Texas Motor Speedway

NASCAR ready for new stars to take lead? Maybe, but vets like Jimmie Johnson still have plenty left in tank

Die hard race fans start camping eight days before TMS races

The first campers arrive Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway, where they will wait 8 days for the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 on April 8.
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The first campers arrive Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway, where they will wait 8 days for the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 on April 8.

Veteran drivers across NASCAR want to remind everyone of one simple fact: they aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

In recent years, up-and-comers such as Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, Erik Jones and Kyle Larson have found success on the track, which has led many to anoint them as the future of America's fastest sport. That's all fine and dandy, but the vets still have plenty of tread left on their tires.

Heading into the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500, which will be held at Texas Motor Speedway on Sunday, it's the older drivers who have brought home most of the checkered flags this season. Kevin Harvick (age 42), Martin Truex Jr. (37) and Clint Bowyer (38) have combined to win six of the seven races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2018.

Harvick actually earned three straight victories, at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway.

Those "senior" citizens of the sport's top circuit have been pretty vocal about their success on the track.

"In case anyone was wondering, average age of the winners in the first six races 38.5," Harvick tweeted on March 27.

"How about those young guns! Oh wait... a 42 year old won. And won for the 2nd time this year... man I'm happy to be 42," Jimmie Johnson tweeted on March 4.

When asked about the back-and-forth between the two generations of drivers on Thursday, Johnson, a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion said it was all in fun.

"I don't know why when young guys or young people are talked about it, it's in good fun," he said. "But when a veteran does they are being defensive. All we [veterans) are trying to do is have a little fun."

Other drivers have brought a little bit more venom to the debate.

"It is bothersome," the oft-outspoken Kyle Busch told motorsport.com when asked about the sport's emphasis on a younger generation of drivers. "We’ve paid our dues, and our sponsors have and everything else, and all you’re doing is advertising all these younger guys for fans to figure out and pick up on and choose as their favorite driver,” Busch said. “... I think it’s stupid. But I don’t know, I’m not the marketing genius that’s behind this deal."

When it comes to on-the-track confrontations, sometimes that animosity is very real. Perhaps the best example occurred last fall at Martinsville Speedway. Late in the race Denny Hamlin crashed Elliott, the 22-year-old son of Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, out of the lead position. Hamlin's actions cost Elliott his first career win (he finished in 27th place). More importantly, it eventually cost him a final four spot in the final race of the NASCAR Cup Series at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Immediately following the race's conclusion, the two shared a heated exchange on pit row, where it looked like fists might fly.

Fans also booed Hamlin from the stands and others blasted him on social media.

Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage and his marketing team capitalized on the opportunity for the AAA Texas 500, which took place on the Sunday after the race in Martinsville.

A tweet from the official Twitter handle of TMS said: "They'll settle this on the track. Be here to watch it all unfold" with a large picture of Chase Elliott and a smaller one of these two in each other's face.

"That [between Elliott and Hamlin at Martinsville] was real and happened in front of everybody's eyes, which made it the perfect situation" Gossage said. "I can make some stuff up, but it is really better when it happens on its own. I think millenials say 'it's better when it occurs organically.' It was authentic, and you don't get many of those things tee'd up quite that way."

In the lead-up to that race, Hamlin did apologize to Elliott and took responsibility for what happened, but the damage had already been done. The following Sunday at Phoenix Raceway, Elliott got his revenge by bumping Hamlin into the wall, which knocked him out of the race and cup title contention.

Overall, the responses from some of the younger drivers has varied when asked if there were any veterans that gave them a welcome-to-the-big-leagues type moment on the track or around the garage. Larson, 25 years old, said that Tony Stewart occupied the role of intimidator. He also said that the best way to respond to those antics was to take them less seriously, and that he and Stewart have developed a friendship.

Jones, who won the 2017 NASCAR's Rookie of the Year award last season, said Harvick gave him a hard time toward the end of the season after back-and-forth between the two at Richmond Motor Speedway. Jones admitted that he brought on Harvick's ire himself, but that things have since worked themselves out.

"I understood and I get where he was coming from with a young guy coming in and racing that hard right off the bat," Jones said. "... Now he's very respectful to me on the track and we give and take quite a bit. We haven't had a problem since then. I think everybody wants to see what you are capable of, and I think Kevin is one of those guys."

Not all the veteran drivers want to eat the fresh meat. In October of 2017, Jones wrecked a car at Kansas Motor Speedway in pretty spectacular fashion after running in the top three for most of the race. A short while later, while he was waiting to make a practice run, Johnson shared one secret of his success.

"He gave me some advice about using your brains over something else; let's just call it guts," Jones said. "That was probably the advice early-on that stuck with me because I've always felt like I've been a hard-charging driver and tried to hammer down on every lap, which is great in some ways because you are getting everything out of the car. But it also leads to a lot of mistakes throughout your racing career. Him saying 'calm down, I've won a lot more races using my brains and outsmarting some guys.''"

For Larson, the best way to tune out the noise was to focus on his performance in the car.

"When it comes to racing, I like to figure it out on my own," Larson said. "I'd say most of the time most drivers are kind of like that. You're the one who is in control of your vehicle."

Johnson has nothing but high praise for the things these younger drivers like Larson can do. But he offered some sage advice about the hype that comes with success.

"It's always great when it's somebody else with the spotlight on them," Johnson said. "When it's on you there's an extra layer or three that come with it. It's just inevitable, it's just part of it. There are some drivers that really thrive in those circumstances and others that don't."

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