NASCAR used to be a sport where experience was king. You had to pay your dues and work your way up the ladder to get a top-notch ride.
Then, Jeff Gordon entered the picture. Gordon was an almost immediate success, and he brought a storm of attention and fans into the NASCAR fold. He became the sport’s most dominant driver for more than a decade.
Other car-owners took notice. And in a ten year span from 1999 to 2009, NASCAR’s Rookie of the Year list reads like a list of who’s who — Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch, and more. Each of them entered the sport in top-notch equipment and succeeded immediately.
Fast-forward to today: Now, breaking into NASCAR’s top series is more difficult because of sponsorship woes. But standing in the wings is the next crop of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series young guns to follow in Gordon’s footsteps. Here are a few to watch out for in the future:
1. Trevor Bayne
Yes, Trevor Bayne won the 2011 Daytona 500. And, no, he could not technically be qualified to be a Rookie of the Year candidate because he has too many starts under his belt. But the reality is that Bayne drives for the Wood Brothers, an under-funded team that doesn’t attempt all NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races.
This potential “young gun” hasn’t had a full-time opportunity to demonstrate his potential. But in 2012, he has two top ten finishes in only six starts. If he ever gets a full-time sponsor (or joins a a larger team with better equipment), Bayne could make a huge splash — and live up to the hype that followed his Daytona 500 victory.
2. Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
In one sense, you could say Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. is already a successful young gun — he bested veteran Elliott Sadler to win the 2011 NASCAR Nationwide Series championship, and he sits third in Nationwide points so far this year.
So Stenhouse is ready to make his mark on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and Roush-Fenway Racing believes in him. Stenhouse is the driver-in-waiting for the famous number 6 — if sponsors come his way.
“We’ve got the decal for the top of the roof on that 6 car all organized for Ricky — as soon as I can find sponsorship for it, he is good to go,” car-owner Jack Roush said.
When that sponsor comes along, look for Stenhouse to make a name for himself at NASCAR’s top level.
3. Austin Dillon
22-year-old Austin Dillon may be Richard Childress’ grandson, but that doesn’t mean he’s getting a free ride. Dillon has proven his talent on the track. In 2011, only his second full-time season, he became the youngest ever NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion. And in 2012, he sits solidly second in points in his first season in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
The kid has talent, and with Childress’ backing, he could go a long way in NASCAR’s top series. He’s also driven Dale Earnhardt’s famous number 3 throughout his early career, so don’t be surprised to see him resurrect the legend’s number when he makes his eventual move to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
4. Darrell Wallace
18-year-old Darrell Wallace may have the least experience of the drivers on this list, but he could make the greatest mark on NASCAR history. Wallace is an uber-talented African-American driver, a product of NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program.
But don’t think he’s getting a shot because of his skin color. “We really feel that Darrell is a guy that has a gift behind the wheel,” car-owner J. D. Gibbs told The New York Times. And in his first-ever Nationwide Series race at Iowa Speedway, he proved his talent, finishing ninth.
But once again, lack of sponsorship is holding Wallace back. If sponsorship comes his way, Wallace has incredible potential to impact NASCAR — both on and off the track. As Brad Daughtery told NASCAR.com, “He could become iconic.”
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