2022 Daytona 500 ushers in next generation of drivers in age of Next Gen cars

Harrison Burton, who's just 20, will make his Daytona 500 debut Sunday. James Gilbert/Getty Images

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- While the main conversation at Daytona International Speedway this week has revolved around NASCAR's new Next Gen race car, and rightfully so, another next generational movement is taking place behind the wheel of that car.

With all due respect to the machines the sanctioning body has touted as a vehicle that will drive the sport forward, it's the wave of young drivers piloting those machines who will be the quite literal face of stock car racing's future. More accurately, faces, plural. Because there sure are a lot of them, and man, they sure are young.

Like the new car, the new drivers look cool. They look slick. They look fast. And very much like the new car, the new drivers are also much cheaper to put onto the racetrack than the older models. Can they perform as expected? They did one year ago, and that's why we're seeing so many more of them this year.

"It's the circle of life, right?" observed Joey Logano, a man who has made a nice life driving in circles and who obviously has kids that watch a lot of Disney Plus. It was he who was anointed "Sliced Bread" at the age of 15, because ageless NASCAR legend Mark Martin had seen him race and declared that's what the kid would be greater than.

"When I got to the Cup Series in 2008, I was 18 and even when I got into my 20's people talked about how young I was for the sport, some said too young. Now I'm an old guy, and I'm 31! When I came along, 31 was the young guy."

These days, being 31 in NASCAR's top series seems like the kind of credentials that would earn someone a part in the new "Jurassic Park" movie, as one of the dinosaurs. While no one believes the future Hall of Famer likes of Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski and the other used-to-be-the-kids set are done winning races, even they all acknowledge they are closer to the end of their driving careers than the beginning.

Hamlin and Keselowski have already started transitioning into their futures as team owners. Late last fall, Harvick hinted heavily on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s podcast that he could be done when his current contract expires at the end of 2023. Kyle Busch ... OK, he's probably never retiring. But older brother Kurt is 43 and had taken on the role of wise old veteran mentor for 28-year-old Bubba Wallace at Hamlin's Team 23XI.

When the green flag drops on Sunday's Daytona 500, more than half of drivers in the 40-car field will be younger than 30. This is not a new trend. In fact, this will be the fourth consecutive year the majority on the starting grid in the Great American Race is made up of racers in their 20s.

"I remember being in the garage as a kid and thinking that everyone seemed so much older than athletes I saw in other sports," recalls Harrison Burton, 20. "When my dad (Jeff Burton, a 21-time Cup Series winner) came along in the 1990's, the ladder was that you had to spend years in the lower series and then years in underfunded Cup cars before you earned the right to get into a good ride."

Burton will make his Daytona 500 debut driving the fabled No. 21 Ford owned by the Wood Brothers, a team that has been competing at Daytona since NASCAR was still racing on the beach. His disbelief comes through in his laugh as he discusses it.

"I am glad that business model has changed," Burton said. "Otherwise, I wouldn't have this chance. And I can introduce you to a lot of other guys this weekend who are glad about that, too."

They aren't hard to find, and like Burton, many are in iconic rides. Like Chase Briscoe, 27, in the No. 14 Ford formerly driven by his boss, Tony Stewart. Erik Jones, 25, is in Richard Petty's No. 43 Chevy. And Austin Cindric, 23, in the No. 2 Penske Racing Ford that was driven to greatness by Rusty Wallace, Kurt Busch and Keselowski, who left the ride during the offseason to become a driver/owner at Roush Fenway Racing.

"I have had people ask me if this some sort of roll of the dice, betting on youth," Roger Penske said earlier this month, speaking of Cindric (who is also the son of team president Tim Cindric), 28-year-old Ryan Blaney and even Logano, who was 23 and already labeled by some as a bust when he joined the team in 2013. "We owners have all been doing this for a while and we've all had some pretty significant success. So, there isn't a one of us who is going to throw some kid into a seat if we don't really believe they can perform. And I believe if you go back and look at the record, you'll find that for the most part, they have."

Yes, they have. While the 2022 rookies are just now getting rolling, the 2021 scoresheet had a definite feeling of youthfulness. Seven drivers under 30 won at least one race and 22 of the 36 points-paying races.

"I remember when I was the 'Young Gun' and now I'm the boss of the young guns," joked Jeff Gordon, who left the TV booth last summer to become vice chairman of Hendrick Motorsports, the team with which he first won a Cup race at the tender age of 23 and went to earn 92 more wins and four championships. "Back then, there was a push maybe too soon to get young guys into cars and when they didn't perform, everyone backed off that. Now these (young drivers) are so smart and so accomplished, they are just better prepared than we were, talent-wise and maturity. So, handing them these cars and teams, that's not the crazy risk it used to be. They are ready."

Yes, they are. The front row for Sunday's 500 will be occupied by Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kyle Larson, 29, and Alex Bowman, 28. They are oldest members of the four-car HMS roster. The others are Chase Elliott, 26, and William Byron, 24. After decades of having a stable built around veterans, this is easily the youngest that NASCAR's superpower team has ever skewed. They've rewarded team owner Rick Hendrick with back-to-back Cups (Elliott in '20, Larson in '21), and last year alone the quartet combined for 17 wins, multiple victories from Larson (10), Bowman (4) and Elliott (2) while all four cars made NASCAR's postseason field of 16.

The truth is that we have come to Daytona touting the arrival of the next generation of drivers before, and did it too soon. Who can forget the age gap throwdown that dominated the 2018 NASCAR preseason media tour, when NASCAR rolled out marketing centered around the likes of Blaney and Wallace, only to receive a "WTH we're still here!" response from, among others, Kyle Busch and Harvick. They proceeded to dominate the regular season, both earning eight race wins.

But this time, it just feels different.

"What's different is the result on the racetrack," explained Wallace, who earned his first career Cup win at Talladega last October. "It's one thing to get a chance. It's another thing to capitalize on that chance. When I look back on 2021, I see a lot of young guys who did that. Now we have to keep doing it. If not, there will be another group of younger guys ready to take over."

The oval of life.