Keselowski Assesses NASCAR’s New Guard

Matthew T. Thacker/NKPPHoto

By Caleb Whisler, Staff Writer

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is in the midst of a guard change as drivers like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are retiring to pursue other opportunities. With these veterans retiring, a group of young drivers have emerged to take over. Those drivers include Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, and Ryan Blaney; to name a few.

Brad Keselowski sees that the guard change experienced from 2002 to 2006 was that those drivers really had to earn the right to drive at the top-level of NASCAR.

“What’s interesting about this class, because I think maybe it was about 10 years ago we saw a whole new kind of class come in,” Keselowski said of the previous guard change. “We saw like a change of the guard, maybe like 2002-06 – a rough time period – and what was interesting about that change of the guard is that all those drivers that came in in that time period seemed to really earn it.  They were a short-track ace here or this guy was whatever here.  Those guys really seemed to earn it.”

With this changing of the guard, Keselowski sees Ryan Blaney and Erik Jones as the two drivers who have had to work their way to the top in NASCAR. Keselowski believes this crop of drivers will have a different feel than those of years past. With this crop of driver’s, Keselowski is not concerned, but anxious about what the future would hold.

“I think it’s OK to be anxious to see what it looks like.  I kind of felt like this was coming three or four years ago, so I think, for me, I was actually a little bit surprised that it happened all at once,” said Keselowski. “I thought maybe it would be a little bit more staggered than it has been, so that was kind of where it has been kind of interesting for me at least.  But the landscape of the sport is changing dramatically.”

Keselowski is comfortable with the future of the sport. Driving to the NASCAR Hall of Fame for the media day, Keselowski was reminder of how lucky he to be a race car driver.

“It’s still a luxury to be in this sport and I don’t see that changing.  Will we go from eating steak to hamburgers?  Yeah, there’s a good chance at that, but it could be a lot worse,” said Keselowski.

Although Keselowski came onto the NASCAR scene in 2004 in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, he does not consider himself part of that crop of drivers from 2002 to 2006. The biggest issue Keselowski sees with the young crop of drivers is that owners within the sport aren’t willingly investing into a driver development program because someone will now come with a check. Although it has happened in the past, Keselowski believes it is happening at a higher frequency.

“It’s happening at a higher frequency now than it did in that era.  In that era, you would have saw 15 drivers in the XFINITY Series that a Cup owner invested in.  Now you might see half a dozen in the XFINITY Series and most of them aren’t investing in the team, so it’s a different dynamic,” said Keselowski. “This still at the end of the day is a world where, and maybe it’s a flaw of mankind and it’s no different in the world than it is in racing, that to be successful in anything you do you have to be incredibly driven and you have to have a desire that will create moments where you refuse to lose, refuse to give up.”

How does NASCAR attract the younger fan base with people like Danica Patrick and Earnhardt now being around? Keselowksi believes that the sport has to monetize the millennial generation.

“There are a lot of ideas for doing that and I could go a lot longer on that piece, but monetizing the millennial.  Of course you have to attract them and you have to monetize them.  That’s the biggest challenge.  As far as opportunities, the biggest opportunity is in technology,” said Keselowski. “I don’t feel like we’ve even really scratched the surface of what technology can do for this sport to keep it relevant.  We have to somehow find a way to do that.”

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