One of the cruel realities of life is that by the time we get the experience we need to make the best decisions, our minds and bodies aren't quite what they used to be. This is an oversimplification, of course, but it does apply, time and again, to the world of sports. And in the context of this article, it applies to race car driving.
While there truly is no substitute for experience, there isn't one for youth, either. There isn't a single athlete ... be it a quarterback, shortstop, point guard, or driver ... whose stamina and hand-eye coordination continues to improve into his late 30s. Steroids can delay the skill erosion process, but only when coupled with hours in the gym.
There are those who will tell you that experience is worth more than youth in NASCAR. That the drivers of 25 years ago drove into their 40s because of their skill levels, not despite them. The sport has changed so much in the time since, with all of those changes favoring younger drivers, that it's hard to argue that these changes aren't the primary reason for the sport's current youth movement. Consider the following:
Drivers in the old days weren't just drivers. They had to know more about cars because the teams were so much smaller. Darrell Waltrip built his own car when he came to Daytona for the first time. There were racing families -- the Pettys, the Allisons, the Earnhardts, etc. -- because those kids got to hang out and learn about the cars. Today, drivers are hired guns. They play video games instead of working in shops. They get rides over older, more proven drivers because they are more marketable. If something goes wrong with the car, engineers on each team can tell them exactly what it was.
Drivers back then had shorter schedules, and most of the races occurred in the Southeast. This wasn't easy on families, but it was much easier than today's schedule, where teams fly from Michigan to San Francisco to New Hampshire to Daytona to Chicago in successive weeks. The effects of jet lag aren't remarkably greater on older drivers, but the effect of all that travel on their family lives is. Young, single drivers can fly from city to city free of emotional baggage.
Drivers used to drive cars that required much more skill to drive. Advancements in power steering, aerodynamics, and safety have made today's cars drivable to newcomers. A.J. Foyt once remarked that the cars were starting to drive themselves. It's doubtful video games would help any of today's young guns in one of the old school cars.
Drivers make so much more money today. Twenty-five years ago, drivers outside of the top three were racing to put food on their table. Now the money list shows that average drivers today make more than the elite drivers of yesterday. This benefits the younger, hungrier drivers who haven't made themselves comfortable yet.
But despite all of these factors, there is no denying the inevitable ... that Father Time catches up to these guys almost as quickly as the younger drivers do. Mark Martin was the last Cup driver older than 40 to win a race, and that was more than two years ago at Kansas. Martin scored two wins that year and Dale Jarrett one. Since Oct. 9, 2005, the over-40 crowd has been shut out.
A look at this year's Chase for the Championship suggests a driver's prime appears to be his late 20s and early 30s. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are 36, Matt Kenseth 35, Jimmie Johnson 32, Kevin Harvick 31, Kurt Busch 29, Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer 28, Martin Truex Jr. 27, Denny Hamlin 26 and Kyle Busch 22. Jeff Burton is the exception at 40.
While Kyle Petty surprised everyone with a top-five at Charlotte in May and others like Martin, Bobby Labonte and Ricky Rudd continue to contend now and then, the inescapable truth is that the odds are stacked against them. They say that 40 is the new 30. In racing, it appears the reverse is true.
On the final day of the 1992 season, Richard Petty limped home to finish his final Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway just as 21-year old Jeff Gordon was starting his first one. As Gordon began to have early success, people applied his numbers to the long career of Petty's and wondered how many wins he might achieve. The reality is Gordon might not have nearly as long a window as Petty had. In fact, his could be closing a lot sooner than anyone ever expected.
Such is life in a young man's sport like NASCAR.