For the first time in a long time, the Sprint Cup Series will see a bona fide Rookie of the Year candidate in 2013 when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. steps into the No. 17 Ford at Roush Fenway Racing. There, he'll replace Matt Kenseth, who has run that car full-time since 2000, taking one championship and two Daytona 500 victories along the way.
Jack Roush is entrusting Stenhouse with quite a bit come next season. That's an important step forward for NASCAR, which has seen many of the same drivers at the top for years now, as it attempts to build a strong crop of new, young drivers. There's no doubt that the sport needs some fresh blood if it wants to reclaim the heights it once reached.
Luckily, there's an incredibly talented class of young drivers currently biding time in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series. While they wait for their first Cup opportunities, they're putting together some pretty impressive resumes in the lower levels, frequently contending for race wins and even championships.
So when will the future of Sprint Cup arrive? In some cases, probably sooner than you think:
Both Paul Menard and Jeff Burton's contracts at Richard Childress Racing expire after the 2013 season. While Menard is likely safe due to his family sponsorship, Burton's stock has fallen over the past few years, while Dillon won last year's Camping World Truck championship and has been consistently strong in Nationwide.
If Truex can get two seasons of nearly full-time Nationwide competition under his belt in the next two years, it's almost a sure bet that he'll score race wins and find more sponsors to complement his Grime Boss deal. That sets his projected Sprint Cup debut at about 2015, likely with a fourth car at either Joe Gibbs Racing (his current Nationwide employer) or Michael Waltrip Racing (where his brother Martin drives).
Owner Steve Turner has guaranteed Buescher that he'll move up to the Nationwide Series next year if he can win the Camping World Truck title this year. But given how well Buescher has driven in both series this year—remember, he won the Nationwide season opener at Daytona—that should probably happen anyway. If Turner has aspirations to move up full-time to Sprint Cup, they'd be wise to hand the keys over to Buescher in 2015.
Turner Motorsports simply has too much talent not to explore a move to Sprint Cup racing in the near future. Allgaier, a former Penske Racing development driver and a frequent contender for wins in the Nationwide Series, has certainly earned a shot to make that move as well. The ultimate scenario for Turner would be to move up both Allgaier and James Buescher in 2015, work through a year or two of growing pains, and then start contending for Chase spots in 2017.
The younger Dillon brother has been about two years behind Austin's progress since both joined NASCAR, and don't expect that to change. By the time Ty makes it through the Nationwide Series, he may be able to replace either Paul Menard or Kevin Harvick, or even drive a returning fourth Richard Childress Racing car if the team can find sponsorship for it.
NASCAR would love to have "Bubba" in its top series on a full-time basis, both because he's a highly talented driver and would represent a success story in its Drive for Diversity program. But with a crowded Joe Gibbs Racing development program, it may be another year before he even gets a full-time shot at Nationwide. By 2016, though, Matt Kenseth may be looking at hanging up the gloves in the No. 20, and that's where Wallace might end up.
This one is a bit of a toss-up depending on where Kligerman ends up next season. He went from Brad Keselowski Racing to Red Horse Racing in the Camping World Truck Series, and has opportunities to move up full-time to Nationwide in 2013 after only getting to run a few races for Penske Racing this year. We could see Kligerman in Cup with a low-level team a la Josh Wise or Cole Whitt as early as 2014, but if he wants a quality ride, 2016 is probably when to expect him.
Blaney's star rose dramatically when he had an incredible run with Tommy Baldwin Racing in a Nationwide race at Richmond this spring. He's now under the wing of Roger Penske, with whom he'll split Nationwide duties with Brad Keselowski, and he drives Keselowski's entry in the Camping World Truck Series. Two full seasons of each (remember, he's only 18), plus the coaching of Penske, Keselowski, and father Dave, mean that Ryan will be ready to win races out of the box in a 2017 Cup debut.
Pastrana would do well to learn from the mistakes that Danica Patrick has made in rushing into Sprint Cup without building a stronger stock car racing foundation—especially while he's still racing rally cars and riding motorcycles. He's proven himself a quick learner, but Sprint Cup is an every weekend commitment, and he's one of the busiest athletes in the world. Pastrana could make his first Cup start as early as 2015, but unless he shocks the world and gives up everything else as early as next year, he may not be in Cup full-time for a long time.
Long, the 2010 Snowball Derby winner, may be NASCAR's best hope at producing a female driver that can contend for race victories and championships in the future. Running with the underfunded ML Motorsports team in the Nationwide Series this year, she often qualifies near the front of the grid and hangs on long enough to score top-20 finishes. Given what she does in that caliber of equipment, it'll be a surprise if a better team doesn't give her a chance to do more soon, although as with Pastrana, her Cup debut may be a long way off.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.