NASCAR’s young guns shooting blanks

LONG POND — Kyle Busch tossed his son into the air at Texas. Clint Bowyer waited for his toddler to run toward him with open arms at Martinsville. Kevin Harvick rested his hands on his son’s shoulders as they gazed at a trophy in Atlanta.

Hey, who says the young kids in NASCAR can’t celebrate in victory lane?

OK, in the sagging sport’s version of that story, it’s the ballyhooed youth movement that would have paid dividends with checkered flags and publicity bursts as NASCAR nears the halfway point.

But NASCAR is still very much a veteran driver’s game.

Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott each won qualifying races in Speedweeks for the Daytona 500, seemingly setting the stage for the new generation to take the reins in 2018. And who won the pole for Daytona? Yup, 25-year-old Alex Bowman in his debut race for Hendrick Motorsports.

The sizzling starts haven’t carried over as the season nears the midway point. Elliott, winless in 90 career starts, has three top-five finishes this season.

Bowman, 0 for 94, has just one top five in ’18.

“I haven’t had one (car) feel like what I want so far this year because we haven’t won yet,” Bowman said. “I don’t think I’m going to have one that I like until we win, but we are getting closer.”

Bowman finished a solid ninth last week at the Coca-Cola 600 in his best career finish on an intermediate track. Bowman said he hasn’t felt stress from replacing the retired Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Chevrolet. But rather, the burden comes from failing to bring home trophies for one of the most storied organizations in NASCAR history.

“Hendrick Motorsports is known for winning races and winning championships and that is what I’m expected to do,” Bowman said. “I think most of my pressure comes from myself and the fact that I just want to win races and prove that I can do it.”

As the series shifts to Pocono Raceway, Blaney’s win for the Wood Brothers last June marked the last time a driver won his first career Cup race. Sure, there have been close calls and blown leads and bad breaks.

Darrell Wallace Jr., Erik Jones, William Byron, the list goes on of 20-something drivers stuck with the 0 in the win column.

It’s rare at Pocono for a driver to break through for his first career Cup victory.

Jeremy Mayfield (June 1998), Denny Hamlin (June 2006), Chris Buescher (August 2016) and Blaney all scored their first wins on the tri-oval track nestled in the mountains.

Blaney’s win ended a five-race stretch last season that included first-time winners Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon. Stenhouse and Dillon, the 2018 Daytona 500 champion, each won again.

The rest of the list reads like much like it has for most of the last five years; Harvick and Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin headline the drivers with multiple victories since last June.

The 42-year-old Harvick and 33-year-old Busch, each former series champions, have nine of the 13 wins in Cup this season.