The sport’s current youth movement is history unfolding before our eyes – but not without repercussions for others.
Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez are the most notable names in this group; both are in contention for the 2016 XFINITY Series championship as Jones prepares to move into the Sprint Cup Series next season. These Joe Gibbs Racing drivers exemplify what every young gun wants to become – competitive and desired.
Other drivers are hot commodities as well; William Byron, Cole Custer, and Daniel Hemric will leave the Camping World Truck Series for XFINITY rides in 2017. On the Sprint Cup side, Chase Elliott is competing for a championship in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports. His first victory is most likely right around the corner as well, signifying the younger crowd is thriving in these sought-after seats.
The tide has certainly changed over the past five years, with fresh perspective now trumping accrued experience. This monumental shift is having ripple effects within organizations in all three series.
But what happens if you missed the boat?
Since the summer race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Alex Bowman has dazzled as a fill-in for a sidelined Dale Earnhardt, Jr. He wheeled the No. 88 to a seventh-place finish – his career best – while battling the stomach flu. Just a few years ago, Bowman moved up to Sprint Cup too fast and struggled with an underfunded team. He had no ride for 2016 until Earnhardt offered him a part-time gig in the No. 88 JR Motorsports machine. Despite his impressive runs, he currently has nowhere to go in 2017 – even though, at 25-years-old, his future seems pretty bright regarding ability. Youth became a bigger focus right after Bowman broke into the sport, putting him at a disadvantage. His age is also a bit high when compared to the Custers and Byrons in the sport.
Anderson began racing at a young age but took a different route into NASCAR; he went to college and earned a degree in Motorsports Marketing, gathering knowledge that would help him attract sponsors and move up in the sport. Unfortunately, this makes him older than the target age. At 25, he is struggling to run a complete schedule despite accumulating four top 15s and a solid fan base. His future rests on dollar signs, which is an uneasy place to be in this sport.
Truex has solid stats in CWTS while racing a partial schedule for Hattori Racing Enterprises; his 11 starts brought a top five and a top 10. He hasn’t found a stable place to call home since his back-to-back K&N Pro Series East championships in 2009 and 2010. He has been on a grind to compete full-time, fueled by his older brother’s success and tenacity. Martin Truex, Jr. just hit his high point, meaning the younger Truex has lots of motivation and hope.
Optimism can only get you so far. That’s when the money comes in.
Not being part of the youth movement puts Bowman, Anderson, and Truex at a huge disadvantage in regards to sponsorship; with Kyle Busch as their guide, Jones, Suarez, and Byron have had more exposure to companies and already have relationships with corporations. That makes the pool of potential investors quite small. Also, teams weren’t observing young talent when Bowman and Co. rose through the ranks. In Jones’s case, his affiliation with JGR made it a lot easier to move up to his 2017 Cup Series ride.
The youth movement does a lot of good things that should not be ignored. However, there are repercussions for drivers who barely missed the cut-off age. That – along with financial struggles – makes it difficult for Bowman, Anderson, and Truex to compete full-time. Although driving the No. 88 for Hendrick Motorsports is a sweet gig and provides a lot of exposure, Bowman still has that uncertainty hanging over his head. At the same time, Anderson and Truex worry about making the events. And there are dozens of talented drivers having the same dilemma at the grassroots level. As organizations strive to lower their lineup’s average age, a domino effect is taking place. When one young gun signs a developmental deal, that’s the seat a more seasoned driver envisioned in their dreams.
The young talent deserves to be noticed – but it has caused issues for those who were simply born earlier.
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