For the few who might not have noticed, there is a youth movement afoot in NASCAR circles.
The presence of the new kids on the engine block became somewhat of a hot issue in the preseason when veteran Kyle Busch pushed forward a complaint that NASCAR and its speedways were putting too much time and money into promotion of the young guns.
Whatever the impetus, the concept is very much alive at Daytona International Speedway as the new season begins full throttle with Sunday’s 60th Daytona 500, NASCAR’s biggest showcase.
Five of the top eight drivers on the 500 starting grid are 24 or younger. They include pole winner Alex Bowman (24) and Thursday’s qualifying race winners Ryan Blaney (24) and Chase Elliott (22).
The fourth row is made up of Darrell Wallace Jr. (24) and Erik Jones (21).
The rest of the top eight are veterans: Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick, all previous Daytona 500 winners.
Can a fresh-faced driver win the Great American Race? There’s precedent. Trevor Bayne shocked the sport by winning the 500 at the age of 20 in 2011. Yet Bayne has not won a race since.
The favorites in this year’s young-gun group probably reside in the second row of the 500 grid – Blaney and Elliott, two guys with fathers who succeeded in the sport and two guys with ties to two of the sport’s best teams. Blaney, the son of Dave Blaney, will start third in a Team Penske Ford, and Elliott, son of Hall of Fame driver Bill Elliott, will start fourth in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
“I think from the time that Ryan started, he's been good on the superspeedways and done a good job,” said Harvick, who won the 500 in 2007. “Those guys (Blaney and Elliott) are different because they have such a knack and have watched so many of these races. It's not like they were racing on a computer, came through a different form of racing, whatever the case may be.
“Those guys had dads that were pretty darn good at what they were doing, heard the lingo, heard the talk, watched the action on the racetrack. They've seen as much of the progression of how all this works as I have. They may not have been in a car, but they've watched and learned.”
Only 25 of the 40-car starting field participated in Saturday’s final 500 practice.
Wallace, one of the newcomers, led the session with a speed of 196.954 miles per hour. Second through fifth were Daniel Suarez, Ryan Newman, William Byron and Jimmie Johnson.