of the owner and the team wanting him to do well, but we’ve added a major sponsor in the public view who is expecting the same thing.
“Developing young talent is fun to watch. But it is very fragile — because we’ve got to understand that a lot of these young men we’re touting and watching and enjoying at this point in time, they can’t even rent a car. Some of them are not even old enough to drink. And yet, we’re asking them to carry the future and the hopes of sometimes 150 to 200 young men and women in an organization to be successful.”
Elliott became the first rookie and youngest NASCAR national touring series champion in history when he was crowned the then-Nationwide (now XFINITY) Series champ in 2014 at the tender age of 18. Wallace compares him to none other than Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“After watching both Dale Jr. and Chase Elliott, I think they’re two peas in a pod. I don’t know if they’ve ever looked at it like that, but from afar that’s what I see,” Wallace says. “Chase Elliott, for me, is a carbon copy of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Both of them basically shadowed their fathers. Chase was around his dad constantly at the racetrack. So was Dale Jr. You absorb that stuff. They both were very successful right away in (what is now) the XFINITY Series. They both won championships and they both won races.”
Transferring that to Cup success was no guarantee, however. For evidence of that, look no further than the struggles that two-time Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has had to endure since moving to Cup. When discussing Elliott, Hammond also likens what the rookie will face this season to what Joey Logano went through as a rookie at Joe Gibbs Racing when Logano stepped into a ride being vacated by Stewart.
“The catch to all of this — and I’m not trying to rain on anybody’s parade when it comes to all this young talent — is how they handle the overall pressure as we raise their expectations for them,” Hammond says. “I think that’s the one thing that’s a disservice in our sport today. We rubber-stamp them the stars of the future, and then we want them to be the star now. We almost don’t give them enough time to deal with the ups and downs; we don’t give them time enough to mature.
“Joey Logano is a great example of what can happen to someone who has gone through the pipeline, looks like he is going to get it done, and then because of the set of circumstances you aren’t necessarily able to groom him the right way. Look how long it took him to develop — but look what he developed into. It just took more time because of the circumstances. … Who did he replace? Tony Stewart. And he had Tony Stewart’s team. So everybody wanted to know, ‘Why aren’t you doing what Tony Stewart did? You’re supposed to be so great. You’re ‘Sliced Bread.’ Where is it? I don’t see it.’”
Logano, of course, is a championship-contending Cup driver now. And he’s still technically one of the young guns, because he’s only 25 (he’ll turn 26 in May). He won a series-high six races last season, has won a total of 11 over the previous two and 14 overall in his Cup career.
But when he first started as Stewart’s replacement in the No. 20 car for Joe Gibbs Racing, Logano often seemed lost. He became the youngest winner of a Cup race when he captured a rain-shortened race at New Hampshire in June 2009 at the age of 19 years, one month and four days. But he won only one more time while with JGR and didn’t seem to find himself as a driver until after he left JGR following the 2012 season. He joined Team Penske, where he hit it off with crew chief Todd Gordon.
“Therein lies the quandary of any team,” Hammond says. “And this is where I hope our teams, overall, do recognize and understand that these things can take a little bit. Jeff Gordon was not made in the first year he drove for Rick Hendrick. I mean, he tore up everything coming and going. But Rick Hendrick was committed to him — and his faith in that talent paid 20-some years of dividends because of it. But it came with failure before success — and with Joey Logano, there was failure before success.
“And so I really think that should be the cry that we put out there for all of this young talent: Expect failure before success.”
It is difficult, though, when there is so much young talent bubbling just over the horizon. It’s not limited to Elliott and the others who will run for Rookie of the Year in Cup in 2016. It’s drivers such as Kyle Larson, who will be entering his third season in Cup despite being only 23; Austin Dillon, and his younger brother, Ty, who is expected to join big brother in Cup soon; 2015 Camping World Truck Series champion Erik Jones; and John Hunter Nemechek, the son of former Cup driver Joe Nemechek.
All of them are expected to be driving full time in Cup sooner rather than later. And of the group, many see Jones as having the greatest potential of them all.
“Of course we already have Kyle Larson here (in Cup). And when you start lining the rest of them up, this Erik Jones is just unreal. I think Erik is the best one of them all,” Wallace says.
Wallace bases his opinion on the fact that Jones already has shown extraordinary speed in all three NASCAR national touring series. Jones was only 18 when he won his first Camping World Truck Series race at Phoenix in November 2013. He’s since won six more times in that series while registering 18 top-five and 33 top-10 finishes in a total of just 40 career starts.
But that’s not all. He also won two XFINITY Series races in 2015, totaling 13 top-5 and 17 top-10 finishes in just 23 starts. And when Joe Gibbs Racing needed someone to jump in for Denny Hamlin after Hamlin’s neck tightened up during a long rain delay at Bristol last spring, they called on Jones, and he brought Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota home without a scratch.
“We threw him into something there,” team owner Joe Gibbs says. “It’s unbelievable he could handle a car like that under those circumstances. We didn’t have time to change seats, nothing. He got to the car five minutes before the race went back to green.”
So it was no surprise later in the season when Gibbs called upon Jones again — first to sub for the injured Kyle Busch at Kansas and then to sub for the suspended Matt Kenseth at Texas and Phoenix, respectively, toward the end of the year. Every time, Jones was fast right off the bat. He qualified 12th at Kansas, sixth at Texas and seventh at Phoenix — with his best finish a 12th at Texas.
“First of all, he won in the lower (super late model) division — winning the biggest race of them all in the Snowball Derby, outrunning Kyle Busch,” Wallace says. “No. 2, any time he gets in any make of car — and this is what puts him heads and heels above everybody else — he qualifies very well and shows speed right away. As opposed to where we see other young drivers get in a Cup car, good ones, and they don’t have the speed right away. I mean, Chase Elliott’s a very good driver, but he doesn’t have the speed right away that Erik shows.
“That’s just what I see. Erik gets up to speed right away. He’ll get in a Cup car, like he did Kyle Busch’s car, and jump right up into the top 10 in practice right away — and I think that’s pretty impressive. And I mean, they have thrown him to the wolves. He had no (practice) time. They were like, ‘Hey, get in this Cup car right now. Denny Hamlin’s hurt.’ And he gets in it, no practice, and does pretty well in the race. I think that’s what makes him stand out, for me, above everyone else.”
Of course, Jones isn’t even running in Sprint Cup full time just yet. He’s running a limited schedule in the top series this year, while running a full-time slate in the XFINITY Series.
“We’ve got a plan laid out for him,” Gibbs says. “It’s just not something we talk about in public yet.”
So while Elliott, Buescher and Blaney battle it out this year for Rookie of the Year honors in Cup and race weekly against the likes of other young guns like Larson, Logano and the 25-year-old Austin Dillon, the 19-year-old Jones will be dueling in the XFINITY Series with other up-and-comers such as Darrell Wallace Jr. (22) and Ty Dillon (who turns 24 on Feb. 27). Still other promising youngsters such as Tyler Reddick (20), John Hunter Nemechek (18) and Cole Custer (18) are working their way through NASCAR’s lower national touring series with an eye on finding their way to Cup.
It makes the overall future of the sport look blindingly bright even as some of its greatest stars begin to fade away.
“Once again, there is simply an abundance of driving talent just lined up in the pipeline,” Wallace says. “So they really need to do something extraordinary to make themselves stand out. It will be fun seeing who can do what to do that over the next couple of years.”
Hammond adds: “When you see young talent and you see somebody get in a racecar these days, especially at the top level but even in the XFINITY Series, backed by some of the major teams, you need to pay attention. They’re the real deal.”