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Love those baby-faced drivers

NASCAR racers – from Monster Cup to Truck Series – went back to work this week. The season-opening Daytona 500 is Feb. 18, and qualifying for “The Great American Race” (weather permitting) is Sunday.

And, if Mother Nature is not fickle, we’ll also see the season’s first exhibition: The Clash, a staple of NASCAR Speed Weeks for almost 40 years.

Martin Truex Jr. and upstart Furniture Row Racing will climb back behind the wheel of Truex’ No. 78 Toyota and have plenty of eyes on him to see if 2017 was a fluke, or if it’s time to take these boys from Colorado for real.

How real? Truex led nearly every statistical category in 2017, including waving a series-leading eight checkered flags.

That Furniture Row has gone back to a one-car operation tells a lot about what the off-season has been like for the circuit. Erik Jones, who had been Furniture Row’s other driver, gets Matt Kenseth’s old ride at Joe Gibbs Racing. If you read one of my earlier columns you know Kenseth retired, even if he didn’t want to.

Kenseth wasn’t alone: Danica Patrick lost her ride, making the Daytona 500 her final NASCAR race, and Kasey Kahne was forced out at Hendrick Motorsports and took a lesser job with Leavine Family Racing (who??).

We’ve been over Dale Earnhardt Jr. walking away from the sport, at least the behind-the-wheel racing portion, ad nauseum. You must’ve been under a hood a long time if this is news to you.

Who’ll replace Junior as NASCAR’s Most-Popular-Driver? Well, most folks are touting Chase Elliott. His dad, Bill, owned the Most Popular moniker before Junior came along. Chase also races for Hendrick Motorsports, which is a pretty good pedigree, too. And, this year, owner Rick Hendrick is giving Chase his father’s old No. 9.

One thing about Chase, though, he’s gotta win some races. Going goose-egg in the winner’s circle was okay his first couple of years, but as the fresh-face of NASCAR’s ‘youth movement’, he now has to find his way to Victory Lane.

While some teams are streamlining, Team Penske has expanded to three cars to add Ryan Blaney to its lineup. Close friend Bubba Wallace got a promotion to the Cup Series this season, too; he will drive the second most famous number in NASCAR (to No. 3, of course), the No. 43 of Richard Petty Motorsports.

Talk about diversity in this sport, Wallace is the first black driver to win a national series NASCAR race since 1963; and Daniel Suarez, the only Mexican driver in the Cup Series, makes up the other half of Joe Gibbs’ lineup.

Speaking of diversity, with NASCAR’s push to spotlight the fresh faces, a title sponsor that appeals to young people, the fans will be the big winners this year because the younger drivers are more accessible, and the veterans are aware of the need for increased fan engagement.

Wallace said newer drivers have to build brands and find sponsorship, unlike drivers of the past 10 years when nobody’s could grab the wheel of fully-funded rides on the promise of future success. Very few drivers have just one primary sponsor anymore; most owners now have to work their budget calculators and split their season between various funding roles. How about six different sponsors for six different races?

Want another sign this sport is skewing younger from the race shop up to the boardroom? 26-year-old Truck series driver Ben Kennedy, great-grandson of the sport’s founder Bill France Sr., stopped racing to become NASCAR’s general manager of the Truck Series. Something you can do when your uncle is Chairman Brian France and Lesa France Kennedy is your mom.

What’s that commercial where kids in suits sit around a boardroom table chatting it up speaking in adult voices while munching on candy? Look out NASCAR, you may be next.

 

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.