Fresh generation of drivers emerging on NASCAR circuit

Ryan Blaney drives through Turn 1 during practice for a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Phoenix International Raceway, Saturday, March. 18, 2017, in Avondale, Ariz. (AP)

AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — The NASCAR kids keep coming on strong.

Five of the highest-starting eight drivers in NASCAR’s lineup for its Monster Energy Series race on Sunday are 26 or younger.

Ryan Blaney, starting next to pole-sitter and teammate Joey Logano on the front row, is 23. Kyle Larson starts in the second row, and he’s all of 24.

Blaney finished second in this year’s Daytona 500; Larson won at Michigan last year and finished second in the last two Cup races.

The age keeps dropping down the grid, and the fourth row consists of Chase Elliott, who is finally old enough to drink, and Erik Jones, who doesn’t turn 21 until the end of May. Elliott was third last week in Las Vegas and won a preseason qualifying race at Daytona.

“Obviously there’s a lot of talent out there,” said Martin Truex Jr., winner last week in Las Vegas. “We’ve seen what the young guys are doing. They’re nipping at our heels and making me feel old.”

Also in the field is rookie Ty Dillon (24) and Trevor Bayne, who six years ago became the youngest winner of the Daytona 500 one day after his 20th birthday. He’s 26 now and practically a Cup veteran.

Of course, pole-sitter Logano is no old-timer at 26, but he’s well established as one of the circuit’s stars. He has 17 NASCAR wins, including last year’s November race in Phoenix.

He’s also in a little bit of a firestorm — he came to Phoenix embroiled in controversy after hard-racing with Kyle Busch last week led to a scuffle on pit road.

But Logano isn’t considered part of this group of fresh new NASCAR stars, among them Larson, who keeps flirting with another win.

“It would be nice to get a win and we have challenged now for most of, the last probably five, races,” he said. “It’s really cool to run up front. I’ve never had this speed this early in the year. I’m soaking it all in and enjoying it.”

Truex said today’s young drivers are helped by the cooperation between teams in the same ownership group or part of an alliance. Truex and his Furniture Row Racing group benefit as the sister team to Joe Gibbs Racing. The deep resources and sharing practices differ greatly from when he started his career driving for Dale Earnhardt.

“When I started, we had two cars at DEI and it was two different teams and two different buildings and not sharing everything,” he said. “So things have changed a lot, and I think it’s helped those guys a ton get off the ground, but obviously we’ve seen a ton of talent come into the series, and it’s been exciting to watch.”

Blaney drives a Ford for Wood Brothers Racing, but the team is essentially a B Team for Roger Penske, who has Logano and Brad Keselowski starring for Team Penske.

“They have been really good to us as far as sharing information,” Blaney said. “We sit in on all their meetings and I feel like a part of the team. At the same time, we are still the Wood Brothers, a single-car team on the dragstrip in Mooresville. We have a great relationship with Team Penske and they are a big part of why we run so well.”

Blaney feels he’s closing in on that first win. He started third in Las Vegas last Sunday.

“Our cars have been competitive enough to win all three races (this year),” he said. “It just was circumstances. It is just about putting a full race together. It is really tough to win one of these Cup races.”


No one has dominated in Phoenix more than Kevin Harvick. He’s won there eight times, including the last three spring races.

He will have to battle from behind at the start again to win another one Sunday.

In his first year with Ford after a career driving Chevrolets, Harvick will start way back in 23rd. But he’s been in this situation before. Last year, he started 18th on the grid, but wound up leading a race-high 139 laps en route to the win.

“We just haven’t really qualified that well here lately at this particular race track,” Haravick said. “Our race stuff has been pretty good though and we will just look to do that again.”