Young guns take the wheel as NASCAR’s newest stars

DOVER — The times are certainly changing in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. There is a youth movement taking over the sport that simply will not be denied.

With former champions such as Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart retiring over the past couple of seasons and the ever-popular Dale Earnhardt Jr. deciding to hang up his helmet after this year, there is plenty of opportunity to be seized.

Six drivers under the age of 30 are certainly taking advantage of the times and are changing the face of NASCAR.

Joey Logano, a grizzled 27-year-old veteran who is already in his ninth full season in the Cup Series, leads the way among the young guns with 18 career victories.

But others are catching up quickly, and Logano has taken notice.

In fact, Logano, Kyle Larson (24-years-old), Chase Elliott (21), Ryan Blaney (23), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (29) and Austin Dillon (27) all currently hold prized spots to NASCAR’s playoffs after the first 12 races of the season.

Joey Logano poses with the winner’s decal after winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway on April 30. (Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

“The future of NASCAR is present, and it’s going to be big,” Logano said. “It’s amazing you see some of those guys that are coming in how good they are. Their wins here are obviously right around the corner. You can see that.”

Larson has been the hottest of the under-30 crop of drivers so far this season, leading the points standings for several weeks before falling behind current leader Martin Truex Jr. by five points following last week’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“You’ll see a big change in NASCAR over the next six or seven years with some of the veterans leaving the sport and lots of new guys filling their seats,” Larson said. “It’s exciting to see. I’m happy I got here in the first small wave of seats opening up.”

While none of NASCAR’s new wave of drivers has won a Cup Series race at Dover International Speedway, all promise to be contenders when the green flag waves on the AAA 400 Drive for Energy race on Sunday afternoon at 1 (Fox Sports 1).

Elliott said he’s ready to attack the Monster Mile.

“Just the sensation of speed I think is very real (at Dover),” he said. “The way the racetrack is shaped, only being one mile it seems fast. Some places seem faster than others although you might be going the same speed, but it is definitely a place that seems like it’s pretty quick.”

Larson will definitely be one to watch throughout the race Sunday.

In six career starts on Dover’s high-banked, one-mile oval, he has driven to a pair of top-five finishes, four top-10s and has a 9.3 average finish.

Larson led 85 laps in last spring’s race at the Monster Mile, but failed to clear Matt Kenseth at the end of the contest and finished runner-up.

Logano captured four-consecutive victories in the Xfinity Series at Dover from between 2012-’13. He also survived an unforgettable flip during a Cup race at the track.

Richard Childress, the car owner who teamed with the “Intimidator” Dale Earnhardt Sr. for six of his seven Cup Series championships, knows talent when he sees it.

Childress got to celebrate as Dillon, his grandson, earned his first career Monster Energy Cup victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway last Sunday night in the legendary No. 3 Chevrolet that he owns.

Dillon has often been overlooked when it comes to NASCAR’s youth movement, but it doesn’t bother him.

“Lost in the sauce? I don’t know,” said Dillon. “It’s all about performance. They’re going to talk about you more when you’re performing well.

“Those (other) guys have been performing well. I knew we could do it and run well, but we just got to do it more consistently. When I do, I think they’ll talk about us.”

With this up-and-coming group of drivers, Childress definitely sees a lot of talent.

“I think the sport today, with the young talent, with Chase Elliott, (Kyle) Larson, (Austin) Dillon, (Erik) Jones, all this group of young talent, I don’t think in my time I’ve seen this much great young talent coming along in our sport in 50 years,” Childress said.

“The sport looks bright, it looks great. I think it’s going to be great. NASCAR is doing a lot to the packages to improve our product in there. I feel good about it.”

So while names such as Gordon, Stewart, Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle slowly fade away from the race track, others are quickly filling their spots.

It’s a natural progression.

Car owner Chip Ganassi said he enjoys the influx of new attitudes to the garage area.

“I think obviously the sport’s gone through some changes,” he said. “We’re looking at a new (stage racing) format. These young kids, when they talk about changing the format, they go ‘Okay.’ It’s kind of no big deal to those guys.

“I think that says a lot about how they approach it, how they look forward to it. So I think (the future’s) pretty bright when you have an attitude like that.”

Now, the clock is ticking on veteran drivers such as seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch.

There is always another young driver ready to strap in and take their place.

For Rick Hendrick, who was the car owner for Gordon for all of his championships, change is exciting.

He remembers back when Gordon broke the mold of the traditional NASCAR racer back in the early 1990s.

“It’s just fun to watch those guys mature, grow, come up through the ranks. It’s real exciting,” Hendrick said. “I’ve never seen the level of talent that we have today. I think these guys adapt so much faster.  I think it’s due to video games, simulators, all that. I mean, it doesn’t take them long to get into it.

“(It’s all about) experience, you got to have experience down here. These guys will take you to school in a hurry. But the level of the young guys that you see coming along that have the talent that they have, it’s super exciting.”

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