By Steven Taranto – Follow at @STaranto92
March 6, 2017
Kyle Larson could not have been in a better position to win Sunday’s Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. When race leader Kevin Harvick was caught speeding on pit road after a dominant performance, Larson inherited the race lead for the final restart with 11 laps to go. With the benefit of clean air and clear racetrack, all Larson had to do was keep Brad Keselowski at bay to claim the second victory of his young career.
Then, inexplicably, Larson began running the high line, giving Keselowski the preferred line on the inside of the racetrack. Keselowski took advantage of the free racetrack Larson gave him, and motored by Larson with seven laps to go, taking the checkered flag and handing the youngster from California yet another frustrating loss.
The fact that Larson lost yet another race he was in position to win is frustrating not only for him and his team, but it is no doubt frustrating for NASCAR itself. NASCAR has invested heavily in its current crop of young drivers, entrusting them with the sport’s future – Particularly as it pertains to attracting new fans and becoming the faces of NASCAR when presented to mainstream America.
NASCAR’s investment in its young stars is tangible and readily apparent. Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Darrell Wallace Jr., and Daniel Suarez will all play roles in Disney-Pixar’s “Cars 3”. Blaney and Wallace have a prominent role in Nickelodeon’s NASCAR: Hammer Down. Elliott was featured heavily in promotions for Sunday’s race at Atlanta.
But in spite of NASCAR’s efforts to push their next generation to prominence, something important is missing: Trips to Victory Lane. In late-race scenarios, NASCAR’s young stars have proven to be snakebit or otherwise un-clutch. In his fourth full-time season, Larson only has a single victory at Michigan in August of last year. Elliott and Blaney have yet to win Cup races. All three came within a few gasps of fuel of winning the Daytona 500.
The argument could be made that Victory Lane badly needs an infusion of youth on a regular basis. Since Larson’s victory at Michigan last year, all Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races have been won by a driver who has raced full-time on the circuit since 2009. While the consistent triumphs of veteran drivers like Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, and Daytona 500-winner Kurt Busch should not be downplayed, the fact remains that the time for the drivers of the 2000s to capture the imagination of race fans and outsiders alike has come and gone. As USA Today’s Brant James lamented after the Daytona 500, the 38-year old Busch’s victory was less likely to generate outside interest and appeal the way a victory by Elliott, Larson, or Blaney might have.
There is plenty to like about NASCAR’s next generation. They are talented, telegenic, and the first of the “digital” era of drivers. But race fans and sports fans alike respond to winners more than they do to potential. And while they have shown to be more than capable of running near the front, drivers like Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott have yet to break out and make their cases to be NASCAR’s next transcendent superstar – Something the sport desperately needs with the recent retirements of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.
As NASCAR continues to re-imagine itself into something young and exciting, it is depending on a great deal of help from their youngest drivers. It is about time that NASCAR’s newest stars answer the call and start winning consistently as opposed to coming up short in late-race situations.