Blaney is at the vanguard of NASCAR’s new generation

FONTANA, CA - MARCH 24: Ryan Blaney, driver of the #21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford, goes through technical inspection during qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 24, 2017 in Fontana, California. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

SPARTA, Ky. – The demographic in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series garage is clearly getting younger.

Forty-somethings Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart have retired from full-time driving. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will follow suit after this season. But as current superstars step away, younger counterparts already are making a significant mark in the sport.

Kyle Larson, 24, has won twice and leads the series standings. Austin Dillon, 27, Ryan Blaney, 23, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 29, are first-time winners this season, with Stenhouse doubling up at Talladega and Daytona.

Erik Jones, 21, and Daniel Suarez, 25, are leading contenders for Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in NASCAR’s top division, and Chase Elliott, 21, already has 15 career top fives halfway through his second full season in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

“It’s neat to be a part of that younger group,” Blaney said. “That’s just nice to be part of the club. There are a lot of great young race car drivers that are coming up, from Chase and Larson and Erik Jones and Suarez. They’re doing a great job, and it’s just nice to be in that group.

“In the past few years a lot of drivers have retired who have been big for this sport – from Tony and Jeff – and with Dale Jr. retiring this year, there’s definitely going to be some change for sure. I would hope those fans still enjoy the sport and want to pick new drivers, but I don’t really feel like there’s any pressure to take the responsibility.”

On the contrary, Blaney feels he will be better served to remain true to himself, rather than try to emulate those who have preceded him in the sport.

“We’re never going to be a Tony or a Jeff or a Dale Jr.,” Blaney said. “We can be our own people, and hopefully the fans enjoy that, but we don’t really talk about it. I just feel like we go try to do our job, and hopefully the fans enjoy what we do, whether it’s on the track or off the track, and become interested.

“Like I said, I think it’s a pretty neat time for this sport right now. There are a lot of young drivers coming in with a lot of great drivers who have been around the sport for a long time who are still winning races and competing highly, and it’s a pretty neat combination. I think that’s exciting for the fans and exciting for the sport in general.

“It’s just nice to be a part of it, and hopefully we can help grow it and be a part of it for a long time.”

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