August 15, 2014 at 11:58 pm

Younger - much younger - generation invading Sprint Cup

Brooklyn, Mich. — It seems the Sprint Cup series is getting younger and younger with rookie drivers like 22-year-old Kyle Larson in the field, and with the recent news that 20-year-old Ryan Blaney will be driving a dozen or more races for Wood Brothers Racing in 2015.

And don’t forget 18-year-old Chase Elliott, a development driver for Hendrick Motorsports who is in his rookie year in the Nationwide series and could soon be in the Sprint Cup scene.

Larson is in the mix for one of the 16 spots in the Chase, which give those drivers the chance to fight it out for the Sprint Cup series championship during the final 10 races.

Drivers with a win are locked into the Chase field. Twelve drivers have won at least one race this season with four races left before the championship field is set, including Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

Larson has yet to win, but sits 15th in the standings and would own one of the four wild-card spots if the season ended today. He qualified 13th for Sunday’s race.

Larson has been competitive in his rookie season while competing in the No. 42 Target Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing. He replaced Juan Pablo Montoya, who won twice in his seven years for Ganassi, qualifying just once (2009) for the Chase.

Larson has been strong of late while competing with Hendrick motors, earning two top-five finishes in the last four races, including third in New Hampshire and fourth last Sunday at Watkins Glen. He also finished runner-up to Kyle Busch at Fontana and was eighth at MIS in the Quicken Loans 400 June 15.

“I enjoy Michigan, it’s a two-mile race track and it seems like the 1.5 mile to two-mile tracks are where I run the best,” Larson said. “I have three good finishes here. I got close to winning a Nationwide race last year and possibly could have had a Cup win earlier this year if I didn’t speed on pit road.

“I think we should have a good run, just have to put it all together. We’ll shoot for a win, but then also can’t do anything too out of the ordinary to hurt our finish.”

Busy weekend for Blaney

Blaney was at the news conference Friday morning with the Wood Brothers, talking of his opportunity to drive in the Sprint Cup series. He currently leads the NASCAR Truck Series in points while driving for Rochester Hills native Brad Keselowski.

“I am very excited to be able to race for the Wood Brothers next year,” said Blaney, who looks like he’s barely old enough to apply for a driver’s license. “They have been so great to me with the week and a half that I have been over there. The history of this team is very special and being able to drive for this team is special and a dream come true.

“I am really excited for next year. I am excited to get the day started. I will be practicing and qualifying the car for Trevor (Bayne) and I am excited to see what we can do.”

The Wood Brothers’ history in the series is legendary. David Pearson won 46 races during a seven-year span in the ’70s, then Neil Bonnett had a succesful run during the ’80s. Wood Brothers drivers have won 11 Sprint Cup races at MIS, second only to Jack Roush’s13 victories.

“You know, youth seems to be what it is all about,” co-owner Eddie Wood said. “We’ve been fortunate to have had Trevor starting at age 20 and Ryan is 20, so maybe that is the number for us. We had really good results and relationship with Trevor and I can see the same thing with Ryan.”

Bayne will move to Roush Fenway in Sprint Cup next year.

So, what did Keselowski — the 2012 Sprint Cup champion — say when learning of Blaney’s promotion?

“He is very happy,” Blaney said.

“That is what he invested in back in 2012 when I started driving for his truck team. That is what the truck team is for, to build you up to eventually go Nationwide and Cup racing. He was happy and I want to do as much as I can for him next year and driving in the truck also and keep helping that program out.

“I owe a lot to Brad and he gave me a big opportunity to get started in NASCAR so I owe him a lot and I want to keep racing for him and try to keep winning races for that team.”

Blaney is filling in for Bayne during practice and qualifying while Bayne is competing in Nationwide in Mid-Ohio. He qualified 28th.

Blaney has been a development driver for Penske Racing, and says he will compete for that team this fall at Talladega. The Woods Brothers team will have an alliance with Penske next year.

“Right now we have an alliance with Roush Fenway and that includes engineering, cars and everything about it,” said Eddie Wood. “It will be a similar situation with Team Penske. The difference will be that Team Penske has never done this before. This is new to them. That will be a work in progress to figure out how to do everything.”

Blaney will compete in the Truck series race at 12:30 p.m. today. He was 13th fastest with a lap of 185.085 mph.

Rules test package set

Several Sprint Cup drivers will remain at MIS after Sunday’s race to participate in the 2015 rules test package on Monday.

When Jeff Gordon was told drivers will be able to adjust the track bar from inside the car next year, he replied: “I had heard that they were talking about it, so it’s all kind of new to me that they’re actually going to go forward with that. But I think it’s sort of a reaction to the change we have.

“We have so much of a change in traffic behind the cars. The balance changes so much that we’re trying to figure out how we can adjust that balance when we get behind cars and then to help passing and make the races more exciting.”

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Kyle Larson is 22, but by next season some of his competitors might be calling him 'Gramps.' / Steve Perez / Detroit News