Like most sports, over the past decade or so, NASCAR has seen prospects become more prepared for the sport’s top level at younger and younger ages.
Obviously, that has caused many teams to wisely look more toward their next twenty years, rather than the next two or three years.
But if there’s one thing NASCAR’s veteran drivers hate, it’s when there’s any mention whatsoever of a young driver potentially taking their seat.
If you’re a NASCAR fan, you know that the sport is riddled with young talent throughout its top three series.
Last season, Chase Elliott – who previously became the first rookie to win a national series championship and the youngest driver to win the Xfinity Series championship at just 19-years-old – became the third youngest Cup Series champion at just 24-years-old.
On top of Elliott, the Cup Series is riddled with young talent, like Ryan Blaney, two-time Xfinity champion Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer, William Byron, Eric Jones, Chase Briscoe, and the series’ most recent winner, Christopher Bell.
But it’s the young talent in the Xfinity Series that has recently caught the eye of most fans and analysts.
Just last weekend, Ty Gibbs, the grandson of NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs, won at the Daytona Road Course in his very first start in the series. He joins the likes of Cup Series Champions Dale Earnhardt, Kurt Busch, and Terry Labonte as one of only a handful of drivers to ever do so.
— FOX: NASCAR (@NASCARONFOX) February 21, 2021
That win, and the fact that NASCAR’s youth movement is as strong as ever has created quite the stir in the racing world, and has led to a lot of speculation over the futures of these young drivers, as well as the aging drivers that could soon be on their way out of the sport.
In fact, former Cup Series driver turned NBC Sports analyst Kyle Petty – the son of NASCAR legend Richard Petty – went so far as to issue a warning to the veterans at Joe Gibbs Racing, the team that currently has Ty Gibbs and Xfinity Series championship contender Harrison Burton waiting in the wings.
"If I'm a veteran driver at the Gibbs organization, I'm looking over my shoulder."@KylePetty, @RickAllenRacing, & @SteveLetarte discuss what's next for Joe Gibbs Racing & their crop of young talent after Ty Gibbs and Christopher Bell won this weekend: https://t.co/A38frwGyA4 pic.twitter.com/qXKJZbTNyf
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) February 23, 2021
While Petty’s point is certainly correct – considering Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. are both over the age of 40 – the comment clearly didn’t sit well with the drivers, especially Hamlin who threw out a snarky Tweet showing he’s currently leading the Cup Series points standings.
Choose your media source wisely folks. pic.twitter.com/00b8nbxc8u
— Denny Hamlin (@dennyhamlin) February 23, 2021
And Hamlin certainly wasn’t the only driver to take offense to the assertion that the talent in the Gibbs pipeline should light a fire under the team’s veterans.
Fellow aging Cup Series driver Brad Keselowski also got very defensive on Twitter.
This is all so crazy
“Are you younger and can we pay you less? Do you have any followers on social media?
Yes? We like you!”
“What’s that? You’ve never won let alone contended for a cup win… No big deal”
Their are tons of great young drivers, but the hype train is insane
— Brad Keselowski (@keselowski) February 23, 2021
At the end of the day, Kyle Petty’s current role requires him to say things like this.
He’s part of the media now, and right or wrong, that role requires him to speculate and make claims that are likely exaggerated in order to get the exact type of social media reaction his comment received.
At the same time, if Denny Hamlin wants to avoid all of this talk at his age, he doesn’t just need to lead the series standings after two races, he needs to win a championship.
Hamlin has been in the Cup Series for 17 years now and has run 544 races, but has yet to win a championship.
In fact, his average finish in the Cup Series standings throughout his career has been just seventh.
On the other hand, if there’s anyone who has zero room to talk about this type of situation, it’s Brad Keselowski.
Back in 2009, when he was in the Hendrick Motorsports pipeline, Keselowski was one of those young drivers who wanted the seat of a veteran driver.
But Hendrick chose to stick with NASCAR great Mark Martin rather than give the seat to their young prospect, and Keselowski still holds a grudge over that decision to this day.
Needless to say, Brad Keselowski is the last one who should be complaining about a young driver potentially taking a seat from a veteran who is a proven winner.
Look, there’s no chance that either Harrison Burton or Ty Gibbs are given one of the four Joe Gibbs Racing seats in the Cup Series this year or even next year – whether it’s Hamlin, Truex Jr. or Kyle Busch’s seat.
Unless one of those drivers leaves the team, which doesn’t seem likely at this point considering the contract extensions Hamlin and Truex Jr. signed just this month and the fact that Kyle Busch is a two-time champion and still in his prime, it’s just not going to happen.
Even Christopher Bell – who is currently in the Cup Series with Gibbs, had much more success in the Xfinity Series than Ty Gibbs and Burton have combined at this point and just won his first race – wasn’t put into a Gibbs car in his first season in Cup.
Regardless, this isn’t a situation that’s exclusive to NASCAR and it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with money, as Keselowski claimed, considering those young drivers will ultimately cost the team more than the veterans they’d potentially replace.
NASCAR, like all sports, is about results – not just results in the form of winning races, but results that produce championships.
Considering team owners like Joe Gibbs, Rick Hendrick, and Roger Penske have literally poured billions of dollars into their teams over the past couple of decades, they have an obligation to not just look at the next two or three or even five years, but to look at the next 20 years.
And no matter what Denny Hamlin or Brad Keselowski think, they are not the best option for any NASCAR team when you look at the next 20 years.
Don’t get it twisted, they are phenomenal drivers, who have had great careers and will likely one day end up in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
But they’re also closing in on the final laps of their careers, and the analytics prove that within the next couple of years they’re going to begin a major decline, if it hasn’t already begun.
They may hate to hear someone suggest that a younger driver is one day going to take their seat, but it’s not going to stop it from happening.
Their time in the Cup Series is inevitably coming to an end, sooner rather than later.
And no amount of snarky tweets will stop it from happening.
Sports with Balls will keep you up-to-date on any developments to this ongoing story.