Drivers 21 and Under Who Could Be Part of the Next Wave of NASCAR Superstars

Jerry Bonkowski@@jerrybonkowskiFeatured ColumnistDecember 15, 2015

Drivers 21 and Under Who Could Be Part of the Next Wave of NASCAR Superstars

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    Jason Hirschfeld/Associated Press

    With Jeff Gordon now retired and Tony Stewart set to retire after the 2016 season, the transition to the next generation of NASCAR stars has begun.

    And that transition begins with drivers who are 21 and under. While some may still be too young to legally drink, it’s not preventing them from being showered by champagne if they make it to Victory Lane.

    And several of them have already reached Victory Lane—multiple times, in fact, for some.

    Let’s take a look at 10 drivers 21 and under who have begun or are already well on their way to becoming part of the next generation of NASCAR stars.

Ryan Blaney, 21 Years Old

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    Garry Jones/Associated Press

    Ryan Blaney technically still fits in this category, even though he’ll turn 22 on Dec. 31.

    The son of former sprint car legend and Sprint Cup driver Dave Blaney, Ryan has shown such great promise driving for both Team Penske and the Wood Brothers that the latter has decided to compete on a full Sprint Cup season in 2016 for the first time since 2006.

    In 16 Sprint Cup starts in 2015 for the Wood Brothers, Blaney recorded one top-five and two top-10s, replacing Trevor Bayne in the No. 21 car after Bayne was promoted full-time to the Sprint Cup Series with Roush Fenway Racing in 2015.

    Blaney was even more spectacular in 2015 in the Xfinity Series. In just 13 starts, he recorded two wins, nine top-five and 10 top-10 finishes. He also competed in five Camping World Truck Series races, winning one, recording four top-five and five top-10 finishes.

John Hunter Nemechek, 18 Years Old

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    Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

    It’s hard to believe that John Hunter Nemechek has already made 30 career starts in the Camping World Truck Series—and he’s just 18 years old.

    The younger Nemechek is the future of Nemco Motorsports, owned by his father, veteran Sprint Cup driver “Front Row Joe” Nemechek.

    John Hunter is slated to run the entire Truck Series schedule in 2016. He really came into his own in 2015, making 18 starts, earning his first career Truck Series win, as well as eight top-five and 10 top-10 finishes.

    And perhaps the best part of Nemechek’s season is he finished 12th in the overall rankings despite missing five starts.

Chase Elliott, 20 Years Old

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    Steve Helber/Associated Press

    The son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, young 20-year-old Chase is already on his way to becoming a NASCAR star.

    First, he won the Xfinity Series championship in 2014 at the age of 18. Then, he finished second in 2015 at the age of 19.

    And now in 2016, he will replace one of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history, Jeff Gordon, in the legendary No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

    Admittedly, Elliott struggled in five scattered Sprint Cup starts in 2015, with finishes of 16th, 18th (twice), 38th and 41st. And he’s likely going to have a learning curve when he moves to full-time status in 2016.

    Still, the natural talent Elliott has displayed up to this point all but guarantees he’s going to be a big star soon enough—and potentially may become one of the faces of NASCAR going forward into the next couple of decades.

Erik Jones, 19 Years Old

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Erik Jones won’t turn 20 until next May, and yet he already has nine NASCAR wins and a Truck Series championship (2015) to his credit.

    Jones drove to the Truck title this season with a flair and skill that isn’t typically seen until someone has a number of seasons and championship battles under his belt.

    Instead, it’s pretty clear the Michigan native has learned a great deal from his team owner, 2015 Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch—and he’s learned those lessons quite quickly and adeptly.

    Consider that in 23 Truck starts in 2015, Jones earned three wins, 11 top-five and 20 top-10 finishes, along with five poles. Also in 2015, he competed in 23 of 33 Xfinity Series races, earning two wins, 13 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes, along with three poles.

    The biggest problem Jones faces is that there likely won’t be any room at the Joe Gibbs Racing Sprint Cup Series inn for at least three more seasons.

    Will Jones be patient and wait until it is his turn to be promoted, or will he play out his contract at JGR and move to another team that covets his talent? He certainly would not be short of potential suitors, that’s for sure.

Cole Custer, 17 Years Old

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    Derik Hamilton/Associated Press

    The son of Stewart-Haas Racing vice president Joe Custer, Cole has proven to be a quick study on the Camping World Truck Series.

    Custer competed on the Truck circuit on a part-time basis in both 2014 and 2015. Combined over the two seasons, he made 19 starts and earned two wins, four top-five and 10 top-10 finishes, along with three poles.

    And we have to keep reminding ourselves that he’s still just 17 years old.

    Custer turns 18 on January 23 and will be eligible to run the full Truck schedule, providing he has the sponsorship to do so.

Cameron Hayley, 19 Years Old

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    Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    Cameron Hayley has proven they do more than just play hockey in Canada. They actually have some pretty good race car drivers north of the border too.

    After two seasons in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West, the Calgary, Alberta native showed great potential in his first full season in the Truck Series in 2015.

    On the K&N circuit, he was spectacular in 2013: In 15 starts, he had one win, 12 top-five and 15 top-10 finishes, along with six poles. Plus, he finished second in the overall season standings.

    He made only three starts in the Truck series in 2014, but then had an impressive season as a full-fledged rookie in 2015. In 23 starts, while he didn’t earn a victory, he did have four top-five and 13 top-10 finishes, ending the season sixth in the overall standings.

    Hayley is primed for even greater success in a Truck in 2016.

Christopher Bell, 20 Years Old

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    Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    Norman, Oklahoma native Christopher Bell turns 21 on Wednesday, and has shown to be a driver with great talent and potential.

    In 2015, he split his racing schedule between the Camping World Truck Series, the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West and the CARS Super Late Model Tour.

    In a Truck, he made seven starts, earning one win, two top-five and three top-10 finishes for a team owned by reigning Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch.

    In the K&N West series, he made just two starts, yet managed a runner-up finish at Iowa and 15th-place finish at Irwindale, California.

    And in the CARS series, Bell was near-perfect. In just four starts, he earned three wins and a runner-up finish.

    He’s ready to make the next step in his career. Keep his name in the back of your memory bank: You’ll be hearing a lot more about him in 2016.

William Byron, 18 Years Old

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    William Byron
    William Byron(Photo courtesy Nigel Kinraid/Kyle Busch Motorsports)

    A Charlotte, North Carolina native, William Byron just turned 18 on Nov. 29.

    But as a 17-year-old, Byron absolutely dominated the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East circuit in 2015. In 14 starts, he won four races, had five top-fives and 11 top-10s, along with three poles.

    He capped off the season by winning the East championship, one of the youngest champions ever in that series.

    He had an average start per race of 3.8 and an average finish of 6.8. His worst finish of the season was just 15th.

    He also made two starts in the K&N Pro Series West, finishing second and fifth. He also made two starts in the ARCA Series, finishing runner-up at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis, and was involved in a wreck at Kentucky that left him with a 32nd-place finish, the only blemish on his overall 2015 racing campaign.

Ben Rhodes, 18 Years Old

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    It’s not every day that a young and promising driver leaves JR Motorsports, but that’s what Louisville, Kentucky native Ben Rhodes did at the end of the 2015 season.

    The reason was simple: He wanted to get more seat time, and being a part-time driver at JRM limited his development and opportunities.

    Still, Rhodes made the most of the opportunities he had in 2015, making 10 starts for JRM, including two top-10 finishes.

    That performance admittedly was far less than what Rhodes did in 2014, when he dominated the K&N Pro Series East, with five wins, 11 top-five and 13 top-10 finishes and six poles in 16 starts. All those culminated in the series championship for the then-17-year-old.

    Rhodes has an outstanding natural talent reminiscent of drivers like Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. The more seat time he can get in 2016 will only help in his bid to eventually reach the Sprint Cup Series.

Todd Gilliland, 15 Years Old

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    Todd Gilliland
    Todd Gilliland(Photo courtesy Venturini Motorsports)

    Yes, you read that right, Todd Gilliland—son of NASCAR veteran driver David Gilliland—is just 15 years old.

    And while he will have to wait until his 16th birthday on May 15 to be eligible to race in the Camping World Truck Series, the younger Gilliland is off to a great start in his racing career.

    Last month, he made his first career start in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West that his father and grandfather competed in when they were younger, and went out and won at Phoenix.

    At 15 years old (we can’t help but repeating that).

    But wait, there’s more. In his first two career starts in the ARCA Series in 2015, Gilliland earned a win at Toledo and a ninth-place showing at Iowa Speedway.

    At 15 years old.

    And in the CARS Late Model Stock Tour, Gilliland made eight starts and earned one win, three top-five and four top-10 finishes.

    Again, at just 15 years old, at a time when he still isn’t eligible to earn his North Carolina driver’s license.

    It makes you wonder just how much better he’ll be in 2016 after he turns 16.

    Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

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