February 18, 2015

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) Bobby Labonte looks around NASCAR's motorhome lot and sees the makeover coming.

It was just a few years ago that the place was devoid of children. The playground was empty. There were no toys scattered about. Few, if any, sounds of children echoing across the rows of luxury buses. It was a clear indication how young the sport had become.

Now, though, there are kids everywhere. To Labonte, that means change is on the horizon. All those young drivers have grown up, have families and have started getting old, at least by NASCAR standards.

Four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon has already announced that 2015 will be his last as a full-time driver, and there's a sense that several others could follow him out the door.

''We're starting to see it cycle through,'' Labonte said.

Ten Sprint Cup regulars, including Gordon, are at least 36 years old heading into this season. And although salaries are nearly as good as ever and the cars and tracks are certainly safer than ever, there is growing speculation that some of the elder statesmen are closer to calling it quits than outsiders might think.

''The trend's already started,'' former NASCAR crew chief and team owner Ray Evernham said. ''We're not going to be able to reverse it. A lot of it's got to do with the technology of the cars, the fact that these kids are coming younger and younger now. You used to have to have experience and have that book (of knowledge). A guy at 50 could still win races and challenge for championships.''

Evernham said that's not the case anymore.

He pointed to technological advancements, most notably the ability for youngsters to get realistic seat time at every track in state-of-the-art simulators.

''People are getting here faster and getting here with more experience than they ever could before,'' Evernham said. ''It's not a trend the drivers are going to control. It's going to be like Formula One. At about 35 - and I mean probably within the next 10 years - you're going to be looking at guys that are 35, 38 years old as being too old in this sport.''

Joining Gordon in the over-35 category are Greg Biffle (45), three-time champion Tony Stewart (43), 2003 champion Matt Kenseth (42), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (40), six-time champion Jimmie Johnson (39), reigning champion Kevin Harvick (39), Jamie McMurray (38), Ryan Newman (37) and 2004 champion Kurt Busch (36).

''If you look back at NASCAR and all the years they've been here, every eight or 10 or 12 years, they have a reshuffling of the people up front,'' seven-time champion Richard Petty said. ''That time's come now. You've got guys 40, 45 years old, and that's kind of a general age (of retirement).''

Stepping aside might sound easy, but it's proven to be difficult.

Petty acknowledged staying ''longer than what I should have.''

''But driving was my life,'' he added. ''I knew I wasn't going to win races, but I didn't want to give up driving the race car.''

For years, Mark Martin talked about hanging up his helmet, only to keep coming back for more. Ricky Rudd walked away after the 2005 season, saying he was ''taking a break.'' He was mostly gone for one season before returning to a full-time ride.

Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip is trying to make his 28th ''Great American Race.''

''Shoot, there's not many that, given the opportunity, wouldn't come back and run a race or two,'' Waltrip said. ''Most old, retired people don't get in winning cars. That's who I am, whether I like it or not.''

Sponsors tend to gravitate to younger drivers, always looking to land the next up-and-comer and attract the coveted 18-to-35-year-old audience.

And the youngsters are here, ready and waiting for a ride.

Kyle Larson landed a full-time spot with Chip Ganassi Racing last season. Chase Elliott, the son of Hall of Fame driver Bill Elliott, will replace Gordon at Hendrick Motorsports in 2016. Ryan Blaney, Ty Dillon, Ben Rhodes and Erik Jones could be next in line for the top teams.

''The day and age is changing, and the kids coming in are incredible,'' veteran Joe Nemechek said. ''So many guys are good that are coming up.''

And behind them could be all those young kids in the motorhome lot.

''The talent pool is what's going to force this,'' Evernham said. ''If you've got a 35-year-old driving and then there's a guy that's 21 that you can pay half the money - and he's going twice as fast - you're going to be looking at that. There are going to be more and more of these guys coming. That's just the evolution of where we're headed.

''Everybody's talking 40! They're not talking 50. Ten years from now, they're going to be talking 35 and he's at the end of his career.''

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