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Age seen as a plus in the Chase

Drivers in the NASCAR event are getting older on average. Experience matters; so does a fast car.

November 10, 2013|Jim Peltz
  • The 38-year-old Jimmy Johnson holds a seven point lead in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings over 41-year-old Matt Kenseth going into the AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, the second to last race of the year.
The 38-year-old Jimmy Johnson holds a seven point lead in the NASCAR Sprint… (David Wallace / Associated…)

AVONDALE, ARIZ. — Age and experience will matter regardless of whether Jimmie Johnson or Matt Kenseth wins this year's NASCAR title.

And it's been trending that way for a few years now.

Heading into Sunday's AdvoCare 500 at Phoenix International Raceway, Johnson, 38, holds a seven-point lead over the 41-year-old Kenseth in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings.

Kevin Harvick, 37, is in third place, 40 points behind Johnson.

After Phoenix, there's one race left in the 10-race Chase for the Cup playoff to decide the championship, next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida.

This is the 10th year that NASCAR has used the 12-driver Chase, and the Breaking Limits public-relations firm, which represents such Cup teams as Richard Petty Motorsports, looked at the ages of the Chase fields.

Using the drivers' birthdays as of Sept. 1, Breaking Limits initially found that this was the second-oldest Chase field at an average of 34.8 years old.

Greg Biffle is the oldest Chase driver at 43; Joey Logano is the youngest at 23.

Then in mid-September, NASCAR made 42-year-old Jeff Gordon a late addition, expanding this year's Chase field to 13 drivers and lifting the average age to 35.4 years.

But the field still is a shade younger than last year's, which was the oldest with an average age of 35.8 years, even though Brad Keselowski won the title last year at age 28.

And Breaking limits found that the average Chase age generally has climbed since 2007, when the field was its youngest at an average 30.8 years.

What do all the numbers mean?

"Experience helps you here, there is no question," said veteran driver Jeff Burton, 46. "It isn't like the NFL, it isn't like Major League Baseball. You don't have to be young to do this."

Being fast and daring isn't enough to be a NASCAR champion. Drivers race on a variety of tracks at different top speeds, and it can take them years to adapt well to those different speedways over a full season.

In addition, crew chiefs rely on information from their drivers to fine-tune the cars for each track, and the drivers need experience to provide the helpful input.

"Age does help out quite a bit," said Austin Dillon, a 23-year-old star in NASCAR's second-level Nationwide Series and the grandson of NASCAR team owner Richard Childress.

"Any time you can run laps on tracks and have a notebook [about them], it's huge," Dillon said. "And our notebook is pretty small compared to those guys in running in the Chase."

Basic maturity helps too, because racing is fraught with blown tires, wrecks and other adversities that require a driver to keep his or her head.

That's a trait Johnson said he shares with Kenseth, with both "being patient in the car at different times" and not letting bad luck or mistakes "destroy your whole race," Johnson said.

Johnson called it "a broader vision" of learning "how to work through issues and come out of the race with your best possible finish."

Time and again the cool-headed Johnson has fought back from early setbacks in specific races, or from midseason slumps, to win his five titles.

NASCAR has several young drivers about to reach its premier series. In addition to Dillon, there's Kyle Larson, 21, who takes over the No. 42 Chevrolet in the Cup series next year.

And while age and experience help, "we always need to have young drivers coming and pushing the older drivers out," Burton said. "I believe in the cycle of things. Our sport needs that."

Still, Kenseth said being older doesn't by itself translate into more success because much depends on the race car. Indeed, Kenseth captured his only Cup title a decade ago at age 31.

"You would like to feel like you improve and you get better and smarter through the years," Kenseth said. "But I don't feel like I'm all that different. It always looks like you're a better driver when your car is fast."

Final practice

Kurt Busch topped the speed charts in the first of two practices Saturday at Phoenix International, followed by Harvick and Johnson, the pole-sitter for Sunday's race. Kenseth was ninth.

Clint Bowyer, Gordon, Kurt Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were fastest in the final practice.


Twitter: @PeltzLATimes

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