Driving increasingly becomes a younger man's game
Experience counts greatly in NASCAR, just as in any profession. But results and trends show that fortysomething drivers aren't as successful as they used to be.
One of the cruel realities of life is that by the time we get the experience we need to make the best decisions, our minds and bodies aren't quite what they used to be. This is an oversimplification, of course, but it does apply, time and again, to the world of sports. And in the context of this article, it applies to race car driving.
There are those who will tell you that experience is worth more than youth in NASCAR. That the drivers of 25 years ago drove into their 40s because of their skill levels, not despite them. The sport has changed so much in the time since, with all of those changes favoring younger drivers, that it's hard to argue that these changes aren't the primary reason for the sport's current youth movement. Consider the following:
But despite all of these factors, there is no denying the inevitable ... that Father Time catches up to these guys almost as quickly as the younger drivers do. Mark Martin was the last Cup driver older than 40 to win a race, and that was more than two years ago at Kansas. Martin scored two wins that year and Dale Jarrett one. Since Oct. 9, 2005, the over-40 crowd has been shut out.
A look at this year's Chase for the Championship suggests a driver's prime appears to be his late 20s and early 30s. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are 36, Matt Kenseth 35, Jimmie Johnson 32, Kevin Harvick 31, Kurt Busch 29, Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer 28, Martin Truex Jr. 27, Denny Hamlin 26 and Kyle Busch 22. Jeff Burton is the exception at 40.
While Kyle Petty surprised everyone with a top-five at Charlotte in May and others like Martin, Bobby Labonte and Ricky Rudd continue to contend now and then, the inescapable truth is that the odds are stacked against them. They say that 40 is the new 30. In racing, it appears the reverse is true.
On the final day of the 1992 season, Richard Petty limped home to finish his final Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway just as 21-year old Jeff Gordon was starting his first one. As Gordon began to have early success, people applied his numbers to the long career of Petty's and wondered how many wins he might achieve. The reality is Gordon might not have nearly as long a window as Petty had. In fact, his could be closing a lot sooner than anyone ever expected.
Such is life in a young man's sport like NASCAR.