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Age-old chase alters outlook for NASCAR

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By JOHN ROMANO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 26, 2002


CONCORD, N.C. -- Fear not for tradition. NASCAR's new generation of drivers have it within their sight. Just check the rearview mirrors.

This would explain the talk of the day. Of how yesterday seems to have vanished so quickly.

Nearly one-third of the way into the season, Mark Martin is trailing teammate Matt Kenseth. Rusty Wallace has been upstaged by teammate Ryan Newman. Jeff Gordon wishes he had a victory like teammate Jimmie Johnson.

The difference between winning and losing has been as stark as black and white. And there's barely room for anyone who has gone gray.

This is not a question of one hot rookie. This is not a once-in-a-generation phenom like Gordon in the early 1990s. This is a bona fide trend, and it does not bode well for the high-fiber crowd.

Five rookies have combined for nine wins since 1999. How unusual is that? Let's start with 1958 when Richard Petty was a rookie. During the next 40 years, Winston Cup's rookie of the year winners combined for six victories. "When I came along, when Rusty and some of the other guys came along, it was a lot harder to find a good ride," Sterling Marlin said. "There are a lot more opportunities for the young guys today."

The face of NASCAR is changing and so is its accent. This is no longer a Southern-dominated sport handed down from father to son. Kenseth is from Wisconsin. Johnson hails from California. Newman has a degree in vehicle structural engineering from Purdue.

They are young, they are savvy and they are about to earn millions.

So how are they winning in their 20s when second-generation drivers such as Dale Jarrett and Marlin did not see checkered flags until their mid 30s?

Essentially, by climbing on the backs of their more experienced teammates. As NASCAR's popularity has soared in recent years, team owners have taken on additional drivers. Roush Racing not only has veterans Martin and Jeff Burton, but also up-and-comers Kurt Busch and Kenseth.

In his first full season on the circuit, Johnson not only gets advice from Gordon, he also drives cars Gordon has won with in the past.

"The fear was multicar teams would hurt the sport and it's done the exact opposite," Burton said. "Multicar teams have created so many opportunities for young drivers to get into good equipment. You didn't used to have that. It used to be young drivers had to drive the junk. Now they're driving good cars and, by the way, they're also outrunning their older teammates in many cases.

"I'm not making light of their talent. They're all extremely talented ... but young drivers and young teams do not have to go through the heartache of breaking parts and wrecking cars uselessly anymore."

The makeup of teams has evolved. The successful veteran can still find a ride, but the journeyman driver from the Busch Grand National series is being squeezed out.

Team owners want to diversify. Stay with the same old twang or look for the hottest young thang? Teams seem to strike a balance with a proven veteran in one car and a potential star in the other.

So instead of paying dues, young drivers are asked only to earn their keep. No more building your car or sharing your hotel room with a half-dozen members of your pit crew. No more living paycheck to paycheck. The best and brightest start at the top and remain until they prove unworthy.

"It's not just a matter of having a young driver on the team," Burton said. "You can have an 18-year-old who isn't worth a c--- and I'm not going to care what he's doing. I don't want to have anything to do with him. Whether I pay attention or not is based on the level of success he's having."

It has taken some time, but resentment of the younger drivers is finally beginning to show. Ricky Rudd recently complained about excessive attention heaped on the young drivers by Fox. He suggested NASCAR had sold its soul to get in bed with advertisers eager to attract younger demographics.

Rudd, 45, has since toned down the rhetoric but other drivers seem antsy about falling behind the curve.

"I don't have a problem with all of the young guys and the success they've had," Jarrett, 45, said. "But guys in their 40s, a guy who is 45, can still get the job done with the right equipment."

The experience of the veterans has shown in their consistency. Marlin leads the Winston Cup points standings and, though they do not have victories this season, Martin, Wallace, Gordon, Burton and Rudd are in the top 10. It is inevitable, however, that one generation pushes another. It just so happens, in this case, the next generation is younger than ever before.

It does not make racing any better or worse. It does not mean the younger drivers are more talented than those who have preceded them.

And it doesn't necessarily mean tradition has lost its way.

After all, objects in the rearview mirror may be closer than they appear.

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