NASCAR's next turn: 2016, changing of the guard

Kyle Busch's first Sprint Cup championship and four-time champion Jeff Gordon's retirement are both clear signals of a youth movement in NASCAR's premier division in 2016.

Nov 22, 2015; Homestead, FL, USA; NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Jeff Gordon (24) races Kyle Busch (18) during the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Busch's first Sprint Cup championship and four-time champion Jeff Gordon's retirement are both clear signals of a youth movement in NASCAR's premier division in 2016.

At age 30, Busch is the youngest champion since Brad Keselowski won the title three years ago at age 28. Those two and 25-year-old Joey Logano, who together accounted for 12 victories in 2015, will be joined by two more potential stars in the 2016 season.

Chase Elliott, the son of 1988 Sprint Cup champion Bill Elliott and just shy of his 20th birthday, will replace Gordon in the No. 24 Chevy of Hendrick Motorsports. Ryan Blaney, the son of former World of Outlaws champion and veteran NASCAR driver Dave Blaney, last week was named the driver for the Wood Brothers Ford at age 21. The legendary Wood Brothers team returns to a fulltime schedule next year under sponsorship from Ford.

Kyle Larson, the 23-year-old driver for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, is knocking on the door of his first Sprint Cup victory. He finished fifth at Homestead in the Sprint Cup race after winning Saturday's Xfinity Series race. Waiting in the wings, meanwhile, is Erik Jones. He clinched the Camping World Truck Series championship Friday at the Homestead-Miami Speedway at age 19. After a stop in the Xfinity Series next season, he is expected to be quickly promoted to the Sprint Cup by Joe Gibbs Racing.

Earlier this year, Dale Earnhardt Jr., 41, said that Gordon's decision to retire at age 44 was not a surprise and that he expects others to retire in their mid-forties. Three-time champion Tony Stewart has already added his name to the list, announcing his retirement at the end of the 2016 season at the age of 45. Another nearing that benchmark is the 2003 champion Matt Kenseth, who is 43.


Stalwarts Kevin Harvick, who finished second to Busch in this year's championship after winning it last year, and six-time champion Jimmie Johnson are still in their "NASCAR prime" at age 40.

One thing that might help younger drivers in the 2016 season is the arrival of the low downforce package to be used on the intermediate speedways. All drivers will be adapting to the new rules package, which may benefit those who are not used to any other approach. Stewart's difficult season in 2015 was a tribute, in part, to cars with less downforce - and there will be less still next season.

Will the new package produce better racing as intended by NASCAR and endorsed by manufacturers, teams and drivers? The most important endorsee is Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. Unlike in 2015, Goodyear is prepared to test extensively with the new low downforce cars to produce new tires that work well with them. When the company was able to test prior to this year's experiment with lower downforce at the Darlington Raceway, the result was more overtaking.

The fact NASCAR has better data on how to adjust front splitters, the radiator pans and rear spoilers to get the best balance for cars, coupled with testing by Goodyear, should produce more interesting races on the tracks that comprise the majority of the schedule.

One major off track development continues to be the gorilla in the room when it comes to 2016.

The Race Team Alliance continues to negotiate with NASCAR over the issue of creating better financial stability for teams. Thus far, the word leaking out is that a relationship between the teams and the sanctioning body may be defined as a "charter."

But what benefit results from holding a "charter" with NASCAR in the Sprint Cup remains to be seen. It could well mean sharing TV revenue as well as some guarantees about starting positions. In any event, manufacturers and teams are already making moves that result from a scramble to get the most out of any new arrangement.

The switch by the Furniture Row Racing team, whose driver Martin Truex Jr. was a championship contender at Homestead, to Toyota from Chevy is one sign of manufacturers trying to better position themselves. In addition to joining Toyota, the Furniture Row team will work in conjunction with Joe Gibbs Racing. And, the team is expected to add cars after the 2016 season. In other words, Toyota is positioning itself in the aftermath of the departure of Michael Waltrip Racing to have as many "chartered" cars as possible.


Likewise, Ford's backing of the Wood Brothers for a full season in 2016 can be cast in the same light. With Roush Fenway Racing still in the doldrums, it remains unclear what other moves might be made by Ford. Tim Cindric, president of Penske Racing, has said his Ford team wants to expand to four cars from the current two - another likely result of the talks between the RTA and NASCAR.

What will become of Roush Fenway Racing in 2016? The former powerhouse struggled through a miserable season in 2015 despite the hiring of engineering and management guru Mark McArdle, who has helped lead revivals at Furniture Row and at Richard Childress Racing. One significant problem for the Roush team was in the driving department after having lost Kenseth and Carl Edwards to Joe Gibbs Racing. The combination of veteran Greg Biffle and the youthful Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne has not produced much in the way of results.

Look for Roush Fenway Racing to continue to struggle in 2016 in a race series where there are no silver bullets. A silver lining was the Xfinity Series championship won Saturday at Homestead by Roush Fenway driver Chris Buescher, who beat Chase Elliott by 15 points. He clinched Roush Fenway's third Xfinity driver's title in the last five years; Stenhouse Jr. won it in 2011 and 2012.

Diversity as well as youth is also on the doorstep of NASCAR's premier series. This year, two graduates of the sanctioning body's diversity program competed for the rookie of the year honors in the Xfinity Series. African-American Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr. was edged for the rookie honors by Mexican Daniel Suárez. The two drivers, along with Buescher, are candidates to eventually move up to the Sprint Cup despite a field crowded with talent.


By Jonathan Ingram, The Sports Xchange

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