Originally created 05/29/99

Winston series for young and restless

CONCORD, N.C. -- If Geritol had octane, racing's most-veteran drivers wouldn't seem so tired.

The NASCAR Winston Cup Series has been, and always will be, a young man's game.

Survival is an emotional thing -- the ability to take chances, the willingness to drive a little deeper in the turns or run a little more on the ragged edge.

While some argue a lack of practical experience is often masked as youthful zeal, veterans walk through the garage area knowing they are a dinosaur among drivers with the nerve of anxious yearlings.

"We run on adrenaline," said one 20-something driver, who asked not to be identified. "The old guys run on Geritol. Sometimes is seems like they're riding around and trying to stay out of trouble. It's sad. I can remember when they were young and they weren't afraid of anything."

Rusty Wallace, 42, won a total of 18 races in 1993 and 1994. In the past three years, however, he's won only three. When asked why younger drivers such as Jeff Gordon appear to be more daring, Wallace, said, "It's because he hasn't been dropped on his head yet. When you get older, you get smarter. It doesn't mean you don't want to win any less, but hopefully you learn not to be stupid."

During the 1998 season, 18 of 33 races were won by drivers who were younger than 40 years old. Those numbers could have been more lopsided if fitness guru Mark Martin, then 40, hadn't won seven times and Dale Jarrett, another late-bloomer at 41, hadn't won three times.

Jeff Gordon tilted the numbers in the other direction. At 27, he won 13 times last year.

Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and Bill Elliott, men who collectively have won 11 NASCAR Winston Cup Series championships and 205 races, have enjoyed only two victories since the 1998 season started -- a run of 44 starts.

Earnhardt, a grandfather at 47, will start 15th in Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at the Lowe's Motor Speedway, while Elliott, 44, is starting 29th and Waltrip, the oldest driver in the race at 52, will roll off 33rd.

"It could have been a little better," Earnhardt said of his qualifying run. "It should have been better. The car felt super. I probably should have run it wide open all the way around. I thought it would have been faster as good as it felt."

At the same time, Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 24-year-old second generation driver who's making his Winston Cup debut Sunday, qualified eighth.

"I wasn't nervous at all," he said. "Once the motor cranked, I didn't feel any pressure."

Earnhardt isn't the only driver at Charlotte with a son embarking on a racing career. Jarrett's son has been a part-time driver on the NASCAR Busch Series for the past two years, as has Barry Bodine, son of 50-year-old Geoffrey Bodine, Justin Labonte, son of 41-year-old Terry Labonte, and Adam Petty, son of 37-year-old Kyle Petty.

"You see this in racing every once in a while," said veteran crew chief Waddell Wilson. "The older guys seem to get a little slower, and the young guys come in make it hard on them. When a guy gets too careful out there, he's lost his edge. You can see it out there every week."

The elder Earnhardt said he may drive another couple years, while Elliott and Waltrip are hinting of retirement after the 2000 season.

And when they leave, their jobs will be filled with drivers who are half their age.


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