BROOKLYN, Mich. — When Kyle Larson was trying to hold off Chase Elliott at Michigan International Speedway last weekend, this much was certain: One of them was going to win a Sprint Cup race for the first time.
The next generation of NASCAR standouts has quite an opportunity over these next couple months. With Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart fading from prominence and Dale Earnhardt Jr. sidelined with concussion problems, a handful of younger drivers have emerged in impressive fashion of late.
The 24-year-old Larson ended up winning at Michigan, with the 20-year-old Elliott coming in second. Ryan Blaney was fourth, equaling the highest finish of the 22-year-old’s career.
“When we took that last restart I saw three guys up there that hadn’t won before,” six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson said. “In my mind I thought, ‘Man, I hope one of these guys gets it.’”
Larson wrapped up a spot in the Chase with his victory at Michigan, and Elliott seems likely to get in, too. Chris Buescher has a berth waiting for him if the 23-year-old can remain in the top 30 in points. His victory at Pocono was the first of his career.
Last year’s Chase did not include a single driver under 25.
Gordon retired at the end of last season, although he’s been back behind the wheel recently to replace the injured Earnhardt. Elliott has replaced Gordon in the No. 24 car and has 12 top-10 finishes this year, an encouraging sign amid a tough year for Hendrick Motorsports.
Gordon’s retirement as a full-time driver and Earnhardt’s concussion problems have driven home the fact that NASCAR won’t be able to rely on its biggest names forever. Stewart plans to retire after this season, and even Johnson is all the way down in ninth place in the standings.
The first race at Michigan back in June had the youngest top three in Sprint Cup history, with Joey Logano (26) finishing ahead of Elliott and Larson. Last weekend, it was Larson and Elliott going 1-2. Both were driving Chevrolets.
“Chevy has had a fortunate lineup of drivers and team owners, some of the very best in the industry,” said Jim Campbell, vice president of performance vehicles and motorsports for Chevrolet. “As some of them retire, and we are working with our team owners to bring guys in like Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson, it really bodes well for the future. We’re proud of those guys. They’re incredibly talented and surrounded by great teams.”
Larson’s victory snapped a 99-race losing skid for Chip Ganassi Racing, and the owner expressed confidence that his young driver wouldn’t be making a jump to another team any time soon.
“His contract came up one time. I said, ‘What do you think about these other teams that are talking to you?’ I’ll never forget his answer. He said, ‘They all had a shot at me the first time around and they passed,’” Ganassi said. “To say he’s the foundation of the team, sure. Any time you have a young guy come along that can win, sure, you want to rally around that.”
Larson was the first graduate of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity and NASCAR Next programs to win a Sprint Cup race. It happened in his 99th start.
“I wouldn’t have been surprised if he won in his first two or three starts, and wouldn’t be surprised if it took him 10 years. There’s no guarantees at this level,” said Brad Keselowski, who finished third Sunday. “There’s too many pieces. Being a great driver alone is not enough to guarantee success. Everything has to come together. … I look forward to racing him and Chase and Ryan Blaney and all those guys for years to come.”
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