5-Year Projections for All of NASCAR's Young Stars
Do you remember when Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte were first breaking into the Sprint Cup Series? How about when Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick were making their first laps in the top series?
Every few years, a new crop of talent breaks into the Sprint Cup Series and becomes the sport's newest stars. Right now there are a handful of drivers who are ready to take that next step and become the future of the sport.
Let's take a look at nine drivers who are all 31 years old or younger, and who are ready to make their mark in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. I will look into the crystal ball and tell you what to expect from each of them over the course of the next five years of their careers.
1. Kyle Busch
The sky is the limit for Kyle Busch. At the young age of 28, Busch has already had a more successful career than most could ever dream of.
He is a 26-time winner in the Sprint Cup Series and has qualified for the Chase six times in his eight full-time seasons. On top of that, he is the all-time wins leader in the Nationwide Series, having compiled 58 victories. He won the series title in 2009.
Don't expect Busch to let up over the next five seasons. His win totals will continue to climb in all series, as there is no reason not to expect multiple wins every year. By the time the next five seasons are over, I fully expect Busch to have at least one Sprint Cup championship on his resume, though two is the more likely option.
2. Brad Keselowski
At 29 years old, Brad Keselowski already has two series championships to his credit. He won the Nationwide Series title in 2010, and is the current defending Sprint Cup Series champion.
Keselowski is a nine-time winner in the Sprint Cup Series and is the cornerstone of Penske Racing. The 2012 season saw him post career highs in all major categories, but 2013 has seen Keselowski struggle in recent weeks.
He has failed to record a victory and has only posted two top-10 finishes in the last 11 races.
Though the past few months have been void of much success, the next five years still look bright for Keselowski. While I find it hard to believe he will ever be able to rekindle the magic he had in 2012 and win more championships, there is no reason to think that Keselowski won't be an annual participant in the Chase for many years to come.
3. Aric Almirola
After spending each year from 2005 through 2009 as a part-time driver in all three of NASCAR's top series, Almirola got his first full-time ride in 2010 in the Camping World Truck Series.
After a successful season there, he moved on to a full-time season in the Nationwide Series in 2011. He finished fourth in the standings driving for JR Motorsports, before earning his first full-time job in the Sprint Cup Series.
The 2012 season saw Almirola post four top-10 finishes, and end the season in 20th place in the standings. This season, he has already improved on those numbers. Through 19 races, Almirola has recorded five top-10 finishes and finds himself in 16th place in the standings.
The next five years should continue to see Almirola improve. I think he is still a year or two away from winning a race and being a serious contender for the Chase, but there is no doubt that Almirola will continue to be a top-20 driver in the point standings.
4. Joey Logano
When Joey Logano made his NASCAR debut in 2008, expectations were immediately through the roof. While he has found plenty of success in the Nationwide Series, his Sprint Cup career has failed to live up to expectations.
In his 166 races in a Sprint Cup Series car, Logano has recorded just two victories, and one of those was in a rain-shortened event. He has scored 49 top 10's and his career-best finish in the points is just a 16th-place effort back in 2010.
In his first season driving for Roger Penske, Logano is on pace to post career bests in top-five and top-10 finishes.
The next five years should see Logano continue on a similar path. At just 23 years old, he already has four full-time seasons in Sprint Cup under his belt. You almost have to believe that with the quality of teams he has been on, seeing as how it hasn't happened yet, a breakout season may never happen.
At such a young age, however, I suppose it is definitely still possible.
Logano should be good for a handful of victories over the next half-decade, and you have to assume that he will qualify for one or two Chases, but don’t expect him to be a serious championship contender anytime soon.
5. Brian Vickers
Brian Vickers is currently in his second season driving part-time in the Sprint Cup Series for Michael Waltrip Racing. Meanwhile, he is running a full-time season in the Nationwide Series for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Vickers and Sprint Cup team owner, Michael Waltrip, have been working on a deal that will get Vickers into the No. 55 on a full-time basis in 2014. After his most recent outing, a win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Vickers solidified his case for being a full-time competitor once again.
A three-time winner at the Sprint Cup level, the best may still be yet to come for the 29-year-old Vickers. Presumably, he will be on a team that continues to improve year-after-year, and he will be teamed with a couple of other fairly young and talented drivers, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr.
Once he re-assumes full-time duties in the sport’s top tier, I expect Vickers to be an annual winner. A 2009 qualifier for the Chase, Vickers should have no trouble in qualifying for the Chase in at least two of the next five seasons.
6. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was asked to fill some pretty big shoes when he was tabbed to take over for Matt Kenseth in the No. 17 car. Halfway through his rookie campaign, Stenhouse has shown some positive signs, but the results haven't been quite as good as hoped.
With 19 races completed, Stenhouse has failed to record a top 10, and sits in 21st place in the point standings. By comparison, Kenseth had posted six top-10 finishes and a win in the first 19 races of his rookie season.
Stenhouse, a two-time Nationwide Series champion, has finished in the top 20 in 14 of 19 races this season, including an 11th-place finish at Kansas, where he led 26 laps.
The next five years will see Stenhouse's production continue to increase. His top-10 tallies will improve on a year-to-year basis. While it won’t happen in 2013, Stenhouse will score his first career victory in the second-half the 2014 season. Expect him to be a consistent 10th to 15th-place points finisher beginning with the 2015 season.
7. Trevor Bayne
If there is anyone in NASCAR that doesn't have a full-time Sprint Cup ride that deserves it, it is Trevor Bayne. He is already a winner on the sport's biggest stage, and with his infectious personality and high-class character, he is a sponsor's dream.
Bayne has been running part-time in the Sprint Cup Series since 2010. The 2013 season marks the second time in his career that Bayne has run a full-time schedule in the Nationwide Series. He has posted one win and 10 top-10 finishes so far this season. He currently ranks 10th in the standings.
The next five years should see Bayne finally land a full-time ride in the sport's premier division. Whether Jack Roush adds a fourth car to his stable, or Bayne takes over for either Greg Biffle or Carl Edwards at some point, Bayne will undoubtedly get his shot.
When Bayne finally gets his opportunity, I expect him to make the most of it. He will be contending for wins on a regular basis, and will be one of the faces of the sport for many years to come.
8. Austin Dillon
Much like Trevor Bayne, look for Austin Dillon to be one of the faces of NASCAR's future. After a championship-winning performance in the 2011 Truck Series, Dillon moved on to the Nationwide Series in 2012.
He finished third in the points logging two wins, 27 top 10's, and finished on the lead lap in 32 of 33 events. Dillon is once again running full-time in 2013, while running a handful of races in the Sprint Cup.
With Kevin Harvick leaving Richard Childress Racing at the end of this year, the idea of Dillon taking over that car has been tossed around. If Dillon doesn't make the jump to full-time Sprint Cup action in 2014, it won't be long after.
As soon as Dillon makes the transition, expect big things. He was very impressive in the season-opening Daytona 500. He finished third in his qualifying race, and was running with the lead-pack when he was involved in a nine-car accident, through no fault of his own.
In five years, Dillon will be a full-time competitor in the Sprint Cup Series. After a season learning the ropes, Dillon will become a regular winner on the circuit, and has the potential to have a career similar to that of Kyle Busch.
9. Danica Patrick
Danica Patrick spent two part-time and one full-time season in the Nationwide Series prior to her big-league call-up. Not surprisingly, she has struggled with the transition.
In 19 starts during the 2013 Sprint Cup Series season, Patrick has posted just a single top-10 finish, her impressive eighth-place run in the season-opening Daytona 500. Only six of Patrick's starts this year have resulted in finishes better than 25th.
The next five years will see Patrick constantly remain in the spotlight. She is one of the sport's two most popular drivers, and has ushered in a legion of new fans.
Her results should certainly start to improve as the years go by, but the learning curve may prove to be steep. Patrick probably would have been best served to run another season or two in the Nationwide Series before making the jump to the Sprint Cup Series.
With the way this season is going, I have a hard time believing she will ever be a Chase-contending driver, but as long as she continues to be one of the sport's most popular figures, she will continue to have a ride in the top series, and if the chips fall just right she may up in victory lane once or twice.