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WAID’S WORLD: Doors Once Closed To Young Drivers Now Wide Open

We all realize there’s a youth movement going on in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series racing. Guys who are not far removed from adolescence are steadily replacing guys who retire in their early 40s.

It wasn’t that way in the past. Drivers who hung around long enough to become veterans didn’t retire. They were recycled.

If their tenure with one team came to an end, they simply moved on to another. Sometimes the vets merely swapped rides and kept going.

Only a handful of drivers remained with a single team much longer than three years. In fact, a three-year contract was routine.

Among the regulars, only Richard Petty didn’t move – for decades. The reason was simple. Petty Enterprises was a family-owned business passed along to Richard by father Lee, the team’s founder and three-time champion.

But even Petty moved on for a couple of seasons, 1984-85, when he raced for owner Mike Curb.

For the majority of drivers it was a matter of finding employment and hope that it might last for more than a few seasons. It seldom did.

This “one team to the next” environment included some of NASCAR’s top competitors. I daresay Bobby Allison, the late Benny Parsons and the late Buddy Baker drove for 10 teams or more during their careers.

They were recycled and sometimes not by choice. If they did not produce they were gone. And if they were at odds with their team – specifically their team owner – they either left by choice or were terminated.

But they kept racing with another organization.

For decades team owners weren’t willing to sign eager, young talent. They relied on experience and it was always available.

To be hired, a young driver had to be noticed. In the majority of cases he was not recruited. He had to catch someone’s eye.

Terry Labonte did so when he finished fourth at Darlington in 1978 and won the Southern 500 two years later.

Rusty Wallace was a hot shoe in the Midwest who startled everyone with a 1980 runner-up finish in Atlanta driving for Roger Penske – his future employer.

Ken Schrader was also a top Midwest talent. Ricky Rudd was a very successful competitor in Virginia. Both of them started modestly in NASCAR but progressed to bigger and better things. There were several like them – as we know from the often-told story of Dale Earnhardt.

Perhaps the most notable was Jeff Gordon. He was a racing star almost from the time he could walk. He was well on his way to Indianapolis when a stint at the Buck Baker Driving School led him to NASCAR.

As most others Gordon started out modestly with owner Bill Davis. His all-attack driving style drew the attention of Rick Hendrick who quickly broke the mold and signed Gordon.

That was in 1992 and, as you know, Gordon went on to become a superstar – and he spent his entire career with Hendrick.

It was Gordon that changed owners’ minds. They saw for themselves how a team could benefit with the employment of young talent that would only become better with experience.

Owners searched for the next Gordon. They signed young drivers and either put them in NASCAR’s minor leagues or lent them out to other Cup organizations for development.

NASCAR increased the scope of its diversity program. And I trust you remember Jack Roush’s “Gong Show” method of discovering young talent.

The NASCAR world has changed. It is no longer soaking in money. Sponsorship, once relatively easy to find because of the sport’s popularity, is now scarce. Where a team could race with a tidy sum from a single financial backer, it now requires dollars from multiple sources.

The theory is that in order to save money, owners hire the less-expensive younger drivers, several of whom are barely in their 20s.

In my opinion it’s paying off.

You are doubtless already aware of the strong presence, and in some cases success, of the likes of Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Daniel Suarez, Austin Dillon, Chris Buescher – and now, Erik Jones.

Others already signed by major teams wait in the wings.

Yes it is a different NASCAR. Where doors were virtually closed to young drivers they are now wide open.

And that is a good thing.

EMAIL STEVE AT steve.waid@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW STEVE ON TWITTER: @SteveWaid

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Development Journalists

Dirt Derby to Feature Schrader, Larson

On Wednesday, the most-anticipated Truck Series race of the season will feature two drivers not regularly on the Truck circuit. Ken Schrader and Kyle Larson will both field entries in the Aspen Dental Eldora Dirt Derby from Eldora Speedway, now in its fourth year.

Schrader will wheel the No. 71 Toyota Tundra entry for Contreras Motorsports with sponsorship from Hunt Brothers Pizza for his fourth start in the lone dirt race on the schedule, an event where he’s had moderate success.

He has qualified inside the top 10 in his three previous starts, including a pole in 2013’s inaugural race at Eldora. Schrader has one top five, which came in 2014, but he is still chasing the elusive win in one of racing’s crown jewels.

“I believe we have a great combination of team and sponsor, and I am looking forward to seeing what we can make happen,” Schrader posted on his website. “This event is high-energy, from the trucks on the track to the fans in the grandstands – truly a midsummer classic.”

He has reason to be optimistic: along with earning a pole at Eldora in the Trucks, Schrader also owns the record for the fastest truck lap at Eldora – 19.709 seconds – which came back in 2013. As for what he has been doing outside of NASCAR this year, he has 20 top fives, along with nine runner-up finishes and a victory in his Modified.

The aforementioned Larson is set to make his third start at Eldora in the Truck Series, and second start for 2016 driving the No. 24 DC Solar GMS Chevrolet Silverado.

Larson comes from a dirt background, and he’s no stranger to Rossburg, Ohio’s Eldora Speedway. In 2011, Larson became just the second driver in history to win all three races in one night of the Four Crown Nationals, one of Eldora’s premier events.

In his two Truck starts at The Big E, he has had good runs. He finished second in 2013, but a late crash battling for the win in 2014 relegated him to 26th place. He’s hoping to take home another Eldora trophy Wednesday, this time in the form of a Golden Shovel.

“It’s a cool, historic racetrack with very prestigious races going on there … If I could win a Truck race there it would be pretty special,” he told NASCAR.com. “GMS is a really good team, they have really great trucks, great people there.”

The Aspen Dental Eldora Dirt Derby is scheduled for Wednesday, July 20th at 9 p.m. ET. (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM)

Shane Carlson is a POPULAR SPEED Development Journalist

EMAIL SHANE AT shane.carlson@popularspeed.com
TWITTER: @ShaneCarlson4

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or staff. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Home Tracks

ARCA Notebook: Salem

SALEM, IN – Veteran ARCA driver Frank Kimmel has made Salem his home. Having created a successful career which started in nearby Jeffersonville, Indiana, the Kimmel family has become an ARCA staple. With three Kimmel’s (Will and Frankie) in an ARCA field for the first time since 2012, the stakes were high for family bragging rights, While the young Kimmel’s, Will and Frankie, found success, the elder statesman Kimmel faltered due to a hit against the outside wall as the result of a cut tire.

“It’s a bummer, the car was really good,” Frank said before adding. “It’s cool to see all three of us run so good.”

Tires were the central focus of the race, with Hoosier’s last minute decision to limit teams to only four sticker tires forcing a quick alteration in strategy. Standings leader and race winner Grant Enfinger was among the last to pit and charged through the field to capture victory, while championship contender Josh Williams chased but came up short. After the race, even with a rear tire having lost air, Williams was one of the few drivers to praise Hoosier’s decision.

“I like it, I wish we did it at every short track,” Williams said. “I think it brings the driver out of the chassis more. You can’t just come in, put tires on, and mask it and keep going. I really like the tire thing; I think we should stick with it.”

Other News and Notes

Youth is Served

  • The beauty of the ARCA Racing Series is its variety in track and driver. At Salem, Ken Schrader became the oldest pole sitter in series history at age 60, and later fought through the field including a battle with 17-year-old Tyler Dippel, who impressed as the only Lira Motorsports entry to finish within the top five. Despite the strong run, Dippel feels he peaked too early in his first ARCA pavement start.

“We probably didn’t save enough, I think I went too early,” Dippel said. “I was saving them the whole race and just decided to go 100% just 15 laps early. Just fell back a little bit at the end there, lost a position. But overall I think we saved (tires) pretty good, my team gave me a really good car but it was my first race on asphalt in the ARCA car, so I think that was the learning curve and we’ll get ‘em next time.”

Veteran Schrader Nearly Sweeps Through Field

  • Sent to the rear for unapproved adjustments, ARCA staple Ken Schrader clawed his way meticulously but came up just short with a second place finish. After the race, Schrader was visibly upset, knowing he had a car capable of winning. It was a long night for the veteran Schrader, who despite his disappointment praised Salem Speedway for their efforts of late.

“Track was awesome, and the paving job that they’ve done on turn three and four is excellent. It was a pretty decent race to watch, we’ve got so many cars running good now, and then different tires threw everybody off.”

Fike Fades After Foray Near Front

  • It’s been a turnaround season for A.J. Fike, who saw himself leading with less than 50 laps to go at Salem after clawing through the field and pitting on lap 110. Pressured by Will Kimmel, Fike was among the most significant comers-and-goers throughout the race, believing he had salvaged a top five in his first Salem race in over a decade, eventually finishing seventh.

“Car really fell off in the last 10 laps,” Fike admitted. “I was hanging on for dear life. I was praying just to finish and not get wrecked. Come out, we led some laps, we ran top-10, first time I’ve run Salem in 11 years, I think we’re pretty happy about it.”