It appears stage racing in NASCAR has become a younger man's game.
After a race at Martinsville Speedway that had as much contact as an NFL game, once again it was the drivers under 40 years old who dominated the opening stages and the finish as Brad Keselowski won his second race of the season.
The points standings after six races, led by 24-year-old Kyle Larson and 21-year-old Chase Elliott, continue to point to a youth movement. By contrast, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson struggled with more aggressive, younger drivers at Martinsville and limped in with a 15th-place finish. That moved him up to 14th in points.
Other drivers who have passed their 40th birthday include Jamie McMurray, ninth in the standings, and former champion Kevin Harvick (10th). Harvick has the distinction of being the only driver in his age group to win a stage, having won three.
Dive-bombing, slashing passes and bump-and-run took over as drivers fought for stage points and position. But even prior to Martinsville's frenetic short-track action, it was clear that the younger drivers have adapted better to racing hard from the drop of the green.
"I think the way the new racing is with the stages and stuff, short-run speed is key, and if you have long-run speed, fall-off, it really doesn't matter because you're going to get a caution at some point," said 26-year-old Austin Dillon, who had his best result of the season with a fifth-place finish.
The idea of drivers competing well past their 40th birthday is about as old as NASCAR itself. Where George Blanda was a phenomenon in the NFL and Gordie Howe likewise in the NHL as older athletes, it has been standard procedure for NASCAR stars to compete into their 50s.
One need look no further than the Fox Sports broadcast booth, where 70-year-old Darrell Waltrip holds forth. The three-time champion ran his final full season at age 53. Dale Earnhardt Sr. was two months shy of his 50th birthday at the time of his fatal accident while in pursuit of an eighth championship.
Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards have served notice that the current generation of champions or would-be titlists are likely to walk away before the half-century mark. After the first six races of the season, some other champions and stalwarts might have similar notions. Only the question is begged -- will they be put out to pasture by younger drivers gobbling up stage points while pressing the issue from the drop of the green?
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. drop-kicked leader Kyle Busch in the final two turns of the second stage to avoid being lapped. In the first stage, a scrum developed over seventh through 10th places. In the battle for seventh, Ryan Blaney got the better of Johnson through sheer aggressiveness, causing the seven-time champ, who is 41, to ram Blaney once the caution fell.
All of this because: a) Blaney's Ford had tagged Johnson's Chevy once already in the opening stages; and b) the points do matter when it comes to the postseason playoffs.
There's a theory behind the approach of the older generation of drivers who have won the bulk of the championships since the death of Earnhardt Sr. Despite dramatic safety improvements, they raced relatively conservatively to avoid accidents and tried to enforce a code versus younger drivers such as Keselowski and Joey Logano as they came up. Those days are gone with the introduction of stage racing.
"To see the young guys out there, (Chase Elliott) and (Kyle Larson) just to mention a couple of them, these guys are on it, and to me that's what's making the sport so exciting," said winning team owner Roger Penske, who has seen a race or two. The victory of Keselowski, 33, came in Team Penske's 1,000th start in NASCAR.
Keselowski, whose first victory resulted from putting Edwards' Ford into the fence at the Talladega Superspeedway in 2009, has long advocated more aggressiveness. When asked about the controversy between Busch and Stenhouse Jr., Keselowski dodged the core question and instead focused on the overall change in driver behavior. He said that's the object of the stage format.
"Whether you agree with specific moves is really neither here nor there, but when you put things on the line, when you put more on the line throughout the race, you get more moments like that, and I think in the end, the fans win and the sport wins."
On this day, twentysomethings Dillon and Stenhouse Jr., who finished 10th, got the better of it. In all, four of the drivers in the top 10 were in their twenties and that didn't include Blaney, 23. The driver of the Wood Brothers' Ford had more contact that a linebacker and ended up 25th. It was a memorable run worthy of his team from nearby Stuart, Va., which has competed at Martinsville most of the 70 years it has been open.
Leave it to NASCAR's version of Wrigley Field or Fenway Park to draw attention to a youth movement.