Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott lead NASCAR youth movement

Chris Graythen

Two drivers -- one often compared to the sport’s greats, the other a son of a NASCAR Hall of Famer -- are at the front of an emerging group of young, talented drivers.

It's been building off in the distance, inching ever closer like a thunderstorm. This is no storm, however. It is instead a wave, a wave of talent that is starting to engulf NASCAR.

If you want to call it a youth movement you wouldn't be far off. A stellar crop of young drivers has worked their way up NASCAR's feeder system and begun making an impact on the national level.

"I only wish I had the talent those two (Larson and Elliott) have. I think that the future obviously looks very bright for our sport.-Jeff Gordon

While the signs for this infusion of talent have been there for some time, its manifestation has really taken hold in recent weeks. The past two Nationwide Series races have been won by a 21-year-old who has drawn comparisons to Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, and an 18-year-old making just his sixth start in NASCAR's No. 2 division.

That Kyle Larson, 21, and Chase Elliott, 18, have found Victory Lane so quickly is no surprise, as both arrived with pedigrees suggesting success was inevitable.

A sprint car racer from California, Larson has been lauded for his car control and his ability to maximize his equipment to its potential and beyond. Elliott is the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer and 1988 Cup champion Bill Elliott. Like his father, Chase is known for his smoothness behind the wheel, a style that pays dividends over long runs as he just keeps clicking off consistently fast times.

"Kyle Larson is extremely talented, has great car control, really knows how to be aggressive and search the race track," Jeff Gordon said. "I think that Chase has this great balance of those things. They are two amazing talents."

Larson jumped to the Sprint Cup Series after just one full season of Nationwide experience. The decision by car owner Chip Ganassi to promote Larson was met with some skepticism, as there were some who felt he would be best served by spending another year developing in Nationwide rather than being rushed to Cup.

But any doubt that Larson wasn't prepared has been eradicated in just seven races. At Fontana, the day after winning his first Nationwide race by impressively fending off Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, Larson was equally sensational in a late-race charge that netted him a runner-up finish in the Cup main event. This preceded a fifth-place run in Monday's rain-delayed race at Texas.

The question no longer is whether Larson is prepared for Cup, but when this year will he win his first race?

As for Elliott, a senior in high school, his Texas victory not only made him the second-youngest winner in series history, but also moved him to atop the Nationwide championship standings.

"It's pretty awesome to see him succeed," said Dale Earnhardt Jr., Elliott's car owner. "I knew it was just a matter of time. He's got so much ability and composure, and he's just years ahead of guys that normally of that age, and he's learning so fast on the fly. People ask me if I talked to him or tutored him or anything, but he's learning faster than you can teach him what's going on."

Although Larson and Elliott have garnered the majority of the headlines as of late, they are not the only young drivers serving notice.

Larson is one of seven drivers competing for Cup Rookie of the Year honors, a class that includes reigning Nationwide Series champion Austin Dillon, 23, who without the fanfare has quietly had a solid start to his freshman campaign, sitting 12th in points.

In addition to Elliott, the Nationwide rookie contingent includes Dillon's younger brother Ty Dillon, 22, ranked third overall in points, and 18-year-old Dylan Kwasniewski, who won championships in the K&N West and East Series consecutively.

The injection of youth comes at a much-needed time. In recent years NASCAR's popularity with a younger demographic has slowly eroded. In an effort to recapture the attention of Generation Yers, the sanctioning body has enacted numerous changes, including the rollout of the Generation-6 car that's designed to look like something you would see on the street.

But the best way to attract a younger crowd might not involve new cars or sweeping rule changes. It may be as easy as giving millennials someone their own age to root for, which hasn't necessarily happened recently.

Of the 13 drivers who qualified for the Chase for the Championship last season, the average and median age of the participants was 35 at the time the playoffs started.

NASCAR has typically been at its zenith when fans -- new and old alike -- have upstarts to get behind. When Gordon burst onto the scene as a precocious 23-year-old in the early '90s, he ushered in an era of unprecedented popularity for the sport, which included a horde of younger fans who were introduced to stock-car racing.

A similar explosion in popularity occurred from 1999-2006 when rookies such as Tony Stewart, Earnhardt, Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin each ascended to Cup.

That pipeline of young talent, however, has dried up considerably.

Since 2007, a litany of indistinguishable rookies with equally indistinguishable résumés has failed to make much of an impression. Of the previous seven rookie classes, only Juan Pablo Montoya and Joey Logano earned Chase berths. (Brad Keselowski excluded, as he never formally contended for Rookie of the Year, though he would win the 2012 championship at age 28.)

But a sport that has skewed older and grown staid is now getting a rapid makeover thanks to the burgeoning talent of Larson, Elliott and Logano, who is only 23, coming off a win Cup victory at Texas and really just entering his prime. With their ascensions, as well others, comes increased excitement, competition and an aura of unpredictability.

"I only wish I had the talent those two [Larson and Elliott] have," Gordon said. "I think that the future obviously looks very bright for our sport. I'm really excited because they are the ones that are being highlighted, but there are more out there, as well."

By all measures NASCAR's future is filled with great promise. Just as apparent is that future may in fact be now.

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