Years Down The Road: The Complexion Of NASCAR Sprint Cup Racing
Every aspect of society has a cycle of life, in which various individuals fill certain roles with degrees of expectations. Some are expected to immediately find success at a young age while others persevere through difficult times, either excelling years down the road or struggling in their efforts.
NASCAR's no different in that it has its share of superstars, decent fillers, and underdog occupants who captivate the few or experience the wrath of others.
Since 1948, the highest form of stock car racing is susceptible to cycles in its sport, with talents changing in as little as a few races to years down the road.
One look at the roster of full-time, championship gunning teams tells the tale of how the series has finally reached the point in which most of its stars are aging.
They're not terribly old but circumstances, such as family life, the dangers on the track, to declining skills, are critical and at the very least, something to think about.
While retirement is not something in the vocabulary of Jeff Gordon or Mark Martin, it's not foolish to think that both successful racers are thinking about their long-term future and their roles in the sport.
Do they keep on pressing for full-season campaigns until they reach the point of obscurity or hang up the helmet with their tremendous abilities behind the wheel that's sufficient for wins and titles?
Before the "New Wave" of NASCAR, which I coin as the period since Gordon entered the Cup series in 1992, the sport wasn't exactly a young lion's wilderness or Madison Avenue on four wheels and 750 horsepower.
Rather, it was a hotly contested game of wild-eyed Southern "boys," if you will, with drivers ranging from anywhere in their late 20s to early 60s going at it, beating the hell out of each other if it meant going for victories.
Guys like Bill Elliott, Harry Gant, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Ricky Rudd, Dale Jarrett, Rusty Wallace, and Geoff Bodine were your typical contenders, sprinkled in with hot shoes like Davey Allison, Kyle Petty, Mark Martin, and Ernie Irvan.
Each of those racers weren't exactly screaming the looks and youthfulness of Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch, or Denny Hamlin, but they were certainly the prominent figures of the time.
Everyone who was a part of the circuit during that era knew all too well that a new revolution of racers were going to make their way into the sport, in which NASCAR would also change too in terms of its complexity, dynamics, and persona with the fans and media.
Today, it's a mini-concert, a circus, soap opera, game show, and billboard contest of four hours with some of the young guns of the 1990s now serving as the ambassadors into a sport that's changed tremendously.
No longer is Jeff Gordon considered "The Kid," now fathering daughter Ella Sofia and a son whom wife Ingrid is expecting this August.
For some new-school fans, Jeff Burton's the politician, if you will, of the sport, who doesn't mind venting or speaking his concerns about the latest changes to the sport.
While he errs on the side of non-confrontation, the passionate South Boston, Va., native isn't one to easily fall into the category of an oldie, as he's one of the most aggressive and tenacious drivers on the circuit.
Years down the road, when the calendar displays years like 2012 and beyond, this sport will undoubtedly have a far different feel and aura.
Will it continue to be the expensive yet maddeningly popular sport that still rebuilds and rebrands itself during its struggles or will it return to its prominence of the 1990s?
Certainly, the Cup series will be stacked with talent, as Nationwide regulars and hot shoes like Justin Allgaier, Colin Braun, Landon Cassill, Parker Kligerman, Brian Scott, Jason White, Timothy Peters, and James Buescher looking to take aim at the upper echelon of closed-wheel motorsports.
Whether all of these names comprise the circuit in the long-term scheme of NASCAR remains to be seen, but just imagine any of these prospects racing in established rides?
Allgaier and Kligerman are currently under the tutelage of Roger Penske, who certainly knows a thing or two about winning in all kinds of racing series, be it the IZOD IndyCar ranks or sports car divisions across the globe.
There's no doubt that either of these two talents will see action in the Sprint Cup Series at some point in the decade.
Braun's had somewhat of a learning experience in the Nationwide division for Roush-Fenway Racing's No. 16 Con-Way Freight Ford Fusion entry, seeing his highlight reels more for wrecks than great performances.
Still, the road racing sensation and stock car apprentice has the potential to become quite the star when one of those seats with the perennial organization opens up sometime down the road.
Cassill has been somewhat bounced around as a Chevy Racing talent, never seemingly able to find a true home in the "AAA" of NASCAR. Perhaps with some races under the JR Motorsports banner, the 20-year-old racer may impress his current employer or another team on the circuit that he'll carry them to Victory Lane.
NASCAR's certainly in good hands when it comes to churning up fresh, young talents who may certainly become superstars in their own right.
If the sport truly lives up to its reputation as progressing in all aspects, that may open the doors for a racer like Sergio Pena, Darrell Wallace Jr., Caitlin Shaw, Tiff Daniels, or Shannon McIntosh to see the asphalt arenas of America.
Progress isn't certainly a bad thing, despite the sentimental values each cycle carries with its legions of audiences, essayists and participants.
While we tend to look back and appreciate the "good old days," the future, despite a somewhat stormy present, looks about as bright as the sunrise hovering over the aging asphalt on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway.
It may be "Surf's Up" (a nod to a Brian Wilson/Van Dyke Parks song for the Beach Boys) for Gordon, Martin, Burton, and others down the line, but it'll be "Surfin' USA" (for all you Mike Love fans) for the unknown rookies, winners, and champions just waiting for their moment to arrive.
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