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Friday 5: NASCAR’s youth movement carries over to Hall of Fame

Matt Kenseth never could have dreamed his career would lead to the Hall of Fame, as he reflects on the people he's been blessed to work with and shares how competition drives him on and off the track.

NASCAR’s youth movement is spilling over into its Hall of Fame selections.

While the Cup Series has seen 15 of its last 17 races won by drivers 30 and under, the Hall of Fame also is experiencing a youth movement — even with 94-year-old Hershel McGriff’s selection Wednesday from the Pioneer Era.

Matt Kenseth’s selection to the Hall of Fame from the Modern Era at age 50 marks the fourth consecutive class a driver 50 or under had been picked for enshrinement.

It started when Jeff Gordon was tabbed for the Class of 2019 at age 46. Tony Stewart was 48 when he was voted to the Class of 2020. Dale Earnhardt Jr. became the youngest member at age 45 when he was selected for the Class of 2021.

The streak will continue next year. Drivers who have competed at least 10 years in NASCAR and been retired for two years are eligible for nomination. That makes Jimmie Johnson, who turns 47 in September, eligible for the Class of 2024. The seven-time Cup champion will be a shoo-in.

While Kenseth will be among the youngest to be in the Hall, he says it doesn’t feel odd for it to happen at this time.

“I would say if it wouldn’t have been going back and racing in 2020 again, it would feel a little bit weird,” Kenseth said. “I think going back and running the rest of the schedule that year, not performing well ... I felt like once that year was over, I definitely knew my professional driving career was behind me. I can’t say the same thing when we ended 2017 at Gibbs or even when I ended 2018 running for Roush.

“I still got through ’19 and there was still, you kind of had that feeling … still in my head the thought I could go be an asset for a race team and still win races and still try to contend for championships and still be competitive. It all got out of my system in 2020. I realized that it was over.”

Kenseth was eligible for this class even though he ran the final 32 races for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2020. The NASCAR Hall of Fame nominating committee deemed that a unique situation where he was asked to help that team after Ganassi fired Kyle Larson for using a racial slur during an online race.

Kenseth finished his career with the 2003 Cup title and 39 series wins, including two Daytona 500 victories.

Part of Kenseth’s legacy will be on display this weekend at Darlington Raceway. RFK Racing’s Chris Buescher will drive a throwback car that pays tribute to the No. 17 DeWalt car that is synonymous with Kenseth.

One of Buescher’s favorite memories of Kenseth was something that didn’t happen on the track.

In 2011, Buescher, a development driver for Roush Fenway Racing, was tabbed to fill in for Trevor Bayne, who was out because of a health issue, for the Xfinity race at Richmond. It marked Buescher’s debut in the series, which was known as the Nationwide Series at the time.

Buescher was in his first full season in ARCA and going for the championship that year. He had a race in Salem, Indiana, that same weekend.

Kenseth offered his plane to get Buescher to Salem for that event after running at Richmond.

“I was the only person on his plane,” Buescher said. “It was the first time I had been in any kind of nice, private aircraft like that, and he was really nice enough to get me over to Salem so that I could get some rest and get ready for the race weekend and get after it as we were racing for a championship that year.

“Matt was really good to me early on when he probably hardly knew who I was, and then enjoyed being able to have some of those conversations with him during those times (they raced in Cup).”

2. Reunited years later

Kirk Shelmerdine’s selection to the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s Class of 2023 reunites key figures from one of the best seasons by a team in the last 50 years.

Shelmerdine, 64, was the crew chief for Dale Earnhardt at Richard Childress Racing. He’ll join Earnhardt (inaugural class in 2010) and Childress (Class of 2017) in the Hall. Together, they won four championships between 1986-91.

Earnhardt won a career-high 11 races in 1987 and scored 21 top-five finishes in 29 starts that season, making it one of the best seasons in the last 50 years in Cup.

“It’s always kind of been a surreal thing for me, like here I am in the middle of all these legends,” Shelmerdine said of following Earnhardt and Childress into the Hall. “As the years go by, the stats pile up and you start to be thought of in the same sentence … it’s all just kind of surreal. It really is a big honor. It means a lot to me. My career has meant a lot to me.”

Shelmerdine left his role as Earnhardt’s crew chief after the 1992 season to focus on a driving career. The move came after Earnhardt finished 12th in points that season, the only time in an 18-year period he finished outside the top 10 in points.

Even with that season, does Shelmerdine think back to what could have been had he stayed with Earnhardt and Childress beyond that season?

“For me, I was pretty much worn out at that point,” Shelmerdine said. “I’ll say this, the championships they won after I left (in 1993 and ’94 with Andy Petree as crew chief), they probably happened a little sooner than if I had stayed.

“Things needed to change big time. I just kind of concluded at the time that maybe I was part of that change that needed to happen. I was certainly used up at the time.

“I couldn’t see how we were going to win that championship the next year. I was kind of out of answers. A lot of big changes happened sort of in the wake of me leaving. Turns out, it was probably for the best.”

Shelmerdine went on to win three ARCA races and finished 20th in the 2006 Daytona 500 as a driver.

3. Loose wheels

Eight times in the first 11 Cup races of the season, NASCAR has suspended crew members for a loose wheel coming off a car. The teams of Denny Hamlin and AJ Allmendinger were the latest after each had a wheel come off their car during Monday’s race at Dover Motor Speedway.

Brad Moran, managing director of the Cup Series, discussed the issue this week on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio and if there would be any increased penalties. The current penalty calls for a four-race suspension for the crew chief and two team members.

“There hasn’t been a lot of talk of increasing it,” Moran said of the penalty. “It’s a pretty stiff penalty, but we’ve looked at what’s causing it, we’ve looked at trying to help. Again, these teams are trying to get a lot of speed out of their pit stops. We’ve changed like over 8,100 tires and we’ve had eight failures … so the percentage is low, but we want that to be pretty much zero percent.

“There has been no talk of increasing the penalty, but we do have a separate group working on it and will continue to work with the teams and try to come up with a process that eliminates it all together. We’re only 11 races in … there’s a lot of work being done behind the scenes. Give us a little time here between NASCAR and the teams and we’ll kind of put this behind us.”

4. Race for points

Erik Jones holds what would be the final playoff spot after 11 races. He has 262 points. That’s an average of 23.8 points a race.

But that pace won’t be enough to make the playoffs based on the past four seasons. The driver who was the last of the 16 to make the playoffs had to average at least 24.1 points in the 26 regular-season races to advance.

Last year, Tyler Reddick averaged 27.5 points in the regular season to be the 16th and final driver to make the playoffs. His point total was so high because five drivers behind Reddick in the season standings earned playoff spots by wins. Reddick finished the regular season 11th in the standings last year.

Reddick heads to Sunday’s Cup race at Darlington Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FS1) outside a playoff spot. He is 13 points behind Jones.

With 15 races left in the regular season, Reddick was asked this week if he and his team are focused more on points or winning.

“We try to be aware of everything,” Reddick said. “You don’t want to turn a blind eye to something and pretend it’s going to be OK. It’s important to know what’s going on. We don’t even have to look at the points standings to know that the last month hasn’t really been good for us in points. That does add to the frustration of what’s going on.

“We’ve been fortunate that we’re having some repeat winners. That’s been good for us. … There’s a lot of drivers left ahead of us, behind us (that have not earned a playoff spot) that have shown speed and the capability to go out there and win. We need to get back to being one of those drivers, one of those teams that was doing that like we were in the beginning of the year.”

5. Memorable throwback schemes

Since it is throwback weekend at Darlington, a look at five of my favorite paint schemes that have run at Darlington in recent years. Some good ones were left off, but I’ll take these five:

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles' Southern 500 - Practice

DARLINGTON, SC - SEPTEMBER 04: Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Mello Yello Chevrolet, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 4, 2015 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)

NASCAR via Getty Images

NASCAR XFINITY Series VFW Sport Clips Help a Hero 200

DARLINGTON, SC - SEPTEMBER 03: Dakoda Armstrong, driver of the #28 Davey Allison Throwback Toyota, races during the NASCAR XFINITY Series VFW Sport Clips Help a Hero 200 at Darlington Raceway on September 3, 2016 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

Getty Images


during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 1, 2017 in Darlington, South Carolina.

Brian Lawdermilk

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles' Southern 500

DARLINGTON, SC - SEPTEMBER 04: Jeff Gordon, driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, races during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 4, 2016 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Getty Images)

Getty Images

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bojangles' Southern 500 - Practice

DARLINGTON, SC - SEPTEMBER 01: Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Miller Genuine Draft Ford, practices for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 1, 2017 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Getty Images