The Young Guns
by Pete McCole

May 23, 2002

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Rookie Ryan Newman made his first trip to Victory Lane by winning The Winston.
Photo by Pete McCole

There's an old saying - "it's a young man's world". 

This season in Winston Cup it truly has been a young man's world, and these young men turning laps on the circuit this year, the "young guns" as they are frequently called, are making their mark early. One only has to look at the finishing order of Saturday night's Winston all-star race to see how the younger generation of drivers are handing it to the veterans.

The 30-and-under crowd made up seven out of the 10-car field for the final 20-lap segment and later topped the first five finishing positions, including race winner Ryan Newman.

Newman is just one of several young drivers brought up from NASCAR's minor leagues into well established, race-proven teams. As NASCAR's popularity grows, so does the thirst for new talent, and with the sport pulling in a lot of younger fans, teams and sponsors are naturally looking for younger drivers. 

"It seems like the young guns are getting a lot of coverage this year, but you look at the win column and that's where it's at," said 23-year old Kurt Busch. "A lot of teams have put younger drivers in their cars. A lot of owners have put the faith in those young drivers and the sponsors want to win right away."

Most of the veteran drivers never even got a shot at a victory in Saturday's all-star event, as many fell victim to the new elimination-style format, in which only the top 20 drivers advanced from segment one to segment two, and only the top 10 finishers in segment two advanced to the final segment. This new format put out many of the top contenders such as Jeff Gordon and Ward Burton, who each fell one position short of moving on to the next segment.

Of the seven former winner of The Winston in last Saturday's field, only two - Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Bill Elliott made the final cut.

So what makes these "young guns" so good? Raw talent, good equipment, or both?

"I think you have to look at the equipment they're sitting in." Ricky Rudd said, "In the old days guys came in here, Jeff Gordon sort of started this. He came in with very little experience and got into a Hendrick car with good equipment and experienced people and did very well. I think that's what you're seeing today."

"There have been many young drivers come along, but probably not that many with the opportunity a lot of these young guys have got today. Certainly they've got the talent. There have been a lot of young drivers in the past that have been come and gone that maybe didn't necessarily have the top-notch equipment and it's about timing really. First of all, good equipment is one thing but you've got to be able to take something and make something out of that good equipment." 

"The biggest difference today is you see young drivers that come in that have really an opportunity to be with top-notch teams right from the start," two-time champ Terry Labonte said. "Normally years ago when rookies would come in, they would be with teams that aren't on top of the list as far as the equipment and everything else like that. Things are a lot different today. A lot of times for young drivers who come in and of course they're able to take advantage of that"

Matt Kenseth sits in second place in the Winston Cup points chase.
Photo by Pete McCole

"I don't think it really matters about your age." 30-year old Matt Kenseth said, "Obviously, younger people all the time are getting opportunities to race in Winston cup in good equipment. There's not much sub-par equipment anymore in Winston Cup, and I think the difference from the older days."

"Kind of like Ricky Rudd says, when he started he had to start in sub-par equipment and now everybody's starting in good cars, so that's where the difference is. If we all would've had bad cars, we would've all been running in the back. I think everybody here is a good driver and I just think it's a lot about the cars and the team and the equipment that they're in." 

It's not like these guys all of the sudden just popped up this season. Other than rookies Newman and Johnson, the others are fourth-, third- and second-season drivers, and some could hardly be called rookies when they started out. Stewart brought several years of open-wheeled experience to the table; Earnhardt and Harvick are each former Busch Grand National champions; and quite a few have recorded victories in NASCAR's lower divisions.

"You've got a transition of a lot of young drivers coming from Busch or open-wheel cars and that's happened quite a bit here recently." Newman said, "Whether it was Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart and Kenny Irwin and Mike Bliss made the transition -- they were all in their twenties, I believe, when they first stepped into NASCAR Winston Cup. Now with me being 24, I think Casey (Atwood) is 21 and Kurt Busch is 23, we've all earned the respect from the more veteran drivers and we've all earned the respect from our car owners to be put in these positions."

"It's kind of a Catch-22 both ways. We're young, but we wouldn't be here if we weren't experienced."

And it's also not unprecedented. Several drivers, like Jeff Gordon and the late Davey Allison, made their mark early in their careers. One of NASCAR's earliest champions, Bill Rexford, was only 23 when he took the crown in 1950. Richard Petty racked up over 80 wins and two championships by age 30. Even Ricky Rudd, NASCAR's newest "ironman", picked up his first win at age 26.

"I won my first race when I was 26, but I had run something like 165 races before I won my first one," said Rudd. " Times change and times move on, but I think you'll see the trend where guys come in younger, make beaucoup of money and be retired at an earlier age."

"I think you're going to see guys coming in much younger, but leave much younger. I think it will probably sort of mirror the Formula One circuit. You watch those younger guys come in at like 30 years old and then they sort of move on. I think you're going to see that trend probably start to happen and it's already starting to happen."

"So it seems like we are getting a lot of attention, but we are the ones putting up some results and it doesn't necessarily come at the veterans' expense, so to speak." Busch said, "It's just a change in the racing world, where the late Davey Allison created this young, energetic, youthful driver to the scene. Jeff Gordon followed suit, Tony Stewart, Dale, Jr., Matt Kenseth, of course with their rookie battle last year, and then with Kevin Harvick winning two races in his rookie year and us coming on strong in our sophomore season." 

Many of these younger drivers are being brought into the fold by veteran drivers looking to mentor some young talent. Veteran Mark Martin co-owns Matt Kenseth's team with owner Jack Roush. Jimmie Johnson so impressed Jeff Gordon that he brought Johnson into Hendrick Motorsports and became co-owner of his new team. 

"I drove against Jimmie in the Busch Series." Gordon said, "I saw him hanging that thing out and it looked to me that he was getting an awful lot out of the cars he was driving. So I knew if you put him in good racecars in Winston Cup that he'd do a great job over here too."

Jimmy Johnson is another rookie lighting things up, he won earlier this year at Fontana.
Photo by Pete McCole

"I'm just happy to be one of the young guys out there." 26-year old Jimmie Johnson said, "Obviously, we've all been giving great opportunities and great equipment and a few of us have some great coaches to pull form, so we're all making the most of it. The level this team's putting forth right now, on the race track and off, is bringing great success, so if we just maintain that and not try too hard, we'll be in good shape."

"Don't be fooled - the veterans, they're on their game. They're up front, battling and winning as well. There's a lot of hype over it, but I'm just glad to be a part of the whole thing and such a successful rookie season."

Whether it's talent, or equipment, who you drive for, or how old you are, what matters most in this young man's season still boils down to who's in front when the checkered flag falls. 

Perhaps 27-year old Elliott Sadler summed it up best:

"I don't think this young guy, old guy stuff is gonna play out. Whoever has the best car and has great pit stops and does a good job on Sunday will win the race, no matter how old they are."

The author can be contacted nascar@autoracing1.com

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