A quick look through the driver rosters of some of the top teams in the NASCAR Cup Series shows that there is a definite trend toward younger drivers. Over the past few years, some of the sport’s biggest stars have retired and been subsequently replaced by their teams with up-and-comers who, in some cases, are half the age of the race winners they are stepping in for.
Some of those changes are a natural shift that is bound to occur over time as the established racers get older and younger drivers who have risen through the ranks take their places. But another factor seems to have come into play in recent years as the rising costs of running a NASCAR organization have motivated owners to seek out ways of cutting expenses. One way management has found to reduce costs in this very expensive business is to hire drivers who come with lower price tags.
Going into 2020, Brad Keselowski entered the final year of his contract with Team Penske. At 36 years of age, the Rochester Hills, MI native had reached the time in his career at which drivers had, in the past, been offered lucrative contracts that would extend over multiple years as teams could count on the experience level and past accomplishments of the driver in question to deliver great results for several seasons to come.
Ultimately, however, Keselowski signed only a one-year extension with Team Penske which puts him in the same place going into the 2021 season that he was in one year ago. During his recent media availability for the upcoming Daytona 500, the 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion addressed the subject of less expensive younger drivers and smaller contracts for their more experienced counterparts.
“Well, I think there’s been, obviously, a fair amount of not just talk on the media side, but actual movement within the sport with car owners transitioning to younger, and quite frankly, less compensated drivers,” Keselowski pointed out in a teleconference with media members. “I think in some ways that’s been really good for me and in some ways that’s been really bad for me. It’s obviously bad because it lowers the market, but it’s also been good because, quite frankly, they’re not winning.”
A look at the list of last season’s NASCAR Cup Series winners goes a long way toward proving Keselowski’s point. Only one driver under the age of 30 won multiple races in 2020 with that being, of course, 25-year-old champion Chase Elliott.
The 30 and over crowd dominated in terms of races wins with Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, and Joey Logano all visiting victory lane on multiple occasions. Add to that list proven winners Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Martin Truex, Jr., who each won a single race in 2020, and those older stars combined to take 26 of the 36 available checkered flags.
“If you want to win races, it’s pretty clear that there’s only about six drivers that can consistently win multiple races in Cup,” the veteran driver added. “It’s nice to be on that list. I think I’ve won multiple races the last five or six seasons so I feel good about going out there and my ability to do that again in 2021. I think if I focus on performing, and the way the market is right now, with there only being a very select amount of drivers who can consistently win multiple races, I feel like it will take care of itself.”
Keselowski has won multiple races in eight of his Cup Series seasons and in five consecutive campaigns.
So has the overall talent level of Cup drivers dropped off in recent years?
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that it’s changed, the driver market has changed,” Keselowski replied. “You look at the last four five years and look at the drivers who have retired- Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.- and I know I’m missing somebody. But these are really good drivers. These drivers have a bunch of championships, Daytona 500s, marquee race wins, they’re irreplaceable in a lot of ways.”
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With drivers being rushed to the top level faster than ever before, is it hurting the quality of the product?
“I think if you look at the feeder series, and the way they’ve kind of changed over the last few years, it’s made it to where it’s harder to come up through those series and get the experiences you need to be successful in Cup,” the 34-time Cup Series race winner stated. “All of those things have culminated to a pretty stark market contrast now than what it was five years ago. Like I said, in some ways that’s good and in some ways that bad for me personally. As for the sport overall, I’m not sure I have a right or wrong on that but it’s definitely a shift and we’ll see how that affects everything going forward.”
When asked if negotiations are currently underway with Team Penske regarding another contract extension, Keselowski offered a brief statement.
“We’re working with Team Penske as we speak.”
All Photos: Getty Images
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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