10 Young Drivers with the Potential to Star in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
NASCAR's youth movement of the early to mid 2000s is officially dead. After years of teams seeking the latest and greatest young driver who team owners and sponsors hoped would be the next Jeff Gordon, sticking with veteran drivers has become the norm in the Sprint Cup Series. It didn't help that the economic downtown drastically cut available sponsorship dollars and eliminated many teams' driver development programs.
But as always, NASCAR will still need a crop of young drivers who will slowly but surely take over the ranks of the Sprint Cup Series. A few of them are already making starts in the top division, but others are still battling through the Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series in a bid to be the next big star.
Here's a ranking of NASCAR's best young driver prospects who have the best chance to become household names in American auto racing's top series.
10. Jeb Burton
Nepotism has long been strong in NASCAR, and Jeb Burton's opportunities in the Camping World Truck Series would seem rooted in the fact that his dad is former Daytona 500 winner Ward Burton and his uncle is current Sprint Cup driver Jeff Burton. But early in 2013, Jeb proved he could steer a solid wheel.
Despite just five Truck Series starts in 2012, Burton's full-time campaign in 2013 started with three poles, a pair of Top Fives and three Top Tens in the series' first five races. Burton is already a title contender in that series and appears ready to continue his ascent to higher levels. Sure, his name will help. But if the 20-year-old Burton keeps driving like his start to 2013, teams will be interested for even better reasons.
9. Landon Cassill
The case of the 24-year-old Cassill has undoubtedly been a curious one, and it's reached the point where you can't help but wonder if his best opportunities in NASCAR have gone. The Iowa driver has made 95 starts in the Sprint Cup Series for Phoenix Racing, BK Racing, TRG and more but never has scored a Top Ten.
But Cassill has never had the stability of a full-time ride in a lower NASCAR season either. Though he did race regularly in 19 starts for JR Motorsports in 2008, Cassill wasn't renewed after posting just five Top Ten finishes. He's never won in any NASCAR series, and now is a back marker in Joe Falk's No. 33 Cup entry.
8. Alex Bowman
Alex Bowman, 20, hails from Tucson, Ari., and made a splash within his first 15 Nationwide Series starts. Bowman scored a pair of Top Ten finishes in his first three starts of 2013 for RAB Racing and later a pole position at Texas Motor Speedway. Most important to team owners fielding young drivers, Bowman finished every Nationwide race he started in that period.
Bowman broke into the national racing scene with six wins in 21 ARCA Racing Series starts in 2011 and 2012, and appears to be inching closer to that in Nationwide. RAB Racing's No. 98 isn't the best team in the series nor its best funded, but Bowman is still using the opportunity to his advantage. With advancement, we'll likely see more success from him.
7. Parker Kligerman
The 2009 ARCA Racing Series runner-up, Parker Kligerman broke into a full-time national NASCAR touring series ride driving for Brad Keselowski in 2011 after making occasional Nationwide starts in 2009 and 2010. Kligerman led only 31 laps in 25 starts for Keselowski in 2011, but scored four Top Fives and eight Top Tens.
Kligerman stayed with Keselowski for 2012 in the same ride but unexpectedly parted ways with Keselowski's team after only 11 races. The Connecticut native didn't miss a beat and signed with Red Horse Racing, where he closed out last season with a win and two poles. Kligerman is now driving full-time for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Nationwide Series and continues to trend upward—showing a remarkable resilience even when the chips seem down.
6. Trevor Bayne
Winning the Daytona 500 is never a bad thing, but for Trevor Bayne it may have come just a bit too early in his NASCAR career. The 2011 surprise winner of the prestigious season-opening event lobbed merciless expectations on the part-time Sprint Cup and full-time Nationwide Series wheelman.
Bayne has just two Cup Top Ten finishes since his Daytona win and just one Nationwide win. He hasn't competed full-time in either series until this season, but the start looks promising. Bayne is a qualified racer who hit it big right away. In time, the 22-year-old should continue to develop into a racer that Ford and the Wood Brothers will want to keep around.
5. Justin Allgaier
Justin Allgaier's career seemed to derail when funding dried up for his Nationwide program at Penske Racing, after a pair of Top Ten point standing finishes in the No. 12. But Allgaier, 27, found new life at an unlikely place in Turner Motorsports in 2011.
Even with the switch, Allgaier has now built a three-season streak of at least one win per year. He also as Top Ten finish in nearly half of his Nationwide starts. One problem: there's not a clear route for Allgaier to the Cup Series at this point because Turner only runs teams in Nationwide.
4. Darrell Wallace, Jr.
The 19-year-old Wallace from Mobile, Ala., picked up a full-time ride with Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Camping World Truck Series this year and remains part of the Joe Gibbs Racing driver development program. In his first nine major starts (four in Nationwide last season; five in Trucks in 2013) Wallace has Top Ten finishes in five of them.
Wallace still has room to grow as a driver—look no further than his two early season DNFs in 2013—but he's a proven winner with six victories in the lower level K&N Pro Series East since 2010. Most importantly, his relationships with front running teams should allow his growth and talent as a driver to be much more visible.
3. Austin Dillon
There's little doubt that Austin Dillon has made it this far (a second year full-time Nationwide Series driver) this fast (he's 23) thanks to his grandfather being none other than Richard Childress. But Dillon has proved plenty talented along the way—enough, at least, to probably make the Sprint Cup drivers at Richard Childress Racing a bit nervous about the future.
Dillon was third in Nationwide Series points a year ago, winning two races along the way. He was the 2011 Camping World Truck Series title winner and has already developed a fast yet hard-nosed reputation.
2. Kyle Larson
The 2012 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East champion made his splash into the Nationwide Series at Daytona in an ugly way after his car launched into the catch fence of the track during a crash that injured more than 30 fans. But Larson's career is destined to vault from here.
Larson won his first Camping World Truck Series start of the year at Rockingham Speedway in April and has already tallied Top Ten finishes in half of his Nationwide events so far. His first of 2013 nearly doubled as Larson's first career Nationwide win when he lost to Kyle Busch at Bristol by just a few feet.
Larson, boosted by support from Chip Ganassi, seems to make anything he races turn to gold.
1. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
The two-time Nationwide Series champion barely makes it in to this list because he's moved further along the star track than every other driver mentioned. Driving the No. 17 for Roush-Fenway Racing, Stenhouse didn't score a Top Ten in his first 12 races, but finished 20th or better in ten of the season's first 12 events.
Stenhouse, 25, is already in a top-tier Cup ride and has the experience of winning both races and titles in Nationwide in his back pocket. As with most rookies, Stenhouse's strengths may push him too far, but it'll be just a matter of time until he's part of the Chase for the Sprint Cup discussion.