These young guns have NASCAR futures so bright they need shades
NOV 15, 2013 3:18p ET
It happens at least once a generation -- a few established NASCAR stars retire and a group of young drivers rises up to replace them.
Next year, Mark Martin will step away from racing to become a test driver for Stewart-Haas Racing, Jeff Burton is expected to throttle back to a part-time schedule and Bobby Labonte's not likely to run full-time, either.
There will be no shortage of replacements.
Eager to move up are a whole host of talented newcomers ready and willing to take the next steps as they ascend the NASCAR ladder.
There's Kyle Larson, the 21-year-old who will replace Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Chevrolet next year. Larson already has won in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and soon will be named the NASCAR Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year.
Ryan Blaney, just 19 years old, has two Truck Series and one Nationwide victory to his credit in his brief career.
Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr., who turned 20 last month, electrified the crowd at Martinsville Speedway by winning a Truck Series race and in the process becoming just the second African-American driver to ever score a victory in a NASCAR touring series race.
Hendrick Motorsports is carefully grooming Chase Elliott, son of legendary racer Bill Elliott, to eventually become a Sprint Cup driver. Not yet 18, Elliott has won a Truck Series race.
And just last week 17-year-old Erik Jones won in a Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota Tundra at Phoenix, making him the youngest winner in any of NASCAR's top three divisions. Ever.
Austin Dillon, 23, won the Truck Series championship in 2011 and leads the points heading into Saturday nightâs Nationwide Series finale. His younger brother, Ty, also has a solid future ahead of him.
Throw in drivers like 2012 truck champ James Buescher and Jeb Burton, and it's clear the pool of young talent is as good as it's ever been. Maybe the best ever.
"I suspect the more senior drivers are looking over their shoulders saying, 'Man, I know this bunch is going to want my seat pretty soon,' so that makes them a little bit better driver, too, I think," NASCAR President Mike Helton said of the current crop of young guns.
How many of them will go on to become actual stars at the NASCAR Sprint Cup level, though?
That's a question that only time can answer.
"It's hard to come up through the ranks nowadays because the cars are so much different to drive," said Sprint Cup driver and former Nationwide and Truck Series team owner Kevin Harvick. "We've got a lot of guys that are winning in the Truck Series, in the Nationwide Series. But the telltale sign of the whole thing is when you get to Cup and you got to go through the whole learning curve of how to drive the cars, because they are so hard to drive. They're so much faster than anything they've ever driven."
The transition can prove daunting.
Joey Logano was just 18 years old when he replaced Tony Stewart behind the wheel of the powerhouse No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. But in four years with the team, Logano never finished higher than 16th in points, won just two races and was not re-signed after 2012.
This year, Logano has found success with Penske Racing, where he is ninth in points, but he's not dominated the sport, certainly.
"This sport will challenge you in many different ways," said Logano, who is finally coming into his own at the age of 23. "A lot of ways I never thought it would challenge me. But it does. It's made me a better person because of it. Made me a stronger person because of it."
NASCAR President Helton lauded the feeder system of lower-tier series that the sanctioning body has successfully built in the last few years. One of the unintended consequences of it might be creating too many talented young drivers. Or at least more than can be accommodated among the teams.
Kyle Busch, himself a former young gun and now Bubba Wallaceâs team owner, said it's a hard road to climb.
"It's unfortunate that there's not as many good rides out there as there are young drivers," said Busch. "There's young drivers across the nation in late models, and still in legends cars right now growing up, that may never get the opportunity.
"But you know, it's how hard you work," Busch said. "It's how much effort you put forth, and being able to get here and doing the right things, of course saying the right things also helps, but winning races is the ultimate thing."
Harvick said the proof comes in the first two years at the Sprint Cup level.
"You just have to see what happens when they get here," said Harvick. "The first thing that happens is you have all this attention, all this pressure, how you deal with that. It's about the people that are around you. At some point you're going to be in a situation where your cars don't perform, you're not having things go right on the racetrack, how you deal with that. What you do with the money the second year, all of a sudden not ever having any money before, how do you deal with all of that?"
And that separates who makes it and who doesn't.
"It's not easy," said Harvick. "There's really no training ground for it in our sport, for this level, to judge who's going to be good and who's not, because we've seen so many of them that can win Nationwide and Truck races. I'm not going to say that's not hard, but it's just not like it is here (in Cup)."