Life in NASCAR’s fast lane starts with a seat at the kids’ table

The Easter holiday is fast approaching, complete with beautiful sunrise services on the beach, an unfortunate explosion of pastel clothing/white shoe combinations, and of course, a big meal after church.

The breaking of bread (and ham, and deviled eggs, and green beans, and potato salad) on special occasions is a vital part of the family experience for many people, and like all other aspects of life – including NASCAR – it progresses in a certain way.

Remember the days when you had to sit at the “kids’ table” during holiday meals with the family? There is never enough room for everyone in the dining room, so invariably the card table and folding chairs come out, get stuck in the corner somewhere – preferably in the next room – and that’s where the kids eat.

It seems to be a natural way of doing things. Kids are rambunctious and unpredictable. Sometimes they gobble up all their food as if they think it’s their last meal, but other times they refuse to touch a bite and the plate returns to the kitchen with hardly a morsel missing.

Kids have mishaps at the table. Many of them are still learning to eat properly. Sometimes they miss the mark – AKA their mouths – and get food on their faces. They roughhouse. They make paper airplanes out of their napkins. They squabble. They dump salt on each other’s heads.

The NASCAR Nationwide Series (NNS) is a lot like that. It is packed with drivers who certainly know what they’re doing – they are more than capable of feeding themselves, in other words – but they haven’t quite gained the level of maturity and experience necessary to graduate to a seat at the big table.

Adults tend to be more precise in their eating habits. They cast an appraising eye over the buffet, ignoring the ubiquitous but less appealing options like congealed salads and Brussels sprouts, heading straight to the pork tenderloin and scalloped oysters.

They are more methodical in their approach to a special meal. They savor every mouthful, and pace themselves so they make it successfully to the end with a clean plate, and room left for dessert. Adults wipe their mouths with their napkins. They talk about work and politics and pressure washers. Sometimes they disagree, but they usually keep it civil. They say, “Please pass the salt.”

The superstars of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series (NSCS) make an incredibly difficult and challenging job look almost effortless. They make a plan and they stick to it, somehow managing to find order and a clear, straight path to Victory Lane in the midst of chaos and confusion. They have maturity and experience, and they use it to their advantage.

Headed to Bristol, the average age of the NSCS top 10 drivers was 36.

Seven of the NNS top 10 drivers, on the other hand, including Austin Dillon, Trevor Bayne, Cole Whitt, Michael Annett, Tayler Malsam, Justin Allgaier and defending series champion Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., were all age 25 or younger. Their average age was 25. They have their eye on the big table; they’re on their way.

Inevitably there comes a day when the adults start to look at the kids’ table in a new light. Instead of giving that unruly the lot the dreaded hairy eyeball, their glances become a little bit envious. After years of correct seasoning, they think that maybe a little spilled salt isn’t such a bad thing.

Mark Martin is the quintessential example of this. Sitting in 10th place prior to the Bristol race – which, by the way, could be considered NASCAR’s ultimate kids’ table – Martin is also racing in the NNS.

At the ripe old age of 53, Martin is a guy who can still look at a napkin and dream of ways to make it fly. At a time when many racers would be thinking of retirement, he is still having fun and making quite an impression; leaving his Mark, so to speak, and reminding us that youth has no age.

George Bernard Show once famously wrote that “youth is wasted on the young.” The great Mr. Shaw was definitely not a race fan. NASCAR, rather than wasting its youth, is taking full advantage of it.

Side dish: Drivers weigh in on the NCAA men’s basketball tournament

Denny Hamlin said, “I think Kentucky is going to win it all. The tournament is about talent and coaching, and Kentucky has a ton of talent and the best coach in college basketball (John Calipari). I mean, who’s going to beat them? I’m excited to watch the games over the next few weeks.”

According to Elliott Sadler, “The Tar Heels will be strong throughout the tournament if John Henson stays healthy. Missouri will be tough to beat. They have great guards, but I think the Heels will pull it out.”

Austin Dillon likes the overall favorite. “Kentucky has a great team and they are a No. 1 seed so I think they will go all the way this year,” he said.

Georgetown graduate Brendan Gaughan is a true homer. “I’ll always pick Georgetown to win it all. Once a Hoya, always a Hoya,” he said.

NASCAR columnist Cathy Elliott is also the author of the book “Chicken Soup for the Soul: NASCAR.” Visit her online at www.mybrainonnascar.com.

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