Youth Movement Starting to Find its Footing

Alex Bowman, the driver of the #88 AXALTA All-Pro Teachers Chevrolet, speaks with Daniel Suarez, the driver of the #19 Stanley Toyota, on the grid during qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Gander Outdoors 400 at Pocono Raceway on July 28, 2018, in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. Photo – Chris Trotman/Getty Images

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Veteran Kyle Busch may have secured yet another victory for the 2018 “Big Three” Monster Energy NASCAR Cup championship heavy hitters on Sunday at Pocono Raceway, but he was surrounded at the checkered flag by a group of 20-somethings that made a strong statement about the future of the sport too.

Three drivers – including runner-up Daniel Suarez, third place Alex Bowman and sixth place William Byron – turned in career-best efforts at Pocono. Five of the seven top finishers were 26-years old or younger.

“Well, it was about time,” Suarez, 26, said smiling after his career-best showing in the Cup series. “I feel like we are late.

“But you know, Kyle [Busch], Martin [Truex Jr.], Kevin [Harvick], they are great drivers, a lot of experience with great race teams. They have the whole package, and sometimes for a newer driver it’s a little bit more difficult to build that package, and I feel like it takes time. It’s not like a switch that you just have to turn it on and you are going to be running great. It takes time, and it’s a process.”

It was a long-awaited podium finish for Bowman, who joined the Hendrick Motorsports team fulltime this season driving the No. 88 Chevrolet formerly fielded by Dale Earnhardt Jr. And Bowman has been open about his personal high expectations with this opportunity. He is currently in the 16th and final playoff-eligible position in the standings with a solid 56-point lead over 17th place Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

It marks the first time the Hendrick team has had three cars in the top-ten since October of 2017 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. And for much of the day, it looked like they would have all four cars among the top-ten – veteran Jimmie Johnson ended up 17th after the two late overtime restarts.

“Obviously it was a great points day for us, but on top of that, it’s proof that we’re improving each and every week and continually getting better,” Bowman said.

“Obviously, we’re not doing it as quickly as we want to, but days like today make all the hard work for the guys back at the shop, the engine shop, the chassis shop, body shop, the whole road crew, days like today make it worth it.

“Very glad, especially considering how bad we were when we started the weekend and how bad we qualified. To come out of here with a solid top five is a great day.”

Suarez’s Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota teammate Erik Jones, 22, finished fifth Sunday – his fifth top-ten in the last six races. A winner at Daytona in July, he is one of only five drivers other than Busch, Harvick, and Truex to win outright and secure a place in the Playoffs.

Byron, 20, the youngest of Sunday’s high-achieving group, not only turned in his career-best Cup effort but led ten laps in the No. 24 Chevrolet. He has led 53 laps this season, 22 of them in the last four races (12 at Daytona).

“There are a lot of big positives,” said Byron, who leads the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings. “I feel there are a couple of things we could have worked on and we’ll keep working on those things.

“Our cars are just getting faster. Now we have the speed to run in the top-ten, which makes it a lot easier to do things and allows us to be more aggressive and allows me to drive the car the way I know how to drive it. I feel like our speed is just starting to get us in a position to be more aggressive, which is really good.”

Byron’s teammate Chase Elliott, 22, finished seventh Sunday and won his second stage of the season – all encouraging accomplishments. It was his second straight top-ten finish and fifth in the last eight races. He has ten top-tens through 21 races and five top-fives. And Sunday’s result, in combination with Hendrick Motorsports’ teammates Bowman and Byron also brings confidence to the team.

“I don’t even know why some racetracks seem to be more suitable for what we have, and some don’t,” Elliott said. “We think we’re better as a whole, but I think we still have some work to do.”

There is a reason for all these drivers to feel optimistic as the Cup Series heads to its second road course race of the season, at Watkins Glen, N.Y. this weekend. Elliott has a pair of 13th-place finishes there, Bowman was seventh in his last start at the track in 2015. Jones has a pair of top-tens in his most recent road course races – tenth at The Glen last year and seventh at Sonoma, Calif. this year.

And Suarez is undoubtedly eager to get to New York. His first career top-five Cup finish came at The Glen, a third-place there last summer.

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