Is NASCAR witnessing another changing of the guard?

Kyle BuschIt happens about every three to five years, this unsettling upheaval of the NASCAR world as we know it.

Every few years, a new, young, hot driver — or drivers — emerges, changing the landscape of NASCAR’s Cup series and the hierarchy of things at the top.

A changing of the guard in NASCAR’s top series seems to be a regular cycle, and it’s clearly upon us again.

It’s happened several times in the past 20 years.

In the late 1980s and early ’90s, this was Dale Earnhardt’s world. Occasionally, he would share the glory with Bill Elliott or Rusty Wallace or Mark Martin. But mostly, NASCAR was seen in black and white — mostly Earnhardt black.

Earnhardt won championships in 1986-87, 1990-91 and again in 1993-94. In between, Wallace and Elliott reigned.

During that time, things shifted only slightly. And, unfortunately, it was short-lived because of the tragic deaths of 1992 champion Alan Kulwicki and rising star Davey Allison, both in 1993.

The early ’90s belonged mostly to Earnhardt, Wallace and Martin.

Then came 1995, when Jeff Gordon took NASCAR by storm, completely changing the balance of power.

Gordon dominated the next few years, winning 40 races in four years and championships in ‘95, ‘97 and ‘98.

By ‘97, Jeff Burton, another young star, was becoming a threat, as was Bobby Labonte (along with veterans Martin and Dale Jarrett). But mostly, NASCAR was seen in bright, vivid colors — the rainbow colors of Jeff Gordon’s Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

Then came 1999, when rookie Tony Stewart exploded onto the scene. Stewart won three races as a rookie and then led the series with six wins in 2000.

By 2002, Stewart had his first championship and was firmly entrenched as a perennial championship contender and NASCAR’s next great driver. It looked as if the next decade would be a showdown between Stewart and Gordon.

Then suddenly, another changing of the guard occurred as a new wave of “young guns” began to emerge, led by Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kurt Busch. Soon, they were joined by Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman.

Suddenly, NASCAR’s top series was being overrun by fresh faces. Gordon and Stewart were still leading the parade, but they were quickly losing ground to the likes of Kenseth, Junior, Busch and Johnson.

By 2004, there was clearly a new sheriff in town. Though Kurt Busch won the inaugural Chase that year and Stewart bagged the second one, Johnson was in the midst of a Gordon-like march to the top.

When he won back-to-back titles in 2006-2007, he had clearly established himself as NASCAR’s next big star. When he won 27 Cup races in four years, he was suddenly in Earnhardt-Gordon-Stewart territory.

Now, just a year later, are we seeing yet another changing of the guard?

It would appear so.

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Is NASCAR witnessing another changing of the guard?

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