One storyline NASCAR fans won’t be reading about in 2011 will be a race for Sprint Cup rookie of the year.
So far no rookie driver has committed to run the full Cup season.
With teams looking to reduce costs and sponsors hesitant to take a chance on unproven drivers, Cup teams have mostly shied away from driver development programs in recent years.
That has resulted in only three rookies competing full time in Cup the last two years – Scott Speed and Joey Logano in 2009 and Kevin Conway in 2010. Conway, a driver with limited Nationwide Series experience, had a sponsor (Extenze) that wanted to go Cup racing and struck a deal to race with Front Row Motorsports. He ran nearly the full season despite struggling with Front Row and Robby Gordon Motorsports to win the rookie title.
It appears that there aren’t any new drivers planning to compete for the Cup rookie title in 2011, and Roush Fenway Racing is the only organization that has plans to have development drivers compete for the Nationwide title.
Still, there’s talented young drivers on the horizon. Which one will get an opportunity to possibly move to Cup in the next couple of years?
It’s hard to tell. Performance, potential and sponsorship all play key roles in who gets an opportunity and who doesn’t.
Here’s 20 drivers that, if they produce in 2011, could attract the attention of Cup teams later this year or in 2012.
The top 10 all have one thing in common – they will compete in at least select Nationwide races this year.
1. Trevor Bayne: Already likely to run five to seven races for Wood Brothers Racing, the Roush Fenway driver seems to be the new focus of the organization’s development program. After finishing seventh in the Nationwide standings in 2010, there’s no reason the 19-year-old shouldn’t be.
2. Danica Patrick: It’s up to only three people to determine if Patrick is ready for a Cup start: Patrick, GoDaddy.com CEO Bob Parsons and JR Motorsports co-owner Kelley Earnhardt. And if Parsons and Patrick say it’s a go, then Earnhardt likely will go along with it. If Patrick shows any sort of improvement this year, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the 28-year-old makes her Cup debut in 2011 (maybe in her and GoDaddy’s hometown of Phoenix in November?).
3. Austin Dillon: The winner of two Camping World Truck Series races in 2010, the 20-year-old Dillon is running a handful of Nationwide races for Kevin Harvick Inc. in 2011. Grandfather Richard Childress will want to bring Dillon along slowly, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see him make a Cup start or two in 2012.
4. Justin Allgaier: He’s the first driver on this list who actually has won a Nationwide Series race. As he makes the move from Penske Racing to Turner Motorsports, the 24-year-old Allgaier, the 2008 ARCA champion, has only a year or two left to show that he deserves a shot in Cup.
5. James Buescher: Nearly beating Kyle Busch to win the truck race at New Hampshire in 2010, Buescher has proved he can go fast. Whether the 20-year-old can finish off races and be more consistent is the question. He has the backing of Turner owner Steve Turner and will run a full truck schedule and select Nationwide events this year.
6. Ryan Truex: With plans to run the majority of Nationwide events this year, the younger brother of Martin Truex Jr. is coming off back-to-back K&N Pro Series East titles. Winning that division hasn’t translated into success for many past champions, but Truex, 18, should get enough time to show his potential in a Nationwide car this year.
7. Josh Wise: Wise is slated to run select races for JR Motorsports this year when Patrick isn’t behind the wheel. Considering he also has tested for Hendrick Motorsports in the last couple of months, the 27-year-old Wise might be in the right place at the right time. But time is running out.
8. Brian Scott: He has one truck win to his credit, and 2011 is shaping up to be a make-or-break year for Scott as the 23-year-old will drive for Joe Gibbs Racing, one of the best organizations in the Nationwide Series. Scott has a two-year deal at JGR, but he needs to get people talking about him in 2011.
9. Cole Whitt: He was impressive in his Nationwide debut at Phoenix last year and was recently profiled in Sports Illustrated as the driver to watch in NASCAR. The big question is how many times will people get to watch this 19-year-old race? Red Bull Racing needs to put him on the track as much as possible or he could become just another name on a long list of drivers with potential but not much of a chance.
10. Travis Pastrana: Yes, we know that Pastrana has not yet competed in his first NASCAR race; he will make his Nationwide debut with Pastrana-Waltrip Racing this year. But Pastrana has an international following as a motorcycle racer and action sports star, especially among a younger audience that NASCAR and sponsors so desperately want to engage, which means he will be given more time and more leeway to make mistakes (and he co-owns his team to boot). Much like Patrick, if he shows any sort of ability in a stock car, there will be an urge to at least give the 27-year-old a taste of Cup competition sometime in the next two years.
Ten others to watch
• Ricky Carmichael, Turner Motorsports – Another motocross star just getting hang of stock-car racing.
• Timothy Peters, Red Horse Racing – Won at Daytona last year and Martinsville the year before in trucks.
• Justin Lofton, Germain Racing – Won the 2009 ARCA title and had a strong finish with Red Horse last year.
• Steve Wallace, Rusty Wallace Racing – If dad can find a sponsor and Wallace continues his gradual improvement, he will get a shot in Cup.
• Nelson Piquet Jr., Kevin Harvick Inc. – Ran strong in part-time role last year.
• Johanna Long, Panhandle Motorsports – Needs more experience on bigger tracks but winning Snowball Derby was huge.
• Patrick Sheltra, Sheltra Motorsports – Won the 2010 ARCA title.
• Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Roush Fenway Racing – Up-and-down rookie season in Nationwide but strong finish led to rookie honors.
• Brad Sweet, Turner Motorsports – Drives for Kasey Kahne in USAC and should be in solid equipment at Turner.
• Matt DiBenedetto, Joe Gibbs Racing – Been impressive when he’s gotten a chance, to but needs more chances to race.