|Labonte's career included Brickyard win|
It’s about time. NASCAR is in desperate need of new talent, new names and new faces. One of NASCAR’s stated goals in recent years has been to attract younger fans to the sport. They’ve tried to do it with rock bands and social media, without much success. It’s a tough sell. The target audience – males 15-25 – has a hard time relating to drivers often twice their age. But that’s about to change.
The Cup career of Bobby Labonte, 49, may already be over. Phoenix was his last race of the season and he has no ride at this point for next year. He’s expressed interest in racing in some truck series events and there’s even talk he might run for Congress. I’d vote for him.
Mark Martin, 54, and Jeff Burton, 46, will be running their final race for their current teams at Homestead. Martin says this is it. Then he says he might be willing to help out a team in need, just as he did for Stewart/Haas Racing this past year. We may see him again in a car some day.
Burton says he’ll be racing part time next year, but can’t say where yet. Could be at Michael Waltrip Racing, which now indicates it will run a third car in selected races, perhaps as a development team. Burton might be a good fit for that role, provide backup for Brian Vickers, and give the team some badly needed respect. It also would provide a nice transition for Burton into a potential role as a television commentator when the new TV contracts take effect in 2015.
Also presumably running his final NASCAR race at Homestead will be Juan Pablo Montoya, 38, who is returning to IndyCar racing after being pushed out of his seat at Ganassi Racing.
Replacing Labonte is A. J. Allmendinger, 31. Burton is being moved aside by Austin Dillion, 23, the grandson of Richard Childress. And Kyle Larson, 23, will be running Montoya’s No. 42 next year. Larson, a sprint car graduate, is a can’t miss according to Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.
Most of NASCAR’s current Cup stars are best described as being in their mid-30s. The group includes Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, Jamie McMurry, Clint Bowyer, Marcos Ambrose and Martin Truex, Jr. A few are in their 40s, including Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart and Greg Biffle.
Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch are both 28. There’s David Regan and Aric Almirola, but I’m not sure many would put them in the same class as the first two. Trevor Bayne, 22, is still looking for a fulltime ride. After that, not much. The door is wide open.
We actually saw the transition begin this year. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. 26, replaced Kenseth, 41, when he jumped to Joe Gibbs Racing. And Joey Logano, still only 23 even though he’s been around six years, moved ahead of Sam Hornish, 34, at Penske Racing.
Waiting in the wings is a host of drivers who have shown they deserve a crack at the next level. They include Parker Kligerman (23), Joey Coulter (23), James Buescher (23), Jeb Burton (21), Austin’s little brother Ty Dillion (21), Darrell “Bubba” Wallace (20), Ross Kenseth (20), Ross Chastain (20) and Alex Bowman (20). Then there’s the Kiddie Korps – perhaps the most talented bunch of them all – teenagers Ryan Blaney (19), Chase Elliott (17) and Erik Jones (17).
Many of the youngsters have contracts as development drivers for major teams. It remains to be seen, however, how much longer those teams will be to keep these drivers down on the farm after they’ve had a taste of Sprint Cup action. Blaney, a Penske development driver, will move up to Nationwide next year as Roger makes the tough decision to bump Hornish yet again. Chip Ganassi had to make a similar call with Larson and Montoya.
We’re liable to see more of those tough decisions in the next couple of years. Elliott is tied to Hendrick Motorsports and is seen by many as Jeff Gordon’s replacement. But what happens if Gordon isn’t ready to move on with Elliott is ready to move up? Hendrick would no doubt stand with Gordon. But some of the others, I’m not so sure.