Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – All the upsides of youth – high expectations and hard work – have produced a subplot in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship run that both creates intrigue and promises a bright future.
As the regular season portion of the year continues to wind down with Sunday’s Go Bowling at The Glen on the scenic Watkins Glen International road course (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) a real Playoff push by the sport’s young drivers have created exactly the kind of competitive drama, people expect and appreciate of the young talents.
Six racers aged 26 or younger are currently ranked among the Cup Series’ top-16 eligible to transfer into the Playoffs in September – eighth place Chase Elliott, 10th place Ryan Blaney and Alex Bowman, William Byron, Erik Jones and Kyle Larson who are currently 11-14th in the series driver standings.
Among those six, Larson is the oldest at 26 and Byron is the youngest at 21. The average age of those six drivers is only 24.
What they may lack in pure Cup experience they make up for in gumption, motivation and skill. And it’s all been on full display especially in this current Playoff push.
Jones finished runner-up to his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, while Byron earned his second top-five of the year with a fourth-place showing and Larson finished fifth – his third top five in the last five races.
On the year, Jones has 11 top 10s through 21 races in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Only four other drivers (Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Hamlin) have more top-five finishes than Jones’ seven – and there are 13 wins among that quartet of drivers.
Jones has finished third, third and second in the last three series races and has five top 10s in the last six races. A month ago, Jones appeared to be on shaky ground in the 2019 championship run and now he’s absolutely, consistently performing as a viable title contender.
He earned his first and only Monster Energy Series victory in last year’s summer Daytona race and with this kind of career year, Jones has got to feel the next trophy hoist is so close.
“It’s good to get another top-three run,” Jones said Sunday, obviously encouraged by his recent work. “We’ve just got to break through. Once we get that first one, I think we can click off a few here.”
Byron, who finished fourth at Pocono, has three top-10 finishes in the last five races including a career best runner-up showing at Daytona. At 21-years old, the driver the of No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet reminds many of one of the car’s previous young talents – NASCAR Hall of Famer and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon.
In only his second Cup season, Byron has won three pole positions and earned seven top-10 finishes. That’s more than doubled his top-10 output of last season (three). And he’s led 180 laps through the first 21 races – triple the number of laps he led in all of his 2018 rookie year.
Byron is ranked 12th in the standings – 62 points up on 17th place Jimmie Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate and a seven-time series champion, currently the first driver outside the Playoff cutoff.
At only 26-years old, Larson is essentially the “veteran” of this particular group of young Playoff contenders. A five-time series race winner he concedes he’s still looking for his first 2019 win and says he’s had to adjust his championship strategy of late.
“Consistency is probably what we need to do the most to gain points, but then you know, if a win is there for the taking, we’re definitely going to try to win,” Larson said. “But we also can’t do anything too crazy in terms of fuel strategy or things like that, that could cost us if it doesn’t work out.
“Obviously, we’d like to not be close to the Playoff bubble because then we could call our races a little differently, but that’s just the box we’re in.”
That mindset was effective this past weekend at Pocono, where Larson added to a solid statistical season that includes eight top-10 finishes and four top-fives. The most recent top five runs include his fifth place at Pocono , a fourth place at Kentucky and a runner-up in Chicago – all in the last five weeks.
And judging by the series’ most recent visit to the challenging Watkins Glen road course, there’s every reason to believe the current output from these drivers is also a sign of things to come. For this season and many beyond.
Elliott is the defending race winner, Jones was fifth, Larson was sixth and Byron was eighth at The Glen last year. And with a summer stretch like these young drivers are having, confidence and expectation are high heading to upstate New York.
“It was a good day, it was a lot better car than I thought I was going to have so it just goes to show how good our team is right now and how good our cars are,” Larson said of this top-five work in a back-up car from the rear of the grid on Sunday.
“Last week, I felt like we had one of the fastest cars and we didn’t get to show it. Today (Sunday), I felt like we were one of the fastest cars. If I could just race a primary car, who knows what we could do. I just have to clean up a little bit of what I’m doing in practice and the races and hopefully we can get a win.”