My Brain on NASCAR: Sport undergoing youth movement

Am I the only one who gets that weird tingly feeling on the back of my neck when something momentous is about to happen?

Granted, I usually get this feeling when a set of blue lights appears behind me – those blasted things really do come out of nowhere — or when there’s a letter from the IRS in the mailbox. But as a NASCAR fan and someone who has lived in close proximity to the sport for almost 20 years, my neck is tingling now.

Now that I have you on the edges of your seats, here it is: I believe we are on the brink of something of a racing exodus, a changing of the guard in NASCAR.

Now, I usually rely on either the Mayan calendar or my friend Mike Forde, NASCAR statistician extraordinaire, to help me out with anything involving numbers, because one, I bought an iPad for the sole purpose of helping me calculate 20 percent in restaurants, and two, that’s Mike’s job. But I didn’t need him to tell me that the first two races of the 2012 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup were won by the two youngest guys in the 12-driver field, Brad Keselowski (28) and Denny Hamlin (31).

My grandmother, who was known for her pithy comments and absolute refusal to act like a senior citizen, said many things to me that I will never forget. She may, in fact, have been the muse for Jimmy Buffett’s song “Growing Older But Not Up.” One comment that really sticks out is, “I still feel like I’m 18; every time I look in the mirror, I’m surprised. But I realize I’m getting older, because all my friends are starting to die.”

Grandma could also be a bit maudlin at times. I didn’t fully comprehend this as a teenager, but now I get it. I realize I’m growing older, because pretty soon all my friends will start to retire.

The “NASCAR family” analogy is a little road-worn, but still very true. With very few exceptions, the sport exists as a cohesive unit rather than dozens of individual entities. There may be squabbles over who got a bigger serving of mac and cheese, or who is crowding whom in the backseat – or backstretch – but in the end everyone knows they’re basically living in Disneyworld, and they get over it and get on with it.

Now I’m starting to realize there is another, and far deeper, family connection. NASCAR is generational, for fans as well as competitors.

When I first started paying attention to the sport sometime around 1992, the top 10 drivers were guys like Dale Earnhardt, Rusty Wallace, and Darrell Waltrip. All three of them are in the NASCAR Hall of Fame now.

Jeff Gordon was trying to break into the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and even grew a mustache to make himself look older. I’m still not convinced the mustache was real, but I do know this for a fact: Jeff Gordon is now 41 years old.

In fact, four of the 12 drivers in the Chase are 40 or older – Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, and Gordon. Jimmie Johnson is 37, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. will celebrate his 38th birthday on October 10.

No one is ready to put any of these guys in mothballs yet, least of all themselves, but this is a complicated and difficult situation. It isn’t a case of once a Redskins fan, always a Redskins fan. For example, when Stewart retires, you can’t pull for him anymore because, well, he won’t be competing. Duh. Certainly you can cast your lot with Stewart Haas Racing, but that’s an iffy proposition. (Google Coach Joe Gibbs’ second stint with the Redskins and you’ll get some idea of the thought process here.)

So for all of us who pledged our allegiance to a certain driver while we were in our 20s (or younger, if you’re a Mark Martin fan), get ready for a shakeup. The immortal words of the prophet Bob Dylan are being realized: “The present now will later be past/The order is rapidly fadin’/And the first one now will later be last/For the times they are a-changin’.”

For the record, I’m standing by my way-out-on-a-limb prediction, made in January, that Johnson will win his sixth championship in 2012. But the back of neck is telling me that very soon I will have to change the way I look at NASCAR, because the look of NASCAR will be a-changin’, very soon.

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