Splitter to Spoiler: Youth uprising is exactly what NASCAR needs for future

Larsons third win continues huge run for young guns, Truex still quietly building toward playoffs, time to quit questioning JGR

Mike Dinovo—USA Today Sports
Kyle Larson during qualifying for the FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

Two years ago, Jeff Gordon stepped away from NASCAR. Last season was Tony Stewart’s swan song. Prior to this season getting underway, Carl Edwards announced he was stepping away. Then two months ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver, announced he will retire after 2017.That seemingly leaves a gaping hole for NASCAR, right? Not if you ask the latest youth movement in the sport.Kyle Larson’s win on Sunday at Michigan was the third of his career after going winless in his first 98 races. His win marked a fifth race out of the last seven that was won by a driver under the age of 30, including first-time winners in Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon and Ryan Blaney.”I think everybody is kind of nervous about where it’s going to be,” Larson explained, “but I think a lot of us, our fan bases are going to grow as well as NASCAR’s fan base.”Even with so many legends exiting the sport, Larson isn’t concerned with the state of the sport given the success of himself and fellow young guns.”Yeah, I keep saying that NASCAR is in a great, great spot,” Larson said. “Even with Dale Jr. retiring this year, I think it’s a huge opportunity for our sport. Dale Jr. has probably three‑quarters of our fan base. You might lose a few thousand of his fans that might disappear. The rest of them are going to pick new drivers.”I think new rivalries are going to be built. It’s going to bring some excitement back to the racetrack.”Outside of his two wins, Larson also has five second-place results and ran out of gas while leading on the final lap to lose the Daytona 500. He shares that last distinction with Chase Elliott, who finished second behind Larson on Sunday in Michigan.Both Larson and Elliott appear to be at the forefront of the fledgling fan bases in NASCAR when Earnhardt exits given that both drive for Chevrolet and Elliott is a Hendrick Motorsports driver. All Elliott lacks is a win, but he hasn’t been far off and certainly has the equipment to get to Victory Lane soon.Just behind those two are the likes of Blaney, Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones, each of which are in great equipment with winning teams. While Logano might be in that discussion at just 27 years old, he likely isn’t gaining or losing fans with the recent retirements given his veteran status.Less than two months ago, I wrote that the remainder of this year was a crucial time for NASCAR to persuade that there are drivers Junior fans can latch onto after he calls it quits prior to the 2018 season. In that span, we’ve seen three first-time winners and Kyle Larson remains at the top of the points standings.Yeah, that’s pretty persuasive on the part of the young guns in the sport.Truex building toward playoffsMartin Truex Jr. doesn’t have the most wins this year. That belongs to Jimmie Johnson with three.Truex doesn’t even have the best average finish. That belongs to Kyle Larson, who leads him by five points at the top of the standings.What Truex does have is the most laps led in the Monster Energy Cup Series with 871, which is 264 more than Larson after Michigan. In past seasons, that wouldn’t mean much more than just a useful stat telling of how dominant Truex has been during races.This season, thanks to the stage system, it means much more.With his massive number of laps led, Truex has already won 10 stages through the first 15 races. Throw in his two wins — good for five playoff points apiece — and Truex has a comfortable lead with 20 playoff points, each of which will carry over into the postseason and reset after every round.”The 78 was by far the class of the field, I thought,” Larson said of Truex. “I know I led a lot of laps. Seemed like whenever he wanted to get the lead, he hit a nitro button and would cruise up to the lead, then check out. He was the class of the field.”No offense to Larson, but Truex and Furniture Row Racing have been the class of the field in nearly every race for more than a month.In the last five points races dating back to Truex’s win in Kansas, the No. 78 machine has finished no worse than sixth with an average result of 3.8. Oh, and he’s led 506 laps — an average of 101.2 per race — during that span.Truex was already a contender coming into the season, but the new stage system has been perfect for a driver who is looking to lead the Cup Series in laps led for a second straight year. Expect Truex to ride that momentum earned in the regular season to at least a spot in the final four at Homestead-Miami.No need to question Joe Gibbs RacingFifteen races into the season, Joe Gibbs Racing has no wins. Headlined by the experienced trio of Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth along with rookie standout Daniel Suarez, the normally dominant juggernaut has fallen short of ensuring itself a spot in the playoffs past the midway point in the season.So JGR has to be on the brink of a disastrous season, right? Nope. Not even close.Of the four drivers in the Gibbs stable, the aforementioned veterans are all inside the top 11 in the points standings. Busch, who has four stage wins this season, came up just short of a win for a second straight race due to a debris caution.Hamlin, who is currently ninth overall in points, is confident the wins are coming for JGR.”Everything we needed to do we did,” Hamlin said. “Had one little hiccup on pit road, but for the most part, we ran really well all day, had good speed in our Camry and pretty happy. … I mean, you keep battling in the top-five and eventually you’ll have your chance.”In order for young drivers and first-time winners to reach Victory Lane, some teams have to suffer. To this point, the sport has already seen three first-time winners and a pair of victories from Larson. The wins are coming for Gibbs, and when they get the first, the second, third and fourth won’t be far behind.