The nature of the Daytona 500 is for everyone to shine at some point during the race. This year, that was especially true of the new class of Monster Energy NASCAR Cup drivers, a group of twenty-somethings who have become the status quo in the sport.
Just about every one of those drivers played a pivotal part in this year’s 500, from consistent midpack drivers like Matt DiBenedetto (who was running in the top-five before the Lap 198 Big One accident relegated him to a 27th-place finish) to 2017 Cup Series Rookie of the Year Erik Jones, who led 11 laps before crashing on Lap 59 and finishing 36th.
It didn’t stop there. Twenty-four-old Alex Bowman won the pole in the No. 88 Chevrolet vacated by Dale Earnhardt Jr. while 24-year-old Ryan Blaney and 22-year-old Chase Elliott won their Can-Am Duels. Twenty-seven-year-old Austin Dillon took the win in the 500, with 24-year-old Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. finishing second. The fact that a handful of NASCAR’s freshest faces stole the show at Daytona speaks well for the sport’s future. However, Atlanta could be a deciding factor in whether or not this will be a true changing of the guard.
For one, keep in mind that although there has been an uptick in new faces in the NASCAR garage, the current crop of drivers, featuring guys such as Kyle Busch, 2017 Cup champion Martin Truex Jr., and Brad Keselowski still very much have that competitive fire, while guys like Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson are still out winning races. Denny Hamlin is a perennial contender who is always either on the cusp of a win or lingering near the top of a championship fight.
While the new crop of drivers is still getting their legs underneath them, these guys continue to dominate and win. Sure, there are a few drivers that have slowly come to prove themselves as adaptable; 27-year-old Joey Logano has 18 Cup wins under his belt including the 2015 Daytona 500 as well as the 2016 All-Star race at Charlotte and the 2017 preseason Clash at Daytona. Meanwhile, 25-year-old Kyle Larson has only come around in the last two seasons, having scored five Cup wins since August 2016 and was considered Truex’s closest threat for the championship before a rash of DNFs left him eliminated after the second round of the Playoffs.
The road to success in the Cup Series isn’t a guarantee, however. Twenty-seven-year-old Trevor Bayne, despite gradually showing more consistency in his No. 6 Ford, hasn’t done anything of note since winning the 2011 Daytona 500. Twenty-five-year-old Chris Buescher is in the same boat; since his rain-shortened win at Pocono in August 2016, he’s only put together six more top-10s, including just his third-career top-five with a fifth in Sunday’s Daytona 500.
But if Sunday was any indicator, the younger generation of drivers could be taking over quickly. They’re fast and fearless, with a propensity of taking better care of their equipment than their predecessors 10, 15, maybe even 20 years ago. It also shows that they’re just as quick to learn as they ever were. They’re measuring their aggression, they’re bouncing back quickly from their lumps, and NASCAR may very well be going through a paradigm shift.
In NASCAR’s case, it needs the younger generation to succeed. Fans are tuning in for the older staples, but they’re also tuning in to see the young guys who are slowly edging their way toward the front of the field race after race. There’s hardly any negative press on those guys which is always a boon for business. So come Sunday, when NASCAR hits the fast banks of Atlanta, an older track that never fails to put on a great racing product as well as a lot of speed, there’s bound to be a few of the new kids that loiter near the top of the pylon through the weekend. For NASCAR’s sake, let’s hope that’s the case.