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NASCAR youngsters in hot seat Even youthful veterans calling out inexperienced

These young people, the way they're driving today, they think they own the road!

That might be something a Florida retiree would utter after watching a teenager in a tricked-out coupe zip from lane to lane without signaling. But that very same sentiment has been present this week at Daytona International Speedway as NASCAR Nextel Cup heads toward Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500. And the guys shaking their fists out the window aren't exactly the sport's silver-haired veterans.

Ryan Newman is 28 and starting his fifth season in Nextel Cup. He's part of a group of drivers promoted as "Young Guns." But he sounded like a crusty curmudgeon when he said, "You've got guys who are out there ruining it because of their lack of driving ability."

This week's overheated topic of bump drafting has most drivers in agreement that the practice needs to be monitored, which NASCAR did in Thursday's qualifying races and will do in Sunday's 48th edition of the Great American Race. But listen closely: Drivers aren't talking so much about how cars have been banging into each other, but who has been doing it. There are never names mentioned, but it seems the bump drafting talk has created the latest generation gap in Nextel Cup.

"I can honestly sit here and say that some of the young guys that come in just saw (bump drafting) on TV last year or two years ago, thought it looked cool, so they just slammed you whenever they wanted to," said 30-year-old Elliott Sadler.

Everywhere you turn in the garage, drivers who most fans don't think of as elder statesmen are complaining about whippersnappers. Those in their 30s or close to it such as Tony Stewart, Sadler and Newman allude to a respect factor, and it was backed up by NASCAR President Mike Helton in a read-between-the-lines address at the driver's meeting before Thursday's twin qualifying races.

"We've got a lot of drivers with a lot of experience on the racetrack, but we've got a lot of drivers with not so much experience on the racetrack seeing what someone else does, and thinks it's pretty neat and, 'I want to do it, too,' and they might not know how to do it quite right," Helton said. "Because they're in too big of a hurry."

The message: Slow down, young man. But those young drivers are in a hurry for a reason.

"It's really a hard thing to balance," said 26-year-old Carl Edwards, who last year finished third in points in his first full season. "For me coming in the sport, I don't really have much to rest on. I have to come out and do the job. So you're caught there.

"It's really tough in a competition to make something happen and do your job for your team, and at the same time give something to somebody else you're trying to beat. It's a real fine line to walk."

In today's Nextel Cup, young drivers may have earned a ride -- but it doesn't mean they'll keep it. There are millions of dollars invested in teams, and their sponsors can't afford to be patient.

The past few seasons are littered with rookies who didn't get close to becoming veterans. Jason Leffler was a struggling rookie in 2001 who bounced around before getting a ride with Joe Gibbs last year. He didn't produce, got fired and was replaced by 24-year-old rookie Denny Hamlin, who won the bumper-car style Bud Shootout on Sunday that prompted Stewart's strong criticism of bump drafting. Hamlin is one of eight rookies this year in a class regarded as one of Cup's most talented ever.

"[I'll try to race clean], but then again, you can't be too cautious because these guys are going to beat you up," said Clint Bowyer, 26, in his first season in the No. 07 Chevy for Richard Childress.

Kyle Busch, a 20-year-old who won the Rookie of the Year title last year, thought the criticism of younger drivers was unfair.

"There's the veterans who know how to [bump draft], and some veterans don't know how to do it," he said. "Some veterans think they can do it through the tri-oval with other veterans, and they're going to get away with it. . . . I don't think it's fair. You learn by trial and error. You have to go out there and learn how to do it."

So NASCAR had to establish its rules for bump drafting, delineating areas on the track (in the turns and the tri-oval) where it is prohibited.

"If you drive with a respect for each other out on the racetrack, and you also drive managing your experience level and learn from others that you're racing with, and you earn their respect," Helton told all the drivers, "then we won't have a problem."


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