5 NASCAR Drivers on the Brink of Superstardom

Christopher Leone@ChristopherlionSenior Analyst IJune 6, 2013

5 NASCAR Drivers on the Brink of Superstardom

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    Dale Earnhardt Jr. Tony Stewart. Jeff Gordon. Jimmie Johnson.

    All four are huge stars within the NASCAR stratosphere, and they've been on top for the better part of the past decade.

    But as with any sport, there will be turnover at the top, not only in the standings but also in the race for sponsorship and merchandise sales. The stars have already seen it with the addition of Danica Patrick to the Sprint Cup level, as she has immediately taken a huge chunk out of media coverage and promotion.

    But Patrick aside, there's a deep crowd of drivers who are closing in on the same level of fame. They're quietly (for the most part) building solid resumes, either with a mid-pack Sprint Cup team or decent team in Nationwide or Camping World Trucks, and are going to break out soon.

    Of the dozens of drivers with that kind of star potential, these are the five who shine brightest.

5. Aric Almirola

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    Almirola has, somewhat quietly, established himself as a bona fide Sprint Cup driver this year. Though he hasn't cracked the top five in a race yet, with four top-10s in 13 races and an average finish of 16.8, he's 12th in points, only 15 out of the top 10.

    It's an affirmation of the talent that numerous teams have seen in him, from Joe Gibbs Racing at the beginning of his career to Dale Earnhardt Inc. and JR Motorsports afterward.

    Add in the fact that Almirola drives for Richard Petty, the sport's all-time winningest driver, in the legendary No. 43 car, and the potential for superstardom is even greater. NASCAR is a sport that prides itself on tradition, and seeing a new generation of driver restore one of the sport's final remaining links to a bygone era back to its rightful place is certainly an enthralling prospect.

4. Darrell Wallace Jr.

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    Joe Gibbs Racing isn't rushing along the man they call "Bubba" in the development process the way they did with Joey Logano years ago, and that patience looks like it'll pay off when he makes it to Sprint Cup.

    Last year, Wallace started four Nationwide races and put up exactly the kind of results JGR hopes for at that level. He finished in the top 10 three times, led 36 laps at Iowa and even added a pole at Dover.

    This year, Wallace ranks eighth in Truck Series points through six races, with a best finish of fifth at Martinsville, another pole at Dover and 161 laps led so far. He's in quality equipment with Kyle Busch Motorsports, and he's done a great job of preserving it (both of his crash-related DNFs have come within 15 laps of the finish). He's still a couple of years out of the Cup level, but expect Wallace to be a big star when he makes it.

3. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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    The driver best known to casual NASCAR fans as "Danica Patrick's boyfriend" actually has a far more impressive resume than his Sprint Cup rookie rival girlfriend.

    Stenhouse, once removed from his Roush Fenway Racing car in Nationwide after wrecking too many times, rebounded from that career setback by winning the past two NNS titles and earning a promotion to Sprint Cup. Jack Roush valued Stenhouse's talent enough to put him in the same No. 17 car that Matt Kenseth won two Daytona 500s and a Cup title with.

    All of that pressure could make the best young talent crack, but so far Stenhouse is holding his own. In fact, he's currently 14th in points despite failing to score even a top-10 this season. That's the kind of consistency Kenseth was known for—and it'll likely stay the same, albeit a little higher up the running order—in the near future.

2. Kyle Larson

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    Larson is the latest driver to be hyped as the next Jeff Gordon, a driver who can come in from a young age and start schooling the established names right away. He's also, perhaps, the last great hope for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, as the team continues to recover from half a decade of sporadic performance.

    Because of his willingness to race anything, anywhere, at any time, Larson has already earned the respect of some of the sport's diehards. Because he has a K&N Pro Series East championship under his belt, a Truck Series win at Rockingham this year and a series of strong performances with Turner Scott Motorsports in Nationwide, he's earned the attention of even casual fans.

    Now, he just has to wait for his Sprint Cup shot.

    Whether EGR creates a new team for him or lets go one of their current drivers, Larson will be in Sprint Cup sooner than later. And when he makes it, he has the talent to take the series by storm.

1. Joey Logano

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    Logano has already been all over the news enough, both this year and early in his career, to be considered a star. In his youth, it was because he was the sport's next big thing; this year, it's because of his feuds with Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart.

    But don't let the spoiled brat image fool you; when Logano is on, he's earning his paycheck. And he's figuring out how to stay on more often than not.

    Four of his five top-10 Cup finishes this season have been in the top five. Those include the near-win at Fontana that saw Logano wreck Hamlin, as well as another third-place finish at Richmond. Currently, the No. 22 driver ranks 18th in points, despite adjusting to a new team (which itself has a new manufacturer) and losing crew chief Todd Gordon for the Darlington and Charlotte events.

    Things are only going to get better for Logano now that he's a rung up the ladder in the Penske organization from where he was at Joe Gibbs Racing. Teammate Brad Keselowski may be the defending champion, but Logano's star may burn brighter once he gets comfortable.

    For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.

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