Young guns ready to take NASCAR into future – The State

Jeff Gordon said NASCAR is in good hands despite the loss of some of its marquee stars in recent years.

Gordon and Tony Stewart, who are locks for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, have retired although both remain active in the sport. The former Hendrick Motorsports driver stepped away from full-time driving two years ago and is working for Fox but filled in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. last season. Stewart runs a Cup team with drivers Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport’s most popular driver for more than a decade, will be retiring at the end of the season. He will drive in his final Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway this weekend.

“I know there is a lot of focus on drivers that are stepping away that are big names and popular drivers and the impact that’s going to have,” Gordon said Thursday at Darlington as the track named its luxury seating area in his honor. “I immediately think of the young drivers that are coming in, and that is exciting: The Chase Elliotts and the Kyle Larsons, Erik Jones and (Daniel) Suarez, and (Ryan) Blaney. To me, these are guys who can truly take the sport into the future.”

With NASCAR’s ratings continuing to decline, it wouldn’t hurt if one or more of those drivers takes the mantle going forward.

The drivers looking to fill the void are Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones and Ryan Blaney. All of those drivers are 25 or younger. Nineteen-year-old William Byron will be added to that mix next year when he takes over Gordon’s No. 24 car. Gordon think he is a perfect fit because of his success in the Xfinity and Craftsman Truck Series.

Larson and Blaney have wins this season and are locks to make the postseason. Elliott, who has come close to winning, also is assured of making the playoffs, while Jones and Suarez are battling it out heading into the final race of the regular season next week at Richmond.

In addition to fighting for wins, young drivers are jockeying to earn fans.

“I think it’s definitely a great time, especially with Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. leaving,” Larson said earlier this year. “He makes up, probably, three-quarters of the fan base, so with him gone next year, there’s going to be a lot of opportunity for us to build our fan base.”

Winning races helps the young drivers’ appeal, but it also doesn’t hurt to have a familiar name like Elliott to win fans and sponsors. Elliott’s appeal was helped this week when he announced a switch from the No. 24 to No. 9, a number made popular by his hall of fame father Bill Elliott.

Bill Elliott was the sport’s most popular driver before Earnhardt Jr. came along.

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