MONTE DUTTON: THE RUSH TO YOUTH
It’s not like the revered veterans weren’t already riding off into the figurative sunset astride their figurative Palominos.
Jeff Gordon. Gone. Tony Stewart. Gone. Carl Edwards. Gone. Greg Biffle. Rideless. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Saddling up now.
Those five drivers add up to 215 victories (Gordon 93, Stewart 49, Edwards 28, Earnhardt Jr. 26, Biffle 19) and seven championships (Gordon 4, Stewart 3).
Some of those victories have been replaced. Perhaps you’ve heard of Kyle Larson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Blaney and Austin Dillon. The void is being filled. It’s not as newsworthy as it might seem. When 215 victories bid adieu, as long as NASCAR still holds 36 Monster Energy Cup races, someone has to win them.
You’re a NASCAR fan. After all, you’re reading this. You’ll miss the familiar names. Richard Petty didn’t drive forever, either. The King just turned 80.
The young bucks, these whippersnappers, these Kyles and Ryans and Austins, are lads you will get to know better. You have to. It’s happened before. Maybe you discovered Bill Elliott when David Pearson drifted away. You swore it would never be the same when Darrell Waltrip faded off into the TV booth. He’s still around. Jeff Gordon is already there. Junior is about to become a genuine, high-definition, golden-voiced star of high-definition sleight of hand.
It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to take it.
For the kids, it’s easier. They weren’t even born when Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki perished. They never said it all ended on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. They were too young. The elder Earnhardt is a legend. He’s Robin Hood.
The young drivers of today have a task in front of them even more daunting than pointing their race cars in the right direction. They know all about that. They have demonstrated their considerable gifts.
They have to inspire their peers. They have to get them interested again in race cars going fast. These kids today are tough nuts to crack, and the nuts have to be cracked if NASCAR is to prosper again.
I came back from Charlotte Motor Speedway with a freebie. Someone came by my place in the media center and asked me if I wanted a Monster Cup Series cap. I picked out one that I liked, but I wasn’t going to wear it. I was going to do what I did when I covered NASCAR regularly, which was stockpile the freebies and give them away. Once upon a time, I’d hand out a stack of assorted caps in the parking lot of Bi-Lo, or the tailgate parties of Bailey Memorial Stadium, or a pep rally at the high school. Ten, 12 years ago, it was a feeding frenzy.
Kids don’t have much use for NASCAR now. I spent a month looking for someone who’d take the cap, let alone wear it. Finally, I saw a kid behind the counter at a local drug store, and I remembered that I once played a few songs on my guitar for him and his friends in the parking lot of Darlington Raceway. I know his daddy and his granddaddy, not to mention several uncles and aunts.
What I wanted to do was give him the cap. What I actually did was pawn it off.
“Hey, you still like NASCAR?”
He’s a nice kid. Otherwise, he would’ve rolled his eyes.