What This Year's Crop of Rookies Means for the Future of the Sprint Cup Series

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistMarch 9, 2014

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One of the most important and vital aspects that will be crucial to NASCAR's future growth is this year's rookie class.

With eight full-time drivers competing for Rookie of the Year honors, this season's first-year class is one of the largest in the last two decades.

Justin Allgaier (No. 51 car), Michael Annett (7), Alex Bowman (23), Daytona 500 pole-sitter Austin Dillon (3), Parker Kligerman (30), Kyle Larson (42), Ryan Truex (83) and Cole Whitt (26) make up the class of 2014.

Some will succeed and potentially become big stars, while others may not.

Some may spend the next 20 or more years in the Sprint Cup Series, while others may only have a few seasons in NASCAR's premier series before they find themselves in the Nationwide or Camping World Trucks Series—if not completely out of the sport.

But no matter how many do wind up sticking, they unquestionably will play a big part in the future of the sport and the sanctioning body.

With several of today's biggest stars already in their 40s, it's likely many will not still be racing 10 years from now—unless they want to emulate Morgan Shepherd, who is still behind the wheel at the age of 72 (born in 1941).

Matt Kenseth turns 42 on Monday, Tony Stewart turns 43 in May, Jeff Gordon turns 43 in August, Greg Biffle turns 45 in December, Bobby Labonte turns 50 in May and Joe Nemechek is 50.

And then there's several drivers who have already scaled back to part-time status, including Michael Waltrip, who turns 51 in April, Dave Blaney, who is 51, and Terry Labonte, who is the senior member of the group at 57 and most likely in his final season on the Cup circuit.

In the Nationwide Series, Jeff Green is 53, Carl Long and David Starr are both 46, Mike Bliss is almost 49, Mike Wallace turns 55 on Monday and Mike Harmon is 56.

In the Camping World Trucks Series, Jennifer Jo Cobb is 40 and Ron Hornaday Jr. is 55.

And let's not forget that Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's most popular driver the last 11 seasons, turns 40 in October.

Nothing lasts forever, and that includes NASCAR drivers.

But this year's rookie class is fairly stout. Who will go on to become stars in the sport and, by default, big fan favorites? You can probably make a pretty good case for the likes of Dillon, Larson and Allgaier.

Kligerman is finding his transition to the Sprint Cup level has been trying, being the only driver in the series—rookie or veteran—who has recorded DNFs (did not finish) in his first two races this season.

And Annett, Bowman, Truex and Whitt are doing their best to make a name for themselves.

All of these young drivers will be pivotal not only in NASCAR retaining many of its existing fans, especially fans whose long-time favorite driver retires in the coming years but also in attracting new fans.

Young fans, in particular.

Why do you think NASCAR has spent millions of dollars in its social media effort? To attract, connect with and that most crucial word—engage—with young men and women who are searching for a sport and an athlete to call their own.

It's good to see such a large rookie class. That means more young drivers are getting an opportunity to rub fenders with the biggest names in the sport. It was only a few years ago that such was not the case, where maybe one or two rookies would jump up to the big time each season.

Besides, what's one of NASCAR fans' greatest pastimes? Saying who will be the next Gordon, Stewart or Junior.

Who do you think may become the sport's next superstar from this class? Let us know below in "comments."

Follow me on Twitter @Jerry Bonkowski

Also, catch me this Sunday morning on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90, as I fill-in host on "The FrontStretch."


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