CONCORD, N.C. — Jamie McMurray set a record at Charlotte Motor Speedway when he won the second start of his NASCAR Cup Series career. Back at the track for the 16th anniversary of that surprise trip to victory lane, McMurray is just another veteran driver at a career crossroads.
McMurray doesn't yet have a job for 2019. Neither does AJ Allmendinger or former Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne. Ryan Newman was released from Richard Childress Racing, Kurt Busch won't be back at Stewart-Haas Racing and 2017 series champion Martin Truex Jr. is a free agent because his Furniture Row Racing team is shutting down after the season ends in November.
Kasey Kahne and Elliott Sadler are retiring at the end of the season. Casey Mears never got a retirement tour — his job prospects simply dried up, and he moved his family to Arizona over the summer.
That's how it goes these days in NASCAR. The former rising stars who came in as a youthful wave of new energy early this century are now a bunch of aging graybeards fighting to hang on to their rides.
The youth movement continued Friday when JTG Daughtery Racing opened the weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway by introducing 27-year-old Ryan Preece as Allmendinger's replacement. A few hours later, Richard Childress Racing announced Daniel Hemric, also 27, would fill Newman's seat.
Both Hemric and Preece have navigated a challenging ladder system in which competitive opportunities can be few and far between. Some of those former rising stars put together careers that have lasted 15 or more years, with their earnings well into eight digits. The latest crop of young drivers have had to wait for seats to open, had to secure their own sponsorship and sometimes drive for free.
That Hemric and Preece were promoted on the same day was not lost on either.
"Everybody says the path or whatnot of how we got here may not have been ideal, but at the end of the day you did whatever you could with what you had," Hemric said. "And when you hear about things that can't be done, I think today is a huge step in that direction to show that it can be."
Hemric said he was hopeful the moves would inspire young racers in this uncertain market to keep going and trust their decisions.
"If you do that, no matter how it shakes out, you'll lay down at night knowing you gave everything you had," he said. "I think that's what today is all about."
Stock-car racing's national series are full of blue-collar kids who have scrapped to get to this level, but as NASCAR's economics have changed with sponsors more scarce than ever, team owners have been forced to dramatically cut costs, so drivers who can accept lower salaries have become the norm. Hendrick Motorsports replaced Jeff Gordon with Chase Elliott, Dale Earnhardt Jr. with Alex Bowman and Kahne with William Byron. At 25, Bowman is the oldest of the trio.
Drivers such as Kahne, McMurray and Mears have been the ones left without a ride. McMurray has been offered a job by Chip Ganassi to drive in the Daytona 500 next season and then move into a leadership role with the team. The offer is presumably to make room for Busch, who has sponsorship but wasn't retained by SHR.
Busch's seat will likely go to Xfinity Series driver Cole Custer, already in the SHR pipeline, or perhaps Daniel Suarez, who has been pushed into the job market because of Truex. Toyota can't let the champion leave its stable, so Truex is likely going to take Suarez's seat at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Field set for 'roval'
Busch felt like a kid again this week.
He spent two full days in a testing simulator, trying to figure out the best way to maneuver around the "roval" course at CMS, a hybrid of a road course and the track's familiar oval that has NASCAR drivers losing sleep while pondering how to conquer it — or at least find a way to avoid crashing with the next round of the playoffs on the line for some of them.
Busch may have found something in his preparation for the first Cup Series event on the layout, beating out Allmendinger to take the pole for Sunday's race in the No. 41 Ford.
"I turned 40 this year, and there I am on the simulator acting like it's a video game," Busch said with a laugh. "But you have to do those things."
Busch the said key is to not "overdrive "in the next corner trying to pick up time lost in the previous corner.
"I think that's an important fundamental aspect of going into a new style of track," said Busch, who earned his fourth pole of the season.
The 2.28-mile roval, with 17 turns and a 35-foot change in elevation, is unlike anything used before in Cup Series competition. It will require innovation from drivers, and particularly from those who enter the elimination race in need of a good showing to advance to the playoffs' round of 12.
"This track is really slick, and it's challenging in a lot of areas," said playoff contender Erik Jones, who qualified 12th.
Denny Hamlin, among the bottom four in the 16-driver playoff field, wrecked in both practice and qualifying and will start 27th.