The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season has developed an abundance of storylines and poignant topics, but none seem to have taken the spotlight as much as the success of the next generation of Cup drivers.
This season has featured three first-time winners — Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon and Ryan Blaney– each under the age of 30.
Then there’s Kyle Larson, age 24, who recorded the second win of his Cup career at Fontana in March.
“I think as the seasons go on here, there’s more drivers expected to win,” Blaney said. “From younger drivers, we’ve seen it this year with Austin (Dillon) winning his first race and Ricky (Stenhouse) and myself and there’s a handful of others that are younger that are going to win a race pretty soon: Chase (Elliott) and Erik Jones and Daniel Suárez. I think there’s just going to be more and more competition as we get more experience, so I don’t think it’s surprising to see a few first-time winners in the Cup Series this year. I think it’s expected.”
As the marketable veterans of the sport begin to say farewell to the circuit, Dillon believes this is an ideal time for the younger drivers of the sport to have their breakthrough moment.
“I think it’s great for the sport,” he said. “It’s perfect timing because you’ve got guys kind of on their way out — their farewell tour, so to speak — and you’ve got guys on their way in trying to make a name for themselves. So it’s a perfect time to be a fan, to pick a new driver to showcase …”
As the season closes in on its halfway mark, Larson leads the overflowing crop of young drivers in the points standings.
With six top-five and nine top-10 finishes, along with three stage wins and his victory at Fontana, the California native has amassed 534 points in the MENCS standings, trailing points leader Martin Truex Jr. by a mere point.
Larson said that with veterans leaving, the sport’s younger drivers will have a chance to grow their fan base as they rise to stardom.
“I think it’s definitely a great time, especially with Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. leaving,” Larson said. “He makes up probably three-quarters of the fan base, so with him gone next year, there’s going to be a lot of opportunity for us to build on our fan base. So definitely good for us all to be running up front.”
After a series of miscues, including breaking an axle in two consecutive weeks, Blaney had his signature moment as he won his first career win at Pocono.
The Wood Brothers Racing driver has notched one win, three top-five and five top-10 finishes and also secured his first career pole at Kansas, and the season isn’t even to the halfway point.
For the 23-year-old, his recent success doesn’t change who he is.
“If they like you, they like you,” he said. “I don’t think you put on a big speech or really have a reason. You just go in and race the way that you race. Your personality — you’re kind of your own deal, and I think that’s the best way to do it. And if they end up liking you, that’s great, but not everybody is going to. You just can’t be someone you’re not. I think you just be yourself.”
The triumphs of these propitious drivers are not going unnoticed amongst NASCAR’s most seasoned veterans.
“The excitement that they bring to each and every race, I think the fans are getting a real treat watching these young guys figure out how to get to victory lane,” seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson said. “It’s not an easy process. I was there in my rookie year and my early years and can still remember the stress, the frustration at times when you don’t capitalize on an opportunity and then the elation when you are able to pull it off. Proud of all the young guns coming along and think that our sport is in great hands looking forward.”
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