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Youth movements have always been part of NASCAR

Young Guns

Posted: Thursday, August 01, 2002

ATLANTA -- They stormed onto the NASCAR circuit like wild horses, untamed and unafraid. They drove stock cars without regard to status and tradition. They were defiant and daring, most too young to know any better.

Older veterans were often troubled by their brash approach, but they adjusted. Then they watched the new generation of drivers the young guns win races.

Fifty years ago, the young guns were Ned Jarrett, Junior Johnson, Fireball Rob erts and Joe Weatherly.

Racing had never seen such an invasion of young ideas and raw talent. To some, it was a fluke that so much new talent would hit the circuit at one time. Others saw it as a necessary evolution to replenish the pool of talent.

As sponsors look for fresher faces to sell products and NASCAR's marketing machine presses for new angles to sell the sport, nothing stirs interest like young drivers.

In the history of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, there have been several waves of young, successful drivers to hit the sport at the same time. Youth movements have not only helped the sport maintain a youthful zeal, but they also attract new generations of fans.

And when the old guard resists, NASCAR knows a clash between generations is good business.

''I remember for many years I was wondering what was going to happen when all us old guys go away,'' said 45-year-old Ricky Rudd. ''I'm glad to see we've got guys that can come in here and get the job done.''

The recent run of young talent has dominated the sport's consciousness. But are these drivers any different from the waves of young talent in the past?

While the newest group isn't any younger than when other young guns won their first races, they are winning quicker and driving better cars than their predecessors.

''They are getting in some awesome equipment,'' said Johnny Benson, 39. ''It used to be that a ride the caliber of Penske, Hendrick, (Earnhardt) or Child ress wouldn't open up to a young guy as it does now.''

The Winston Cup Series has seen several notable youth movements in its 53-year history. Today's group includes Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Dale Earn hardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth. They are setting standards for young guns to come, but their success follows a natural progression established a long time ago.

Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough charged onto the circuit in a four-year stretch that started in 1958.

Dale Earnhardt, Terry Labonte, Rusty Wallace, Kyle Petty and Mark Martin all forged their way into the Winston Cup Series during a four-year span that started in 1978.

Most of that group is contemplating retirement.

''I think everybody is sick of hearing all this young guns stuff and this veterans stuff,'' Wallace said. ''We're all just race car drivers doing the best we can. Somebody hyped all that (stuff) up, and I'm sick of it.''

Wallace said there's nothing to the battle of ages, but it's clear he's tired of losing to the new generation. The drivers who joined the circuit since 1999 have won 27 races, including Stewart's rookie rec ord of three wins three seasons ago.

Since 1999, the group of Earnhardt Jr., Labonte, Wallace, Petty and Martin has won 12 races.

''The only thing we know how to do is go to the front,'' Busch said.

Since NASCAR moved into its modern era in 1972, only two champions have had less than five years of experience. One was Dale Earnhardt in 1980, his second season on the circuit. The other was Jeff Gordon in 1992, who was crowned during his third season.

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net.



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