By the numbers: NASCAR heads toward playoffs

Commentary

With summer quickly winding down, NASCAR’S Monster Energy Cup Series is gearing up for what could be an exciting post-season. The only question will be — will anyone care?

Two regular-season races remain with Kevin Harvick leading the playoff standings as one of a dozen teams whose spot is secured. Among them, five former series champions: Harvick, Kurt and Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and defending title-holder Martin Truex Jr.

Resting on the bubble is seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson, who would just make the field if the playoffs went green today. Johnson and Harvick would be the elder statesmen in the playoff field at the ripe old age of 42. (The average age of the playoff-bound drivers is just over 31.)

This playoff season may illustrate the true changing-of-the-guard, and it’s not just good ol’ boys anymore. NASCAR needs this crop of young guns to reinvigorate the sport for the future: guys like Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Austin Dillon, Ryan Blaney — all of whom have yet to celebrate their 25th birthday.

Millennials are infiltrating workplaces everywhere, and stock car racing is no exception. This generation of technology-savvy superstars (Chase Elliott alone has more than 806,000 Twitter followers) have a chance to reach out directly to their fan base via tweets and snapchats, provided their peers are interested in hearing what they have to say.

This next-racing-generation in some ways offer the best of both worlds – Elliott appeals to long-time racing fans as the son of a sixteen-time “Most Popular Driver” honoree, as well as a new crop of followers; Ryan Blaney should command a multi-generational audience here in Pennsylvania — his Dad Dave and grandfather Lou Blaney raced throughout the Northeast, and Lou even won a race at the Bedford Fairgrounds in 1966.

As NASCAR has evolved to make the sport more exciting and more watchable, it’s become more and more fragmented and complicated. But these straight-talking millennial drivers, who speak to fans as well as give shout-outs to their sponsors, may be just what the sport needs.

With still-young, popular drivers like 43-year old Dale Earnhardt Junior talking NASCAR from the broadcast booth and Kasey Kahne (age 38) and Elliott Sadler (43) announcing their retirement after this season, the shelf life for a racing career seems to be getting shorter, by the drivers’ own desires. There are exciting second-acts for these racers/businessmen, and that may provide fresh eyes to their sport.

But the trend also leaves little chance for another multi-championship driver like Johnson to get any traction in the near future, thus paving the way for a potentially fresh-faced new king to ascend to the throne.

If a 20-something can take the title, they’ll make the talk show rounds while cultivating new fans, friends and followers for a sport that needs to race into the future.

Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at kellie@bedfordcountychamber.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.

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