By Dillon O’Toole
No matter how successful you may be, no one can be at the top of their game forever. In any sport, there comes a time when the veterans become second tier to the up and comers. This transitional period has been in the making over the last several years in both NASCAR and Indycar. An influx of new talent has entered both series in recent years, and this talent has been developing to bring a fight to the old guard of each respective series.
Let’s start with NASCAR. For at least three years now, NASCAR has been hyping up the “youth” movement taking place within the Cup Series (the top series in NASCAR). Younger drivers like Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, William Byron, Daniel Suárez, and Bubba Wallace were all hyped up as the next big thing back in 2018. This is all well and good, except for the fact that the veterans kept beating the younger drivers every week. In fact, even in the 2020 season veteran drivers like Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr, Joey Logano, and Brad Keselowski were winning loads of races compared to the younger drivers.
The hype was built up a little too early for many of the younger drivers who have entered NASCAR in recent years. Only Ryan Blaney had earned a win prior to the start of the 2018 season, and only Elliott, Blaney, and Jones won in 2018. The big problem many of the younger drivers have faced was either an inability to win or a lack of consistency. This problem has been slowly solving itself over time as the drivers have gained more and more experience. This has culminated in the rise of the younger generation of drivers over the second half of 2020 and 2021.
Starting in 2020, Chase Elliott had his breakout year, getting five wins and also winning the championship. The success for the newer drivers only continued in 2021. Elliott continued his success on road courses, Bowman and Blaney both had breakout years, winning four and three times respectively, Byron fixed his consistency issues, and Wallace was able to win his first race. In comparison, the veterans of the sport had a noticeably down year. Truex and Hamlin both remained highly competitive, but Harvick, Logano, and Keselowski all had unremarkable seasons. Also taking away from the veterans success was the eventual champion, Kyle Larson. He racked up ten wins in 2021, and even though he has been in the sport for many years now, this was also a breakout year for him. All in all, after several years developing their talents the members of the most recent youth movement in NASCAR have finally started delivering results.
Now let’s move onto Indycar. Since the early 2000s, Scott Dixon has dominated Indycar, winning a total of six championships between 2003 and 2020. Additionally, other veteran drivers like Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud, and Takuma Sato have been winning races and championships. The success of these drivers has since been lessened due to the new drivers who have entered the series since 2019. These young drivers include Colton Herta, Marcus Ericsson, Patricio “Pato” O’Ward, and Álex Palou. These young drivers all were in title contention in 2021, with all of them finishing in the top six in the championship. In fact, the two main title contenders for much of the season were Palou and O’Ward. Palou eventually came out on top, while O’Ward had some misfortune near the end of the season and finished third. Palau’s championship came in only his second full season, which is quite an impressive feat. Even though Herta and O’Ward didn’t win the championship, both have had speculation involving them moving to Formula 1.
In comparison, the veteran drivers of Indycar had a down year. Pagenaud, Sato, and Hunter-Reay all went winless. Power and Dixon only got one win, although Dixon was still consistent enough to finish fourth in the championship. The youth movement in Indycar adapted rather quickly and has since started pushing out the old guard. It would be safe to assume that these new drivers will only continue to get better with time as well.
The limited number of seats in both NASCAR and Indycar means that there will always be a cycle of drivers moving into and out of the sports. While veteran drivers will likely still continue to race for at least a few more years, they will start seeing less and less success when compared to their prime years. Therefore, it is necessary to accept the new faces within the sports as they will continue to carry the torch of motorsports for years to come.
Chase Elliott’s car
Álex Palou’s car
Thumbnail Credit: FlyByFire, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons