This story appears in the Sept. 5 edition of ESPN The Magazine
A few weeks ago, Jeff Gordon was making the race-morning walk from his infield motor coach to the Sprint Cup garage when he spotted fellow racers Trevor Bayne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Brad Keselowski in a conversation circle. Gordon, barely one week removed from his 40th birthday, pointed to the group and shook his head. "The young guns -- I used to be one of those. Five years from now, you'll be ignoring me and interviewing them. It's kind of exciting," Gordon said, chuckling. "And a little scary."
It's also long overdue. The past four Cup classes have been so thin that NASCAR contemplated shelving its Rookie of the Year program due to lack of sponsor interest. But now there are fast and sponsor-friendly twentysomethings stocked throughout the sport's top three divisions -- a sudden talent surge that has older drivers constantly checking their rearview mirrors. This at a time when NASCAR brass openly admits it might be time for a youth infusion.
"It's pretty amazing," says Bayne, the 20-year-old who officially announced his generation's arrival by winning the Daytona 500 in one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history. "We've all kind of come up together. It's like going into business with your high school buddies, except you still want to beat them."
Bayne's best friend is Roush Fenway racing teammate Stenhouse Jr., the 23-year-old who's led the Nationwide Series nearly all summer. Stenhouse has earned the love of the grandstand by taking on the role of young hero vs. the moonlighting Sprint Cup bullies. He's also being chased by a pair of 25-year-olds, Reed Sorenson and Justin Allgaier, who sit second and fifth, respectively, in the standings.
In the Camping World Truck Series, which had become NASCAR's de facto Champions Tour, the field is being electrified by 20-year-old Cole Whitt, 21-year-old James Buescher and 21-year-old Austin Dillon, the grandson of legendary NASCAR owner Richard Childress.
What makes this youth drive all the more exciting is that it isn't just coming from the lower ranks. Kyle Busch, 26, is widely considered the most talented driver in the Cup Series, while 2010 Nationwide champ Keselowski, 27, reached near-folk-hero status by winning a Cup race at Pocono four days after breaking his left ankle in a testing crash.
"I have no idea what the average age of our top-10 rankings is in our series," says four-time Trucks champ Ron Hornaday Jr. (It's 30, in case you were wondering.) "But I know that I'm 53 and Todd Bodine is 47, and we're a couple of champions who are hanging onto the bottom of the top 10 looking up at a bunch of kids. That's different."
It is and it isn't. A young racer's progression through ARCA, Trucks, Nationwide and ultimately to Cup used to be a well-worn path. Even legends such as Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace were forced to bide their time in minor league rides. But after the immediate success of unproven drivers like Gordon and Tony Stewart in the 1990s, followed by Jimmie Johnson in 2002, that ladder was replaced by an express elevator. All of a sudden, team owners and sponsors rushed youngsters into Cup rides and started signing teenage phenoms to development contracts.
"Looking back, we created two logjams," says Stewart, the 1999 Rookie of the Year. "Young guys got into these deals they couldn't get out of, so they couldn't move anywhere. And in the Cup Series, there was nowhere to put them because those rides were filled up with guys like me who didn't have any plans to retire anytime soon."
Now the Cup gridlock is loosening, whether the vets want it to or not. They're being pushed out to pasture by lack of performance, age or both. (See Elliott Sadler, who was bumped down to Nationwide by AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose.) All those kids who were inked while still in high school are growing impatient with the incubation process. Instead of sitting and waiting for rides to come open, they appear prepared to seize them.
"This is a cyclical sport," says NASCAR president Mike Helton. "There's a sort of natural transition, a purge, that takes place from time to time. And as we all have to accept at some point in our lives, the older we get, time becomes less and less on our side."
"If you win races, everything will take care of itself," Allgaier says. "Win races and they can't ignore you. Don't win races and you give them an excuse to replace you with someone else. Our group is winning races right now. We'll all keep pushing from below until the ice finally breaks."
The first cracks are already starting to show.
Ryan McGee is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.