This was going to be the year that a new generation of great racers stormed Victory Lane. NASCAR is still waiting.
Remember NASCARâ€™s 2018 Youth Movement?
The bloom came and went before spring. Thatâ€™s racinâ€™, as they say.
Somewhere in a file cabinet, within the walls of NASCARâ€™s marketing department, dust is thickening onÂ plans to capitalize on the wave of 20-somethings who were mounting a charge to take stock-car racing into a brand new era.
In February, Daytonaâ€™s Speedweeks was the launching pad. When a 27-year-old racer (Austin Dillon) won the Daytona 500, with a 24-year-old (Bubba Wallace) finishing second, it was all-systems-go.
Since then? Not so much.
Through 17 races in NASCARâ€™s big-league Cup Series this year, only two winners have been under 30Â â€” Dillon at Daytona, Joey Logano at Talladega (he was 27 at the time). And those two canâ€™t be considered part of the new wave, since they have a combined 15 full-time seasons in the Cup Series.
The other 15 races have been won by the still-very-formidable Old Guard:
â€˘Â Kevin Harvick, 42, in his 18th season: Five wins.
â€˘Â Kyle Busch, 33, in his 14th season: Five wins.
â€˘Â Martin Truex Jr., 38, in his 13th season: Three wins.
â€˘Â Clint Bowyer: 39, in his 13th season: Two wins.
Immediately after the Daytona 500 wrapped up a Speedweeks that also saw two â€śkidsâ€ťÂ â€” Ryan Blaney (24) and Chase Elliott (22)Â â€” win the 150-mile qualifying races, Harvick dammed the wave. In the seasonâ€™s second race, at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the veteran dominated and, without gloating, explained why.
â€śThis is a racetrack that takes a lot of experience,â€ť he suggested. â€śThereâ€™s a lot of things that you have to know about your car and know about the racetrack to get the car around.
â€śThis is where experience pays off.â€ť
Well, the payments from experience kept comingÂ after that.
From an overall marketing point of view, for a sport in need of a PR jolt, thatâ€™s a shame. Major-league sports thrive on rivalries, and the Young-vs.-Old battle that was going to define 2018 may have died on the vine.
It sure started in provocative fashion, with Busch (known for his sometimes prickly demeanor) lighting the fuse in the preseason. When asked his opinion of all the attention shining on the youngsters, Busch turned on his certain brand of charm.
â€śIt is bothersome,â€ť he said. â€śWeâ€™ve paid our dues â€¦ and all youâ€™re doing is advertising all these younger guys for fans to figure out and pick up on and choose as their favorite driver. I think itâ€™s stupid. But I donâ€™t know, Iâ€™m not the marketing genius thatâ€™s behind this deal.â€ť
At least two of the young driversÂ â€” Blaney and WallaceÂ â€” fired back, with Blaney blaming Buschâ€™s own demeanor for his perceived lack of preseason attention. The promotional opportunities are there for all, Blaney suggested, if only Busch would be a willing participant more often.
â€śI feel like if some drivers were more willing to do these things, theyâ€™d get asked more to do it,â€ť Blaney said in January. â€śThe reason why I get asked more to do it a lot is because I say yes a lot. I can tell you personally, he (Busch) doesnâ€™t like doing a lot of stuff. And thatâ€™s why they donâ€™t ask him to do a lot of stuff.â€ť
It was going to be fun, or so we thought. But the generational feud didnâ€™t even make it to March.
Some of the blame goes to the longtime gold-standard of NASCAR teams, Hendrick Motorsports, which is severely off-stride this year compared to its norm. Three of the four Hendrick driversÂ â€” Elliott, 20-year-old William Byron and 25-year-old Alex BowmanÂ â€” are all winless and sit between 14th and 21st in the current points standings.
Results have been below hopes and expectations throughout the youth camp.
â€˘Â Blaney is 10th in points with just three top-fives.
â€˘Â Elliott is 13th in points.
â€˘Â Erik Jones (22) is 14th in points with just one top-five.
â€˘Â Bowman is 15th in points with one top-five.
â€˘Â Daniel Suarez (26) is 18th with one top-five.
â€˘ Dillon is 19th despite the win.
â€˘Â Byron is 21st with just one top-10.
â€˘Â Wallace is 24th with one top-10 since his runner-up at the Daytona 500.
â€˘Â Chris Buescher (25) is 25th with one top-10.
But keep the faith, weâ€™re told. Their day will come. Who said that? Kyle Busch, of all people. Of course, heâ€™d just won the race at Pocono last month and was perhaps feeling charitable, but still, he offered some assurance to the Youth Movement and those who plan to exploit its marketing potential.
â€śI think the young guys are on the brink, theyâ€™re on the cusp,â€ť Busch said. â€śItâ€™s just a matter of when that happens.â€ťÂ
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