Youth movement? Not right now

December, 21, 2006
12/21/06
9:33
AM ET
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Ricky Rudd, 50, is headed to Robert Yates Racing to replace Dale Jarrett. Ward Burton, 45, has signed to drive for Morgan-McClure.

Burton's 39-year-old brother, Jeff, arguably was the Nextel Cup comeback driver of this past season with a victory and berth in the championship chase.

The organization formerly known as MB2 Motorsports, or "MB2 Old" as it has been called, will feature 47-year-old Mark Martin, 43-year-old Joe Nemechek and 49-year-old Sterling Marlin next season.

Jarrett will turn 51 before his first season with the new Toyota team of Michael Waltrip Racing is over. Kenny Schrader will be 52 in May.

Richard Petty, 69, is considering a comeback.

OK, Petty isn't coming back. Regardless, there will be almost as much gray hair circling the track next season as there is in a retirement home.

Even four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, 35, is showing a bit of gray around the ears.

So what happened to the so-called young guns movement that was so prominent a few years ago? Where are all the so-called next Kasey Kahnes?

"I don't know," Ward Burton said from his home in Virginia. "To me, it doesn't matter much difference what age you are. I just haven't been that conscious or aware of what some guy calls a kid and another calls an adult.

"There's kids out there who are 50 years old and adults that are 25, and vice versa."

Perhaps sponsors and owners are starting to realize that experience is worth almost as much as a pretty face, that their products get more exposure when the car is on the track than when parked behind the wall in a crumpled mess.

Seven of the 10 Chase drivers this season were over 30, with 21-year-old Kyle Busch and 26-year-olds Kahne and Denny Hamlin the lone exceptions.

Only 11 of 36 races were won by drivers under 30, with six of those by Kahne. Only two were won by drivers younger than Kahne -- Brian Vickers, 23, at Talladega and Busch at New Hampshire.

"Everybody is looking for a quick fix and there are not that many quick fixes in this sport," Burton said. "It takes a lot of work and a lot of smart activities going on around the race team to make the race team look good."

That older drivers remain in vogue speaks volumes to the shortage of drivers ready for Cup. It's so bad that Chip Ganassi made Formula One star Juan Pablo Montoya a 31-year-old rookie in 2007 rather than take a chance on a younger driver with experience in stock cars.

"I don't think there is a driver shortage," Ganassi said. "There is a good-driver shortage. There's a helluva lot of mediocre drivers. But there's a shortage of good drivers.

"It's like that in every sport. There's never a lack of players. There's just a lack of good ones. I think it's here to stay."

That doesn't mean the sport is hurting for good young drivers. This past year's rookie class was one of the best ever with Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Reed Sorenson and J.J. Yeley.

Paul Menard, who will drive a third car for DEI in '07, showed promise in the Busch Series, finishing sixth in points. David Gilliland showed enough with his Busch Series win at Kentucky that Yates gave him a ride in the No. 38.

But there aren't so many up-and-coming stars that there isn't room for the Rudds and Burtons. Burton takes offense when older drivers are called "recycled" because that's an insinuation they can't do the job anymore.

He reminds that having the right equipment and financial support around a team is as important as or more important than the driver.

It's no different than Brett Favre trying to win football games with a bad offensive line and no defense.

"The car is easier to drive than ever when it's right," Burton said. "It's just a question of getting them right. It really doesn't matter what age you are."

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