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NASCAR's youthful look challenges old guard in generational rivalry

NASCAR's youthful look challenges old guard in generational rivalry
Drivers, from left, Alex Bowman (88), Kyle Larson (42), William Byron (24), Jimmie Johnson (48) and Chase Elliott (9) run laps during a practice session for the NASCAR Daytona 500 on Friday. (John Raoux / Associated Press)

William Byron, despite the baby-face look, is quite adept at driving a stock car at crazy speeds.

But life comes at you fast in other ways. He went to an Outback Steakhouse just outside Daytona International Speedway earlier this week and took a seat at the bar. He figured he would blend right in, another race fan incognito among the masses.

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Wrong.

Quite a number of fans recognized him. An older lady offered to buy him a drink, which would have been unlawful in Florida because he’s only 20. He ate quickly, and then scrambled back to the safety of his motor coach.

“Something like that is really neat and special because I’m not used to that,” Byron said. “Normally I go through the weekend and don’t think about that stuff.”

Byron needs to recalibrate a lot of things in his racing career — as do his fellow millennials leading the charge — as an influx of young talent blends into Sunday’s Daytona 500 starting grid for the start of the 2018 Monster Energy Cup season.

There’s Alex Bowman, 24, his teammate at Hendrick Motorsports and the pole-sitter for Sunday’s Great American Race. There’s groovy Bubba Wallace, 24, banging on his drums as a side gig to driving the iconic No. 43 for Richard Petty Motorsports. There’s Ryan Blaney, 24, Bubba’s wing man who drives for Cup rival Team Penske. At 27, Joey Logano, Blaney’s Penske teammate, must feel like an old man.

Check out the starting lineup of the top 10 qualifiers for the Daytona 500. It includes Bowman, Blaney, Wallace, Chase Elliott (22) and Erik Jones (21).

The twentysomethings are the Cool Kids. The fortysomethings are the “get off my lawn” crowd.

This isn’t a cosmic coincidence. Much of this dynamic is money-driven. Sponsorships are drying up, and so is the money. Owners can’t afford seven-figure contracts, which is why a talented veteran and past champion such as Matt Kenseth will be watching the Daytona 500 like the rest of us.

Jones took his slot in Joe Gibbs Racing. The shakeup is even more dramatic at Hendrick Motorsports, which now includes Byron, Bowman and Elliott. Gone are veterans Jeff Gordon, who retired after the 2015 season, and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who retired at the end of the 2017 season. Kasey Kahne got bounced after the 2017 season and replaced by Byron.

“My idea this year was, ‘Let's let them learn in the stuff they're going to be driving for a long time,’ ” team owner Rick Hendrick said. “It's fun, and that's what I need at this point in my life. I need to have some fun.”

But these aren’t charity rides, either, based on the starting grid. These guys have great potential and are fortunate to have been paired with the top-tier teams in the business. No one is giving them hand-me-down engines. In a results-driven industry, it doesn’t matter what your birthday is as long as you pit in Victory Lane.

“What the fans are looking for are up-and-coming drivers who can win races,” Fox Sports analyst Larry McReynolds said. “They’re waiting to see who the next superstar is going to be. Who is the guy who is going to step up and win races and is a championship contender? Because you, me, everybody else can only promote these kids for so long as up-and-coming drivers. They’ve got to win races. And no one knows that more than they do.”

Understandably, this has caused some rumblings in the garage. Veterans look around and have to wonder if they’re next on the hit list while reflecting on their NASCAR journeys that included more challenging dynamics.

Cue outrage, with a side of jealousy.

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“It is bothersome,” 2015 season champion Kyle Busch said last month during the NASCAR Media Tour. “We’ve paid our dues, and our sponsors have and everything else, and all you’re doing is advertising all these younger guys for fans to figure out and pick up on and choose as their favorite driver.

“I think it’s stupid. But I don’t know. I’m not the marketing genius that’s behind this deal. You know, I just do what I can do, and my part of it is what my part is.”

Actually, this could work out well for everybody. Let drivers embrace their differences. Rivalries drive every sport. Now NASCAR can have rival gangs, like the Sharks and the Jets, only with restrictor plates.

NASCAR’s struggles for more eyeballs on weekends depend on the viability of the young guys to have something going for them besides a little eye candy for millennials.

Pick a side. Or pick a story. They’ve got some good ones.

Byron is taking undergraduate online courses at Liberty University, majoring in business communications.

Elliott is the son of NASCAR icon Bill Elliott and gets revved up by listening to Eric Church music.

Wallace is the first full-time African American driver in the Cup series since Wendell Scott in 1971, and the first black driver in the Daytona 500 since 1969.

“I think we try really hard to label things, and maybe we're trying too hard to label things,” said Brad Keselowski, the 2012 season champ and a tweener at 34. “Everybody is different. Everybody's scenario is different. Alex's scenario is different than his teammate William Byron's scenario or his other teammate Chase Elliott's scenario.

“I know we like the young gun/old veteran feel to it, but we just all have different stories, and I think that's an easy trap to fall in, and I think that maybe it's easier to tell a story that way because more people can understand it, but it's not necessarily the reality.”

Fair enough.

Speaking of stories, it’s back to adult liquid beverages. Picture the scene: Not Outback, but Epcot. Blaney went there to visit with a few friends and family earlier this week.

“I’ve never been to Epcot and the countries before,” he said. “There are 11 countries, and Canada was the first country we visited and I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna try this new Canada beer I’ve never had.’ I was with my sister and my younger sister is 20, and I was with a buddy of mine and I was like, ‘Let’s do a beer in every country.’

“I figured really fast that was not gonna happen because you don’t realize how close the countries are. I got done with Canada and we walked into the UK and I still had like half of my beer left and I was like, ‘This is not going to end well.’ So we got to country five or six and I was like, ‘This is not happening.’ ’’

No worries, kid. Time is your friend. The world is waiting. And watching.

Here is a toast to the new generation of NASCAR drivers.

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Just make sure Byron sticks to iced tea or plain water.

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