Crossroads for Burton, Labonte, as a new wave of NASCAR talent due to arrive

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Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte are more than likely in their last years as full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers. It’s somewhat sad, but also fairly predictable.

Burton announced his departure earlier this week from Richard Childress’ No. 31 Chevrolet at the end of the year at age 46. Labonte, 49, has had his consecutive starts streak snapped earlier this year, has missed a race due to injury and will be replaced full-time in the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Toyota by AJ Allmendinger in 2014.

It’s likely the beginning of another sea change in NASCAR where the veterans who’ve raced in Cup since the ‘90s get phased out and a fresh batch come in.

The last one really came in about a decade ago, starting in 2004 and going through 2006. There, within those three years, Mark Martin, Rusty Wallace, Terry Labonte, Dale Jarrett, Bill Elliott and Ricky Rudd began to wind down their careers from full-time to partial schedules. Martin, of course, remains as fit as ever as a part-timer and Terry Labonte still runs a handful of restrictor plate races, but the other four’s driving days are over.

In those years, a new crop of drivers including Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. have all emerged as race winners and consistent Chase qualifiers, although none yet has a Cup championship. They also all entered at a point when sponsorship levels were at its highest, and allowed them to make the jump from the Nationwide and Truck ranks.

Starting this year in 2013, and for the next I would say two or three years, you’ll begin to see a drawdown of some the drivers who entered in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, and a new emergence of drivers.

Burton said earlier this week the series needs “new blood,” desperately.

“Oh, my God, yes,” was Burton’s response when asked whether the sport will be in good hands with the next new wave. “One of the things that the lack of sponsorship has created through these economic issues is opportunities for young drivers. We’re on the beginning edge of seeing a lot of new drivers coming into this sport.  I’m, you know, I know nobody believes this when I say it, because I’m 46 years old and I’m one of those guys that everybody wants my seat, but it’s time.

“It’s time for us to have some new drivers come in.  We really haven’t had a lot of new drivers coming into the Cup series or even into the Nationwide or Trucks.  You look around and you see, obviously, the name that’s everybody knows, the Dillons, and the obvious ones, Blaney and Morrisons, Jeb and Larson.  Everybody knows those.”

Burton says the expectations have changed for new drivers too, not only in terms of their on-track goals but their off-track marketing prowess.

“When I came in, the goal was to win Rookie of the Year, which was a big deal because the class I came in with Rookie of the Year, if you go back and look at who that was, that was an unbelievable class, and to finish 20th in the points. That was our goal.  I get the feeling that when these kids come in today, it’s like we’ve got to make the Chase, you know?  And it’s just a different expectation.  Sometimes we put too much on them.  We need to let them grow.  We need to let them make mistakes without so much pressure.  But it’s just so hard because everybody wants to be successful.”

The lack of available opportunities for youngsters coming up the last few years have made for a, with due respect to these winners, lackluster streak of official NASCAR Cup Rookies-of-the-Year. The last three winners are Stephen Leicht, Andy Lally and Kevin Conway, none of whom races in Cup full-time anymore. Lally, though, has returned to sports car racing where he is a star with privateer Porsche teams Dempsey and Magnus Racing.

But now, with the official arrival of Kyle Larson, the likely arrival of Austin Dillon, and others including but not limited to Parker Kligerman, Ryan Blaney, Darrell Wallace Jr., waiting in the wings between Nationwide, Trucks and regional NASCAR series, a new wave of drivers is coming. It will be fascinating to watch how things evolve.

MRTI: Keith Donegan earns Mazda Shootout Scholarship

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Dublin, Ireland’s Keith Donegan claimed a $200K scholarship from Mazda after emerging victorious at the second annual Mazda Road to Indy Shootout. The 20-year-old Donegan earned an at-large nomination for the scholarship based on his performance at this year’s Formula Ford Festival, in which he finished second in the final, and emerged from a pack of 17 drivers from across the globe to claim the scholarship.

“It really hasn’t hit me yet,” said an emotional Donegan, who earlier in his career actually spent two years away from racing as he focused on academics. “The weekend was really good and I enjoyed it. I have to say a huge thanks to Mazda and Cooper Tires and everyone at the Mazda Road to Indy. I enjoyed every moment. Throughout the weekend we were consistent and I kept the small things in check. I didn’t make any stupid mistakes and kept my head cool and that really paid off in the end.”

The two-day shootout was held at the Bondurant Racing School in Arizona and saw the nominated drivers tackle the school’s 1.6-mile circuit in Formula Mazda race cars before facing on and off-track assessments. Donegan was selected by a panel of judges that included former driver and current Verizon IndyCar Series TV analyst Scott Goodyear, Mazda drivers Tom Long, Andrew Carbonell, and Jonathan Bomarito, as well as Victor Franzoni – the current champion of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires – and Oliver Askew, the current champion of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.

Donegan was humbled to be in the presence of drivers who have won scholarships and championships previously, and added that he is grateful to have the opportunity to continue his racing career.

“You see all these champions here today that will go on to great things in the future and I’m sure the names you see here today aren’t going to disappear,” Donegan added. “They will be back up there and I’m sure I will be racing them again some day. It is an unbelievable opportunity to be given and for Mazda to provide that for any young driver. It just gives that bit of motivation that you need because the [U.S.] is where you need to go to become a professional these days. It is such a boost to my career.”

Donegan is now slated to join the 2018 USF2000 championship, with further announcements regarding the team with whom he’ll be racing to come in the future.

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