The Youth Movement Has Arrived
Let's review a timeline of 2018.
January - NASCAR's promotion of young talent riles veteran drivers who disagree with NASCAR's promotion of young, and relatively unproven, talent.
June - Halfway through the NASCAR regular season, veteran drivers and their fans feel vindicated. The youth movement has failed to deliver.
July - Erik Jones scores his first career victory at Daytona.
August - Chase Elliott wins his first Cup Series race at Watkins Glen.
Playoff Season - The Youth Movement wins when it matters.
For a while NASCAR's dollars spent in promotion of young talent seemed to be wasted money. Steve Phelps, now NASCAR president, explained during the pre-season that the focus on promoting young talent was intended to ensure that fans were familiar with rising stars before they started winning. When Cup Series sophomore Jones won at Daytona, he wasn't an unknown. NASCAR's plan worked.
While Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr. dominated the regular season storyline, the youth movement emergence has developed into a major plot twist during the playoffs.
Ryan Blaney, 24, and Chase Elliott, 22, each scored unexpected playoff victories in the first 5 races of the 2018 playoffs.
The oldest winner so far in the 2018 playoffs is Brad Keselowski at 34. In 2017, 6 of the 10 playoff races were won by a driver older than 34.
No playoff races in 2017 were won by a driver under the age of 30. Two of the first five have been won by a driver under 30. In the last decade the only other drivers under 30 to win playoff races are Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, and Denny Hamlin. Kyle Busch had 1 playoff (then Chase) victory under the age of 30, at Phoenix in 2005 when he wasn't a playoff contender.
The most startling indicator of the arrival of the youth movement may be the sharp decline in the average age of a playoff winner. In 2018 the average age of a playoff winner is 29.4. In 2017 that average age was 36.3.
Harvick, Truex, and other veterans will continue to lead laps, win, and create challenges for NASCAR's youth movement. But when racing history looks back at when this generation of racers came into their own, it will look at the second half of 2018.