LOUDON, N.H. — NASCAR president Mike Helton says it all has happened before. And it likely will happen again in the not-too-distant future. In NASCAR’s six decades, the sport always has replenished its ranks by replacing a crop of aging stars with a new breed of racers eager to make their own mark.
“We’ve seen it cycle from Lee Petty to Richard to Kyle,’’ Helton said, referring to the passing of the torch among NASCAR’s royal family. “And now we’re looking at this next generation in Cup become players, and when that happens it wakes you up to the fact that the drivers you remembered being like that, they’re now older.
“It’s mind-boggling when you think about it, because you’re like, ‘When did that happen?’ ”
Well, it’s happening again.
Once part of a youth movement that helped usher marquee names such as Darrell Waltrip, Rusty Wallace, and Bill Elliott — all NASCAR Hall of Famers — to their retirement, the young guns are fast realizing they are not so young anymore.
Far from being men in repose, their flecks of gray have become more apparent now that they are no longer in their Roaring 20s.
Having reached their 40s, Sprint Cup stars such as four-time champion Jeff Gordon (42), three-time champion Tony Stewart (43), 2003 champion Matt Kenseth (42), and six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who will turn 39 in September, are settling down, getting married, starting families, or starting to plot their exit strategies from behind the wheel of their snarling stock cars.
“I’ve said before in a couple of live interviews, where fans were listening, I got fans involved by asking them, ‘What’s going to happen with Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth and those guys when they retire? Who’s going to fill their shoes?’ ” said Ben Rhodes, 17, of Louisville, Ky., who ranks not only as the K&N Pro Series East points leader but its hottest driver with five wins, including four in a row.
“I said it was going to be the people who are in this [K&N] series,’’ Rhodes said. “We’re all pushing for it. You’ve got a lot of guys jockeying for those positions in the [Camping World] Truck Series, the Nationwide Series, and in this series, as well.
“So you pull for guys like Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones and Chase Elliott to do good, because it paves the way for the rest of us.’’
NASCAR has relied upon its Next program to showcase top young talent and regional series such as the K&N Pro Series (East and West divisions) and the Northeast-based NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour and NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour to transfuse the sport with a flow of new blood. But several prospects have emerged from strong racing blood lines.
There’s Nationwide Series rookie Chase Elliott, the 18-year-old son of former NASCAR champion and Hall of Famer Bill Elliott; Truck Series rookie John Hunter Nemechek, the 17-year-old son of Sprint Cup veteran Joe Nemechek; and K&N Pro Series East rookie driver Jesse Little, 17, son of former NASCAR driver and current Truck Series director Chad Little, who recorded his first career victory Friday in an K&N Pro Series East race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
“Ben Kennedy, for Pete’s sake, is a fourth generation France,’’ Helton said, referring the 22-year-old son of Lesa France Kennedy, NASCAR’s vice chairwoman/executive vice president. “Since Bill [France] Jr., he is the first driver from the family who has participated competitively at a racetrack, which would be good for the sport because as his leadership shifts to the business side of the sport, he’ll have the knowledge of what it feels like to be behind the wheel and associate with the garage area, so all that helps you.
“It gives you confidence in the future.’’
In most instances, however, someone has had to provide these up-and-coming drivers with a big break.
“It just seemed like the stars lined up for us when Rick Hendrick called us out of the blue,’’ said Bill Elliott; Chase Elliott signed a three-year driver development deal with Hendrick in 2011 and is now driving for Dale Earnhardt Jr., scion of late seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt.
“He’s been so instrumental and so much help in what we’ve done. And you can’t do it without him,’’ Bill Elliott said of Hendrick. “You can’t do it without a Rick Hendrick or a Roger Penske or a Jack Roush, a [Richard] Childress or [Joe] Gibbs.
“There’s a handful of guys who can make it happen or not. Then you’ve got to be able to have the ability to go on [and perform].’’
But without the guidance and support of proactive owners such as Hendrick, Penske, and Roush, it’s not likely young and emerging talent could find its way through the capillaries of NASCAR’s feeder system.
“It’s probably the best crop of young talent that I’ve seen since I’ve been in the sport,” Childress said of the next youth movement. “The biggest challenge with young guys has always been to sell them to a sponsor. Now sponsors are a lot more open to the younger [prospects] because a lot of the companies are looking at the demographic, especially with social media being what it is.’’
In Childress’s case, the car owner needed to look no further than his own grandsons, Austin and Ty Dillon, for a pair of marketable young prospects.
Austin Dillon, 24, is the 2013 Nationwide Series champion and former Camping World Truck Series champion who is now campaigning the No. 3 Chevrolet in his Sprint Cup rookie season. Dillon, who got his season off to a roaring start with a pole victory in the Daytona 500, is second in the Rookie of the Year standings behind Larson with a pair of top-10 finishes in 18 starts this season.
“We have a big rookie class and it’s just going to evolve from here,’’ said Dillon, whose 22-year-old brother, Ty, also drives for their grandfather as a rookie on the Nationwide Series. “The young guns [are] just getting older and you see a bunch of good talent in the Nationwide Series and the Truck Series and it’s only going to be younger and newer guys coming up and it’s going to be cool to see.’’
And, somewhere down the road, the circle of life in NASCAR could cycle back. The progeny of Gordon, Johnson, and Harvick could emerge as NASCAR’s next generation of talent with Ella Gordon, the 7-year-old daughter of Jeff Gordon who already has driven a quarter midget; Genevieve Johnson, the 4-year-old daughter of Jimmie Johnson who has been no stranger to Victory Lane; and Keelan Harvick, the 3-year-old son of Kevin Harvick, who has made it a prerace routine to sit in the cockpit of his father’s car, for good luck.
“When you go to the drivers/owners lot and see all the children who are now part of the weekend, you have to wonder which one of those is going to be the next generation of drivers,’’ Helton said. “And that’s good for us, I think.
“Relatively speaking, we’re still a young sport and six decades isn’t that long of a period. So when you see the perpetuation of it by a fan base that started with it and became a big part of it and made a significant investment in it, that helps your confidence in what’s going to happen next.’’Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.