Just about the time people began to notice no driver under the age of 30 had won a Sprint Cup race in 2016, Joey Logano, aged 26, dominated and won the 400-mile race at the Michigan International Speedway. He was followed home by 20-year-old Chase Elliott and 23-year-old Kyle Larson.
"It was probably just coincidence," Logano said of the sudden youth movement. And, he is probably right. Beyond the finish, the day was a reminder that not many drivers under the age of 30 in the Sprint Cup are competing on teams capable of winning races. But the youth movement is gaining momentum.
Elliott, who drives for Hendrick Motorsports, and Larson of the Chip Ganassi-owned Chevy team, continue to knock on the door of Victory Lane. Ryan Blaney, aged 23, is giving Elliott a run for this year's rookie race, which also includes 23-year-old Chris Buescher. (But all was not well with the youth brigade on Sunday. Blaney lost control of his Wood Brothers Ford and hit the wall; Buescher lost control of his Front Row Motorsports Ford and knocked Dale Earnhardt, Jr. into the wall.)
"It's cool to see the future is here," Logano said. "And it's fun for me. Shoot, I'm usually the youngest guy by a long shot, so it's fun to be racing for the win with some guys that are close to my age."
If Elliott wins this year's rookie title, he'll be the youngest since Logano won it at age 19 in 2009. Prior to that, Kyle Busch was the youngest rookie title winner when he won in 2005 at age 20. Since the year 2000, when the now relatively ancient Matt Kenneth won Rookie of the Year at age 28 in a battle with 26-year-old Dale Earnhardt Jr., the average age of the rookie title winner has been 26.
So Elliott's rise to prominence has been exceptional. He has inherited his father Bill's championship smoothness and speed, in addition to benefitting from his dad's coaching and backing with good equipment since he was teenager. But Sunday, he was kicking himself for losing a chance to win for the second week in a row. At the Pocono International Raceway, he tried to get into the lead on the final re-start and ended up third. At Michigan, he was the leader when he missed a shift on the re-start and dropped to fourth behind eventual winner Logano.
"I just did something dumb," he said. "You can't do dumb stuff and win these races. Completely my fault. The guys gave me a great car today. This whole NAPA group has been working so hard these past few weeks and that one was on me."
In addition to being a sign of rare talent, there are more than a few reasons why very young drivers don't make it to stock car racing's major league.
Counting Busch and Logano, there have been only three phenomenal young talents in the last 16 years. Dumb mistakes aside, team owners are wary of younger drivers due to the amount of maturity it takes to handle the role of de facto team leader behind the wheel of a Sprint Cup car.
Then there's the sheer learning curve of the competition. Larson, who has yet to prove he can close the deal, is still looking for his first victory two years after winning the rookie title with Ganassi. (The wild card with Larson may be one of stamina; he often gets close at the finish but may be running out of gas physically.)
Generally, it doesn't seem to hurt a driver's career to arrive in one's mid-20s. (Jimmie Johnson lost the rookie title to Ryan Newman at the age of 27.) But it can hurt a team owner if he chooses to promote a young driver too soon. Just ask Joe Gibbs and Logano.
The driver whose nickname was "Sliced Bread" (because he was the greatest thing since) faltered while at Gibbs, who essentially traded him for Kenseth after four seasons only to see Logano blossom under the banner of Roger Penske.
"I've been doing it for a while," Logano said. "It definitely plays into my hand at this point, going through the struggles and maybe getting thrown into a situation too young and too soon and when I wasn't prepared for it. Going through that has really changed me as a person and helped me kind of look at every race situation maybe a little bit different than I used to.
"I wouldn't change that for anything because now I'm able to use that for my advantage and I'm still only 26 years old."
Gibbs has also been on the receiving end of this kind of deal. When Kyle Busch was known as "Shrub" due to the presence of his older brother Kurt, he spent three seasons with Hendrick Motorsports and won four races. But when team owner Rick Hendrick and the younger Busch couldn't see eye-to-eye, he wasn't re-signed and ended up at Gibbs, where he has won a Sprint Cup championship and 33 races. On the other hand, Hendrick took a chance on Jeff Gordon at age 21 and after a rocky rookie season Gordon won four championships and rose to superstar status.
Hendrick signed Elliott to a development contract when he was 15 years old. Development contracts have become the norm once the economy started to rebound and they are one reason why there's some good young drivers in the pipeline. Blaney (Penske Racing) and Buescher (Roush Fenway Racing) each have development contracts.
The most intriguing contract scenario belongs to the Gibbs camp. Erik Jones, age 20, is trying to win the Xfinity Series championship and rookie title in the same year. Last year, he did likewise in the Camping World Truck Series.
But Jones has his hands full with 19-year-old Brandon Jones of Richard Childress Racing in the rookie race and the Xfinity championship points lead belongs to fellow Joe Gibbs Racing driver Daniel Suarez, who became the first Mexican to win a major touring series race in NASCAR at Michigan by catching and passing Kyle Busch.
If Suarez, age 24, wins the new Chase format championship in Xfinity, will he be advanced before Jones to the Sprint Cup? If Gibbs moves either driver to the Sprint Cup next year, he will have to give up one of his four veterans. The most likely driver to be left standing when the music stops is Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin, the rookie title winner in 2006 who has never driven for any team other than JGR. The other candidate to leave would be Kenseth.
As yet, none of the current crop of Sprint Cup rookies has won a race and the competition is not getting any easier. The Michigan race marked the seventh different winner in as many races.