NASCAR's 10 Hottest Young Drivers
When the American economy collapsed a few years ago, NASCAR was the hardest hit of all professional sports.
The sponsors that were willing to stick around favored established drivers over development programs with young drivers. Combine that with a class of Busch Series busts in the mid-2000s, and the market for a good ride was bust for most young drivers.
NASCAR finally acted at the start of last season, limiting drivers' participation in more than one of its three national touring series. Nationwide Series teams began scheduling new talent instead of Sprint Cup drivers for the entire season.
And when Trevor Bayne won last year's Daytona 500 for the Wood Brothers, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon took championships in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series, it signaled the return of a youth movement in NASCAR in full force.
You may have heard of some of these drivers. In fact, you may have heard of most of them. But none of them have yet reached their potential in the sport, and all are poised to make even more of a name for themselves in 2012.
Keep an eye on these kids once Speedweeks roll around:
For the first time, Almirola has a full-time Sprint Cup ride after paying his dues in lower-tier series.
He'll join Richard Petty Motorsports as a replacement for A.J. Allmendinger in a team with clear Chase aspirations and a desire to break into the winner's circle this year.
The de facto Cup rookie has impressed just about everywhere he's gone with his steady consistency, something Petty can certainly use.
Last year's Daytona 500 will return to Sprint Cup with the Wood Brothers for about a half-season schedule in 2012, and the Nationwide Series with Roush Fenway Racing.
Bayne lost an opportunity at the Nationwide title last season when he missed a handful of races with Lyme disease, and he may not have an opportunity at redemption in 2012 if Roush Fenway can't find enough sponsorship to fill out his schedule.
Either way, he'll attempt to add more trophies to the mantle this season with a quality ride in every race he runs this season.
Cassill lucked into a Sprint Cup ride this past week when the group of investors that salvaged Team Red Bull's assets decided to give him their lead car—the No. 83 that Brian Vickers drove last year.
The former Hendrick Motorsports development driver impressed many with his consistency last year driving for an underfunded Phoenix Racing team and will get a chance to earn a better ride in the future the way that many of today's stars did—by doing time with smaller teams before getting noticed by the larger ones.
The grandson of Richard Childress won last year's Camping World Truck Series title with two wins, 16 top 10s and an average finish of 9.3.
He also made his Sprint Cup debut at Kansas in October, managing to keep the car out of trouble for much of the day.
In response, Childress and Dillon's sponsors promoted him to the Nationwide Series for 2012, where he will attempt to add yet another championship to the RCR mantle.
Replacing Austin Dillon in the No. 3 truck that won the Camping World Series championship last year will be his younger brother Ty who won last year's ARCA championship with seven wins and 16 top 10s in 19 starts.
Ty Dillon also made three Truck starts last season, scoring two top 10s and a best finish of third at Texas in November.
The immediate plan is to go for Rookie of the Year honors in Trucks this season alongside teammates Joey Coulter and Tim George Jr., with a calculated plan to go to Sprint Cup someday.
Driving for Brad Keselowski's fledgling Camping World Truck team last season, Kligerman finished 11th in points with four top fives and eight top 10s, including back-to-back runner-up finishes at Texas in June and Kansas in July.
Kligerman will run for another Truck title with Keselowski and split a Nationwide Series car with him while driving for Roger Penske.
Malsam's 2011 season ended after three races, when DNQs in the first two races of the season and an engine failure at Darlington in March caused Randy Moss Motorsports to shut down his No. 25 truck.
But Malsam will return to the sport this season at the Nationwide level, after securing G-Oil sponsorship and landing a ride at Tri-Star Motorsports.
There, he'll rely on the guidance of veteran teammates Jeff Green and Mike Bliss to help take him to the next level.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Last year's Nationwide Series champion will see his efforts rewarded by Roush Fenway Racing this season with a Daytona 500 ride and a bid at a second consecutive Nationwide title.
Don't expect Stenhouse to hang around Nationwide forever, though.
Owner Jack Roush has said that Stenhouse has earned his Sprint Cup opportunity, and as soon as sponsorship is available, he'll move the young Mississippi native up to stock car racing's highest level on a full-time basis.
Sweet, a California native, will inherit the No. 38 Turner Motorsports ride from Jason Leffler in the Nationwide Series this season, splitting time in Kasey Kahne.
Sweet has the support of Great Clips, and the sponsor has been waiting to move him up from limited Camping World Truck rides for the past few seasons.
As a part of one of the most potent teams in the series not to also run Sprint Cup, Sweet will have ample opportunity to show off in 2012.
The former Team Red Bull development driver finished ninth in Camping World Truck points last season with two top fives and 11 top 10s. His reward was two Sprint Cup opportunities with the dissolving team, which entered a third car to help him show off skills for prospective future employers.
JR Motorsports liked what they saw, hiring Whitt to replace Aric Almirola in the No. 88 car in the Nationwide Series.
Whitt will look to take advantage of the high-profile opportunity, which also gave Brad Keselowski his big break in the sport.