Driver Kyle Busch (18) celebrates in Victory Lane following the Sprint Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga., on Sunday. (AP Photo)
After fighting through adversity to win his fourth Sprint Cup race of the season, NASCAR’s resident Young Gun left folks who follow the sport wondering if he had finally gained the maturity necessary to win a championship.
Kyle Busch started out with a car not capable of winning Sunday’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but he kept his No 18 Toyota near the front while his crew fine-tuned it. And when his crew helped him win the race out of the pits late, he stayed out front to earn the victory.
As hard as it is to believe, Busch is 28 years old already and competing in his ninth full season on the circuit. While it’s true that he spent the early portion of his career adding new entries to the dictionary definition of stupidity, Busch has really grown as a competitor over the last few seasons. It has gotten to the point that Busch is almost downright level-headed, having mostly faulty equipment to blame for the fact that he doesn’t have a Cup title to his name.
But in NASCAR, a sport where young drivers have struggled to get a shot over the past decade, he still has a seat at the kids' table, and that’s bad news for a sport struggling to stay relevant.
Right now, NFL fans are excited to see how a young crop of quarterbacks that took the league by storm last season fare against defenses that have had a year to adjust to them. Even in the stodgy ranks of Major League Baseball, kids like Yasiel Puig and Bryce Harper are taking the world by storm.
But in NASCAR, new blood is tough to come by, and that is one of the main reasons the sport has become so stagnant over the last 10 years.
A quick glance at the top teams in the Cup Series tells the story. The average age of a driver at one of the sport’s top teams — Rick Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart-Haas Racing, Roger Penske Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing — is just under 37 years old. With each passing year, drivers swap rides and paint schemes change, but the faces remain more or less unchanged.
Most of the great rivalries in the history of the sport were a result of an upstart trying to come in and challenge the status quo. Whether it was Jeff Gordon trying to wrestle the torch away from Dale Earnhardt Sr. or Darrell Waltrip tangling with the old guard, youth is the straw that stirs the drink in NASCAR.
In recent years, Brad Keselowski has been a breath of fresh air, using his bumper to carve out a spot for himself in the Cup Series before winning a title last year. What the sport needs is more of that and thankfully, a youth movement appears to be waiting right around the next turn.
Kyle Larson, a 20-year-old hot shot from California, was introduced as Juan Pablo Montoya’s replacement in the No. 42 car this past week. Jeb Burton, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Ty Dillon and Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. are all under 21 and well on their way to landing Cup rides.
As we found out in the Camping World Truck Series race on Sunday afternoon, that’s good news for anyone who has spent the last few years yawning their way through big-picture racing. What young drivers bring to the equation is hunger. Not hunger to do the prudent thing in an effort to win a points championship — these guys are hungry to win races and willing to do what it takes to make that happen.
When Kasey Kahne refused to rough up Matt Kenseth in the closing laps at Bristol Motor Speedway, he sacrificed a win in order to take a step toward a potential points title. Kahne knew if wrecked Kenseth, he knew retribution could come during the Chase. So he made the mature decision.
On Sunday in Canada, Chase Elliott found himself facing a similar situation on the final lap when the nose of his truck was within striking distance of Dillon’s ride in the final turn. But instead of tapping the brakes, Elliott stayed in the gas, sending Dillon spinning en route to Victory Lane.
Fans can debate whether it’s right or wrong to wreck somebody to win a race, but it’s hard to argue that NASCAR is more exciting when everyone makes the mature decision all the time. Maturity should be reserved for investment banking. It should be the deciding factor in who wins golf tournaments.
But stock car racing in its purest form should be about guys willing to go out there and do something a little stupid in order to win races.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.