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Saturday, August 3, 2013
The faces of NASCAR getting older

By David Newton
ESPN.com

LONG POND, Pa. -- Jeff Gordon turns 42 on Sunday at Pocono Raceway. Good for him, showing he's still got what it takes to compete for a Sprint Cup championship.

Maybe not so good for NASCAR.

As the sport tries to attract a younger fan base, the top talent keeps getting older with no signs of that changing.

The average age of drivers in the top 10 in the standings is 36.5, four years older than in 2008. Led by Greg Biffle, who will turn 44 in December, four drivers in the top 12 who would make the Chase if it started today are over 40 and 11 are 33 or older.

Jeff Gordon
Four-time Sprint Cup champion Jeff Gordon will celebrate his 42nd birthday Sunday at Pocono.

Kyle Busch, 28, is the baby of the bunch, no pun intended.

Not since Jimmie Johnson came onto the scene in 2002 has there been a young driver who successfully and consistently challenged the old guard for championships.

He was 26 and arrived with little to no fanfare. He didn't even win rookie of the year, losing that battle to Ryan Newman, who never has lived up to his early potential and is not guaranteed a job in 2014.

Before that it was Tony Stewart, who was 26 at the start of the 1998 season.

Not since a 21-year-old Gordon entered NASCAR's top series in 1993 has a driver in his early 20s become dominant.

Brad Keselowski gave NASCAR its first Generation Y champion a year ago, but at 28 he wasn't a true young gun. So far this season, the Penske Racing driver is winless and in danger of not making the Chase at 13th in points.

Busch, who will start second to Johnson at Pocono (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN), had the makings of being the young superstar the sport needed when he entered the top series in 2005. But he's yet to finish better than fifth in the standings and hasn't won one of the sport's so-called majors -- the Daytona 500, Coca-Cola 600 and Brickyard 400.

One could argue the biggest win of his career was the Nationwide Series race at Indianapolis a week ago.

The sport needs a young, hot superstar to challenge Johnson, a five-time champion and the current points leader by 75 over Clint Bowyer, the way Gordon challenged the establishment in 1993 if it wants to grow.

"I feel like nobody has really rivaled him and he doesn't really have a rivalry there," said Gordon, 10th in points with six races remaining before the Chase. "If he can keep that up, which all signs point that he will, and an exciting young driver comes along and is with a good team that can challenge him, that would be the best thing this sport could ever ask for, in my opinion.

"There's a couple of them out there, but they're a few years away, unfortunately."

NASCAR recognizes this issue. The governing body has lowered the age limits in most of its developmental series since 2007 to encourage more participation and speed up the learning curve. In 2011, it began the NASCAR Next program to help spotlight rising stars and increase fan awareness of young talent.

But unlike most sports that have an annual draft to guarantee an influx of youth, NASCAR is at the mercy of sponsors and team owners who must decide whether a potential star is better than an older star -- or even an average driver.

For the most part, they go with the known versus the unknown.

There also are a limited number of quality rides, and drivers who have them usually keep them into their mid-40s as long as they remain at least somewhat competitive.

"This is a program that never existed a few years ago, and now it does," said Jill Gregory, NASCAR's vice president for industry services who heads up NASCAR Next. "This is unprecedented support from all of our management to say, 'Hey, NASCAR never has had to play a role in this in the past, but we see a need so we're going to jump in and do it.'"

Among the drivers who have benefited are Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman and Darrell Wallace Jr. All have shown flashes of brilliance.

None are on the Cup level.

None may make it for a couple of years, at least.

There's a risk they could get put back on the shelf and never make it, like others before them.

"It's getting older," Keselowski said of the sport. "To be quite frank, I don't see a lot of turnover coming because I don't see a significant crop of young drivers that are better.

"There's potential for the guys like Kyle Larson, but he's probably one in a very select group. It's probably less than three or four drivers that I see being able to make it in the next decade. I don't foresee the average age getting younger."

That's not good news for a sport that has its largest fan base in the 45-54 age group and its smallest in the 18-24 group. Younger fans need younger drivers they can relate to, not only on the track but off it in this world of iPhones and tablets.

That's why NASCAR chairman Brian France is pushing for a "glass dashboard" that will allow fans to experience many of the same things the driver does behind the wheel, almost as if they are inside a video game.

Shortening the schedule, the races and race weekends would help too, in this world of shorter attention spans, but at least the schedule part won't change with the new television contract locked in for 36 races a year through 2024.

Finding young drivers to challenge Johnson would be a more immediate fix to energize the fan base the way Gordon did in '93. Whether that is Larson, one of the Dillon brothers -- Austin and Ty at Richard Childress Racing -- or Chase Elliott remains to be seen.

But fans need a fresh face to latch onto so they can replace those No. 3 Earnhardt stickers that still dominate the parking lots and campgrounds even though their hero has been gone for a dozen years.

"As a 46-year-old driver, I understand there's a lot of young guys that want my seat," RCR's Jeff Burton said. "By the way, when I was 26, I wanted their seat.

"It's good for the sport to see a mixture of veterans, a mixture of young guys and a mixture of guys that are kind of on the brink of being one or the other. We've had a shortage; we haven't seen a lot of rollover."

It doesn't help that sponsorship has dried up under a struggling economy. Or that existing sponsors would rather spend money for Busch to drive in the Nationwide and Truck series than on drivers who may one day replace him.

Perhaps the reason fans are so frustrated with Cup drivers dipping into the lower series is because they thirst for the young talent to win races and move into the top level.

"I think you're on to something," said David Darin, the senior director for sports marketing for The Marketing Arm. "When you have a team that dominates the league, or if you have a racer that dominates the way Jimmie Johnson has, it gets stale.

"People are looking for some new blood, something to mix it up."

The sport needs to get younger.

It has to find somebody who can challenge Johnson's supremacy that likely will continue Sunday, starting from the pole at a track he won at six weeks ago.

"The sport always needs more competition," Keselowski said. "Competition is a good thing. New names and new faces are never a bad thing."

So Gordon turns 42 on Sunday, which is good for him because the four-time champion remains relevant.

It may not be so good for NASCAR.