NASCAR notebook: Michigan finish shows the youth movement has arrived in Sprint Cup

  • Joey Logano (22) and Chase Elliott (24) are two drivers in their 20s pushing the youth movement in NASCAR into high gear. Logano has posted 15 wins in 270 races. AP

Published: 6/18/2016 12:03:09 AM

Ricky Craven was impressed. The Sprint Cup race in Michigan last weekend had finished with 26-year-old Joey Logano in front, 20-year-old Chase Elliott behind him and 23-year-old Kyle Larson in third, and the ESPN analyst and former Concord resident knew it wasn’t a coincidence.

“It speaks to the fact that young talent sometimes dismisses risk, and there was risk today,” Craven said on an ESPN post-race broadcast. “This new rules package has these drivers whistling into the turn at 214 miles per hour, slowing down 40 miles per hour, sliding into the corner, sliding out of the corner. A driver’s responsibility, in this case, is to sense the limit of the race car and the tire and the race track. And the young guys did it to perfection today.”

It was the latest bit of evidence that NASCAR’s youth movement, long considered a wave approaching in the distance, has fully arrived. Logano’s a championship caliber driver. Elliott, a rookie, is one of the Sprint Cup’s more consistent pilots. Larson is on the brink of making the Chase. Ryan Blaney, all of 22 years old, is 16th and would make the Chase if it started today.

“It’s fun for me,” Logano said. “I’m usually the youngest guy by a long shot, so it’s fun to be racing for the win with some guys that are close to my age up there racing for the win. The future of NASCAR is present, and it’s going to be big.”

Throughout the season, but particularly in recent weeks, the young drivers have announced their arrival. The most eye-opening rise has belonged to Elliott, who ranks sixth in the point standings in his first year. He’s missing a win but has mastered the art of consistency, ranking third in the circuit with 11 top-10s, more than a star-studded list that includes Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Logano and Carl Edwards.

Elliott’s been the headliner, but the other names in the youth wave, kicked off by Logano’s rise to Sprint Cup power, have shown signs that they’re not far behind. Larson started slow this year after flirting with Chase berths the past two seasons, but has climbed back into the postseason picture in the past month with a second-place finish in Dover, a third-place effort in the Sprint Showdown and the third-place result in Michigan – a feat marred by a penalty for failing post-race measurements.

The infraction was a blemish, but Larson has still impressed fellow drivers and others in the sport with his ability to get the most out of the cars his Chip Ganassi Racing crew gives him.

“They’ve been extremely competitive recently,” former champion and current FOX analyst Jeff Gordon told ESPN. “Kyle has been driving the wheels off it. I don’t think anybody has had any bigger gain in fan appeal and popularity as Kyle has in the last three weeks. It’s been impressive.”

One of the drivers Larson is trying to pass for a Chase spot is another member of the youthful trio. Blaney has surpassed expectations in his first full season, steering his car out of the tiny Wood Brothers operation to six top-10s, four of which have come in his last six points races.

The emergence of the three drivers gives the potential scenario of three early 20s drivers joining Logano – the pioneer of the youth movement – in the Chase some steam, and adds to the feeling that the new wave isn’t just a group to watch down the road, but today as well.

“It’s exciting to see,” Larson said after the Michigan race. “Logano, he’s a couple years older than me. Chase, I don’t even think he’s 21 yet. So probably the youngest top three the Cup Series has ever had.

“It’s pretty special. It’s going to be us and Blaney and whoever else hopefully in the sport for a long time.”

Thrill seeker

It sounded like a rant was brewing. Logano had just won at Michigan with the series’s new aerodynamic package, which featured smaller rear spoilers and front splitters on the cars with the goal of reducing the downforce, in turn forcing cars to brake into turns and improving the chance for passing in the corners. This increased the chance for accidents involving over-aggressive drivers, and Logano said as much.

“The cars are out of control. No doubt, they are out of control crazy,” he said. “It’s a recipe for disaster for sure.”

The catch? Logano thinks that’s a good thing.

“That’s how on edge you have to be to go fast, and it was like that for 400 miles today, you know, that you’re just right on that ragged edge, and that’s awesome,” he said. “I don’t want to drive slow. That ain’t no fun. That’s the sport part of this. It should be a challenge. It should be on the edge.”

Drivers have been clear in their support for the low-downforce packages, which debuted last July at Kentucky Speedway. The changes to the car force the vehicle to slide around more without the downforce vacuuming it to the track, so winning and losing often comes down to how skilled the driver is behind the wheel.

It’s more competitive, and as Logano said, it satisfies the adrenaline-seeking personality that belongs to nearly everyone who climbs into the driver’s seat.

“I don’t know how smart we are,” Logano said. “I think (the key is) that thrill, the adrenaline that you get by controlling something that’s out of control. … I remember after qualifying I was walking into the media center here and I was signing an autograph and my hand was shaking. I couldn’t even write my name. That’s cool.”

Three up

Joey Logano: Looks like he’s back. After crashing twice in three races, Logano has won two of his last four events, including the All-Star race.

Kurt Busch: Lost in the talk about how great the Toyotas are these days is how good Busch has been in a Chevy. His 13 top-10s, including nine straight, lead the series, and he won two races ago at Pocono, too.

Kevin Harvick: Two top-fives in three races is a sign you’re doing something right.

Three down

Kyle Busch: After looking unbeatable earlier, Busch has gone ice-cold. He’s been 30th or worse in his last four races and has only finished one of them.

Denny Hamlin: A second Gibbs driver lands on the list after crashing in Michigan on the heels of a 14th-place outing at Pocono.

Jimmie Johnson: A third-place finish at Charlotte was the exception in a six-race slate of mediocrity for the six-time champion.

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