Top 10 Drivers Ready To Take The Next Step
Youth springs eternal in NASCAR, and never more so than right now, when the sport is in the midst of a movement that promises to eventually alter the landscape of stock-car racing's highest levels. The best crop of young drivers in decades is climbing the ladder with the speed of a qualifying lap at Atlanta, and a number of those up-and-comers are poised to enjoy career years in 2014.
Of course, not every young driver showing potential will meet or exceed the expectations placed upon them, just as factors such as sponsorship and ride availability always threaten to unexpectedly shift a career into neutral. But right now, the sheer number of young drivers on the rise is so vast, that it seems only a matter of time before many of them break through and make their own marks on the national divisions of NASCAR.
Clearly this is a transitional period, with some older drivers moving away from full-time competition and leaving a domino effect of open rides in their wake. The NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Camping World Trucks Series ranks are already overflowing with youthful promise, and this coming season will bring two of the more auspicious rookie candidates the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has seen in some time. It all adds up to a potential banner year for young drivers in NASCAR, and here are the top 10 ready to take the next step.
10. Ryan Reed, Roush Fenway Racing
The 20-year-old Reed is perhaps best known for competing with Type 1 diabetes, and will indeed have the diabetes awareness campaign of pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly on the hood of his No. 16 car in 2014. But the Bakersfield, Calif., native now has a chance to be better known for his results on the race track, given that he'll wheel one of Jack Roush's entries full-time in the Nationwide Series. Reed has shown some flashes, placing ninth last season in a Nationwide race at Richmond, and finishing on the lead lap in all but one of his six Nationwide starts in 2013. Now the former Legends and late model star has a chance to take a great leap forward in his first full-time campaign at NASCAR's national level.
9. Erik Jones, Kyle Busch Motorsports
Everyone knew the kid was good, given that he had a pair of Snowball Derby titles and an ARCA race victory to his name by the late summer of last year. Then he went out and stomped the field at Phoenix, leading 84 laps in November to become the youngest winner in the history of the Truck Series. The 17-year-old posts numbers that make you shake your head: five Truck starts in 2013, no finish worse than ninth. Yes, the equipment is top-notch. But there are a lot of kids in top-notch equipment who don't get the most out of it, and Jones does. In 2014 the Michigan native is expected to split the No. 51 truck with Kyle Busch, certainly raising the possibility of more race wins. And if he gets a chance at the driver's championship in 2015? Watch out.
8. Ty Dillon, Richard Childress Racing
His older brother may be garnering the most attention these days given his move to NASCAR's top level in the revered No. 3 car, but 21-year-old Ty is doing a fine job of following in Austin's footsteps. The younger Dillon moves up to the Nationwide Series this season, and into the same No. 3 program that Austin won the championship with a year ago. The runner-up for the Truck Series title last season, Ty has always been competitive in Nationwide events, and in 2014 he'll have the benefit of seasoned crew chief Danny Stockman Jr. calling the shots. Ty may not yet boast the national-series titles his older brother does, but in a Nationwide Series field that could be without six drivers who finished in the top 10 last season, he'll certainly have a chance to claim that first championship.
7. Ben Kennedy, Turner Scott Motorsports
The great grandson of NASCAR's founder may have raced primarily in the K&N Pro Series in 2013, but he certainly showed he could handle a car at NASCAR's national level in a head-turning fourth-place run in the Truck Series race at Martinsville in October. Now Kennedy, 22, moves up to the Truck circuit full-time, and in a proven ride -- the No. 31 of Turner Scott Motorsports, in which James Buescher won the championship in 2012. While Kennedy may face a learning curve in a deeper field of competition, his team certainly won't -- Michael Shelton is a proven crew chief who helped Buescher win six races and a title over the past two seasons. With Buescher off to RAB Racing and the Nationwide tour, the seat now opens for Kennedy, who couldn't ask for a better situation in his first year at NASCAR's national level.
6. Darrell Wallace Jr., Kyle Busch Motorsports
Wallace may have recorded a breakthrough much bigger than himself this past October, when he won a Truck Series event at Martinsville to become just the second African-American driver to claim a national series race. But that landmark alone didn't define his 2013 campaign, where the 20-year-old routinely challenged for race victories and finished eighth in final points. Wallace has always had talent, something that was evident in the handful of top-10s he recorded during limited Nationwide activity in 2012, and his first full-time campaign at the national level was everything it was expected to be. Wallace will likely be back in his No. 54 truck at KBM this season, and with Ty Dillon, Buescher and Brendan Gaughan all moving out of the series, he should be on the short list of top contenders for the title.
5. Chris Buescher, Roush Fenway Racing
James Buescher may have a national series championship, but many in racing circles have long been watching his younger cousin Chris, who has been terrorizing the ARCA ranks since he was 16, and is now moving into NASCAR full-time. As a Roush Fenway developmental driver, Buescher enjoyed a stellar ARCA career that included 10 race victories and the 2012 title, which he won by completing every lap that season. For 2014, Buescher moves into the No. 60 Roush car most recently driven by Travis Pastrana, who has returned to rally racing. That vehicle had speed almost every week, something the 21-year-old Buescher may be better positioned to take advantage of than his predecessor. Not every ARCA ace has made it in NASCAR, but Buescher certainly shows all the signs of being able to break through.
4. Jeb Burton, Turner Scott Motorsports
No offense intended to reigning champion Matt Crafton, but you could do much worse than picking the 21-year-old Burton to win the Truck Series crown in 2014. He certainly showed that potential last year, maximizing the speed in his No. 4 truck to the tune of seven poles and a fifth-place standing in final points that probably wasn't wholly indicative of how well he ran most of the season. Back for another year at Turner Scott and with a successful rookie campaign under his belt, the time certainly seems right for the Virginia native to take the next step. The key may be harnessing some of that raw speed and winning more often -- his lone 2013 victory at Texas in June was just one of many events where Burton was in the mix at the finish. A few more race wins could net a much bigger victory for Ward's son at the end of the year.
3. Kyle Larson, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Some will view it as taking advantage of a young talent already under contract, others will see it as only accelerating an inevitable progression. Either way, Larson is bound for life on the Sprint Cup Series with just one full-time season of national competition to his name. The kid just radiates talent, which has been evident in his stellar runs against Sprint Cup interlopers in the Nationwide Series, his Truck victory at Rockingham, or the way he wowed everyone with his prowess on the dirt at Eldora. Larson can do it -- but can EGR give him the equipment to make it happen? That's the huge question here, and it centers not on the driver, but the team. If EGR's car development improves, the potential is limitless. Otherwise, it's a lot to ask of a 21-year-old rookie to carry a team on his own.
2. Ryan Blaney, Penske Racing
Strangely enough, the young driver perhaps most ready for the Sprint Cup Series is still two rungs down on the ladder. Blaney won a race in the Nationwide Series last year -- something neither Larson nor Austin Dillon could do -- as part of an outstanding campaign that saw the 20-year-old competitive in everything he drove. Blaney may have competed full-time on the Truck Series last year, winning twice and finishing sixth in points, but it's his Nationwide exploits -- 10 top-10 finishes in 16 career starts -- that leave no doubt. For 2014, he'll likely remain in Brad Keselowski's truck full-time and race a handful of times in Penske's No. 22 Nationwide car. The move up may have to wait, but in the interim Dave's son is extremely capable of winning more races in both series, not to mention taking aim at the Truck title.
1. Austin Dillon, Richard Childress Racing
People get caught up in the cowboy hat, and who his grandfather is, and whether or not he should be driving the No. 3. And despite it all, the 23-year-old Dillon continues to deliver, year after year. With championship trophies from both the Truck and Nationwide circuits to his name, the grandson of Richard Childress moves into a Sprint Cup team where all the ingredients appear in place. Although the car number has changed, Dillon will be stepping into essentially the same program that finished third in the final standings with Kevin Harvick in 2013. He'll also have a huge asset in Harvick's former crew chief, Gil Martin, who's seen it all, done it all, and won a lot of races along the way.
And let's not forget, Dillon is a driver who finished 11th in a Sprint Cup event last year at Michigan, and then 14th at the same track later on as Tony Stewart's injury substitute. No question, RCR is a team in transition with the departures of Harvick and Jeff Burton, and history has shown that the organization is prone to rollercoaster swings in performance. Given what we know, though, the combination of team, crew chief and driver here appears pretty close to ideal. It may take a while before Dillon is ready to compete for another national-series trophy that would complete an unprecedented trifecta. But another chance to remind people what he's capable of, this time on NASCAR's biggest stage? That seems right there for the taking.