When will the next crop of drivers ascend to the Sprint Cup Series?
Quick, what do the names Kevin Conway and Andy Lally have in common? Are they:
A) Two prominent Wall Street investment bankers
B) Battling for the same role in One Life To Live
C) Americans running in the Tour de France
D) The 2010 and 2011 Sprint Cup Rookies of the Year
Did it take you a minute to come up with the answer? (It’s not completely a joke — there really is a “Kevin Conway” in One Life To Live). Well, you’re not alone, especially considering NASCAR’s last two “top freshmen” are currently outside the sport altogether nine races into the 2012 season. It’s a troubling trend, where for every Joey Logano there’s been about nine Conways who come into the sport with sponsor money, run mediocre at best and then disappear without even getting as much as a cursory glance from the Jack Roush’s and Rick Hendrick’s that hold the keys to NASCAR’s continued existence. Or, there’s the Lally’s of the world, successful drivers changing series without the benefit of money or equipment to support their transition. Patience isn’t a virtue in those scenarios, leaving them kicked to the curb faster than Donald Trump can say, “You’re fired!” on Celebrity Apprentice.
Sounds silly that a few “average Joes” with funding should make a difference. But more than ever, people like these could be influencing the top levels of stock car competition, at a time when side-by-side racing and future sponsorship are getting called into question. With long green-flag runs the norm, not the exception, in 2012 and drivers content to run single file, the blame has been passed around like a hot potato: the Chase, the Car of Tomorrow, tires with no give, too much dependence on aerodynamics. However, could the conservatism of today’s driving corps come from the simple fact there’s no one in position to replace them?
Just take a look at the current top 10 in NASCAR Sprint Cup points. In a sport that was once concerned with twenty-something “young guns” unseating the veterans, they’re nowhere to be found. Instead, what you find is a collection of people that could be confused for fathers attending their kids’ Little League games: there’s no one under age 30, three over age 40 and the average is a gaudy 35.8. Can you imagine an NFL, NBA, NHL or MLB team with that number? Chances are they’d be struggling to finish above last place in their division, let alone earn a .500 record or attempt to qualify for the playoffs.
Yes, stock car racing — a sport that has witnessed great success stories of drivers in their 40s — can be different. But those tales also happened at a time when it didn’t cost $20 million to build a competitive team. That number brings in the involvement of Fortune 500 companies, with marketing departments that care just as much about target demographics as top-5 finishes. Trust me, they’re on to the trend: just look at the hesitance to sponsor Daytona winner and former champ Matt Kenseth (age 40) despite his 2012 success. Even 37-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s Most Popular Driver and one of the sport’s best storylines of the season, no longer fits within the 18-34 male demographic that was once magnetically attracted to cars turning left. Jimmie Johnson, the sport’s most successful driver of the last decade is 36. Its ambassador, Jeff Gordon, is turning 41, outside the top 10 in points and closer to hosting Kelly Live! than contending for the fifth title his fans crave. The driver once thought “key to the sport’s future,” Logano, hasn’t won in nearly three years and at 22, finds his future employment in jeopardy. The youngster’s “Sliced Bread” moniker is turning stale, a cruel irony considering the recent complaints flooding the sport.
With age comes experience, and it’s no surprise those current top-10 drivers have settled into their current organizations. Everyone on the preceding list has been driving for the same car owner for at least three seasons; 60 percent have been doing it for seven or more. That type of longevity builds consistency in relationships, creating chemistry that makes it easy to rise to the top. But the downside for the fan base is that it’s the same old, same old. Silly Season leads to changes that keep people tuned in during this 24/7-news-cycle world we live in. Take the NFL as an example: Peyton Manning, after a whole career with the same organization, is moving to Denver because a young upstart named Andrew Luck was available. In his mid-30s, a superstar athlete was pushed out because of the natural evolution of his sport — there’s someone younger and potentially just as talented available.
That transition has stopped within a world where money, not developing drivers, now moves mountains. Instead, we have the Conway’s, capable of buying rides in desperate organizations for a chance to live their dream, to race at stock car’s top level. But their spotty resumes can’t make up for boardroom success. We’ve seen plenty of these “development projects” fail, making even a struggling driver like Jamie McMurray seem like a five-time champ by comparison. It’s telling that one of the few plum openings for 2012, the No. 55 of Michael Waltrip Racing, went to someone who’s 53 years old. Yes, Mark Martin has a lifetime worth of talent … but he also had limited competition for the spot. Experience leads to knowing how and when to push the right buttons on the racetrack. With so many veterans up front and their place in NASCAR history secure, it’s no wonder the caution flags are down. After all, the sport puts the rookie stripe on back bumpers for a reason.
So is young talent dead on the vine? That’s a topic for another day, as the age question doesn’t completely answer NASCAR’s sponsorship conundrum. (Last year’s Daytona 500 winner, Trevor Bayne, also remains without a full-time ride in the Nationwide Series, at age 21.) But it does explain why drivers are stuck in their rides, the only pressure coming from keeping sponsorship in a world where the NASCAR economy is stagnant at best. That usually comes by making the Chase, and here’s where the current point system steps in. With a limited number of drivers capable of making it, it’s easy to “coast” through the 26-race regular season only to collect your wins mid-summer and ensure yourself of a playoff spot. In the sports landscape of America that’s defined as dynamic, its most successful leagues defined by a consistent level of change, NASCAR’s best have put on the brakes and become content with the “status quo.”
That’s great when you’re looking to work in a corner cubicle for 20 years. But typically in entertainment (what sports are), the “status quo” means “the end of the line.” NASCAR is busy working on a new car for 2013, but while it’s at it, maybe it’s time to find the cast for “Young Guns: Part II” — beyond Danica Patrick, herself 30 — before it’s too late. The last time NASCAR had an entire top 10 in points with no one under age 30 was 1993 — but back then, the sport was poised to be flooded with the likes of Gordon, Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte.
Where will the next generation of drivers come from? How can NASCAR’s natural evolution restart again? These are questions that need to be answered, quickly, with millions in future revenue at stake.
Average Age of Sprint Cup Top 10: 35.8
Average Age of Sprint Cup Chase: 34.4
Point standing, driver, age, first year with current team
1. Greg Biffle (42), 2003
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (36), 2008
3. Denny Hamlin (31), 2006
4. Matt Kenseth (40), 2000
5. Martin Truex, Jr. (31), 2010
6. Jimmie Johnson (36), 2002
7. Kevin Harvick (36), 2001
8. Tony Stewart (40), 2009
9. Carl Edwards (32), 2004
10. Ryan Newman (34), 2009
(WC) Kyle Busch (27), 2005
(WC) Brad Keselowski (28), 2010
by Tom Bowles
Follow Tom on Twitter: @AthlonBowles