It's been a rough patch for NASCAR's "young gun" movement, thanks to five straight championships by Jimmie Johnson and a dearth of strong opportunities at the sport's top level. Since the start of 2008, only two Cup Series rookies (Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski) have visited Victory Lane. Moreover, in two of the last three years, the freshmen class made it through an entire slate of 36 races without a top-10 finish. Add in the stock car and economic crash, and it's no wonder once expendable, C-level veterans suddenly have the upper hand with sponsors looking for absolute certainty in their investment. Inexperienced, unproven youngsters can't even come up with $50,000 in sponsorship money to get a seat at the table.
In 2011, expect more of the same at the top -- a grand total of zero Cup rookies have sponsorship to run full-time as of this writing -- but change could be on the horizon. The development of wunderkind Logano, 20, could motivate sponsors to take that step forward. He tops the list of a number of promising twentysomething drivers to watch over the coming year.
Sure, he's not a rookie, but the man Mark Martin once anointed the King of NASCAR's future generation enters his third Cup Series season on a mission. Three has been the magic number for a number of NASCAR champions: Jeff Gordon (seven wins, first title), Jimmie Johnson (eight wins, second in points), and Matt Kenseth (five wins, still a career high) are among them.
The driver they call "Sliced Bread" seemed to clear off a moldy sophomore slump late in the year, pulling a 7-6-5-4-3 lottery ending to his finishes before crashing out en route to 39th at Homestead. But perhaps his behavior in that season finale is more representative of what truly sets this 2011 version apart.
After getting into a scuffle with Juan Pablo Montoya, the Official Wrecking Ball of NASCAR, the kid went back on the track, wrecked the Colombian under caution and angered his opponent to the point that owner Felix Sabates was threatening to not just throw punches, but also wreck Logano's teammate, Denny Hamlin -- who just so happened to be running for a championship that day.
It was a major step forward for the usually mild-mannered, socially awkward Logano, who moved up too quickly, too protectively, with the overbearing hand of father Tom at the controls. Dad is now at the track far less, pushed back after a Pocono shouting match with Kevin Harvick last summer, while his son's infamous "firesuit in the family" comment aimed at Kevin's wife, DeLana, helped jumpstart a fiery, more aggressive personality all his own.
Run over too much in the early years, the Connecticut native -- who turns 21 in May -- has made it clear anyone turning his bumper in the closing laps will pay the price. No DNFs in the new points system is key, so if the respect level for Logano goes up accordingly, the talent is there for a first ever Chase bid and perhaps even a semi-serious run at a top-5 finish in points.
Trevor Bayne: Right now, most readers are thinking, Trevor who? but by the end of the year I fully expect fans to watch and say, "Trevor. Wow!"
The 19-year-old Nationwide Series driver was picked up off the scrap heap last Fall by Ford Motor Co., then placed in a one-off, underfunded Wood Brothers ride with Roush Fenway support last Fall. All he did in his Cup Series debut was run 17th in the legendary No. 21 car, landing the car one of its best finishes of the year while finishing ahead of the manufacturers' biggest star (Carl Edwards placed 19th).
This season, Bayne's got a Roush-funded, top-level ride in Nationwide, where he should compete for a title and win multiple races. The No. 21 boys also have him back, gunning for a 17-race schedule that could increase to all 36 based on performance. With Bayne's spot locked in for this year's Daytona 500, don't be surprised to see him contend for a top-10 finish -- after all, the Woods have the horsepower on plate tracks -- and strong underlying chassis and engine support by Roush and Ford could make his single-car effort a lead-lap finisher beyond that. If UPS driver David Ragan slumps this year, don't be surprised to see Bayne -- a soft-spoken southern boy from Knoxville -- get the call to slide behind Roush's legendary No. 6 come 2012.
Austin Dillon: As grandson of legendary car owner Richard Childress, you knew Austin would have all the money and opportunity in the world to succeed. But it's one thing to get gift wrapped a ride, another to run circles around the competition on pure talent alone.
That's exactly what this youngster did in 2010, running roughshod over Truck Series competition after starting off with a first-lap spin in his Daytona series debut. After two race wins, a series-high seven poles and the Rookie of the Year award to his credit, Dillon and his grandfather made the smart decision to stick around in Trucks for 2010 and contend for a title they lost to Todd Bodine. He'll do so with solid sponsorship from Bass Pro Shops and the legendary No. 3 on the side of his truck, the number Childress' longtime driver Dale Earnhardt made famous.
Dubbed a ladies' man by his peers, Dillon turns 21 this year, and is almost certain to move to Nationwide in 2012. Cup isn't out of the question if Jeff Burton struggles for sponsorship, and you have to expect by 2013 that either Burton, Harvick or Paul Menard will have moved on. But Austin had better move fast, because insiders have nudged me plenty of times and claimed younger brother Ty, just 18, could be the better driver: he won two of three ARCA races started in 2010. The way both are going, we could see them dueling it out ala the brothers Busch in NASCAR's biggest races within the next five years.
Aric Almirola: After finishing runner-up in the Truck Series to Todd Bodine, 26-year-old Aric Almirola inherits a No. 88 car that contended for the title in two out of the past three years with Brad Keselowski. Now that Cup drivers can't "double-dip" into the minor leagues and win one, JRM should be the shoo-in to fill the gap with Almirola at the controls. After a shocking fourth-place run in the Cup season finale, when Almirola was a temp replacement for former RPM driver Kasey Kahne in the No. 9 car, offers came streaming in, but his attitude this time is not to reach too quickly. Slow, steady rides in Nationwide's top equipment should get him the major-league opportunity he covets in 2012.
Parker Kligerman: Funding issues that were unresolved as of early February leave it up in the air as to what, where and how Kligerman will be driving in 2011. But this Penske prodigy scored two top-10 runs with part-time teams in unstable environments last year, running ninth and eighth at two of the Nationwide Series' most difficult venues (Bristol and Montreal) in back-to-back weeks with two teams.
Just 20, he's from the same state as Logano and has caused major car owners inside the garage to turn their heads and watch. Brad Keselowski hopes to run him in his truck for Rookie of the Year, but if that doesn't happen expect the guy to land somewhere, run well and be a candidate for a chance to prove himself, full-time, on the Nationwide level by 2012 and Cup -- yes, Cup -- by 2013. If you doubt me, speak to the kid, then watch him drive. You'll be convinced.
Justin Allgaier: Another former Penske guy, this hero to short guys everywhere (5'6") will rebuild his career with an independent Nationwide team, Turner Motorsports in 2011. A winner at Bristol in March, Allgaier at one time looked almost certain to get a Cup shot, but then funding from sponsor Verizon went dry. The talent is there, and so is the drive, but does Turner have deep enough pockets to contend with the Big Boys at this level? I think yes, but just barely: he'll be a multiple-race winner, a top-5 points contender and keep his name in the mix for potential Cup opportunities come 2012 and '13.
Ricky Carmichael: He's also aligned with Turner and looking for his big break towards Cup. But it's a make-or-break year for the former AMA star, whom I still like but whose nasty habit of wrecking his truck (seven DNFs for crashes in 43 starts) have some calling him the two-wheeled Sam Hornish of NASCAR.
Amber and Angela Cope: Marketing gold. Racing hazards. Shall we move on?
Jeffrey Earnhardt: Meeting the grandson of the Intimidator is really scary: he walks, talks and even acts like the man who died on that fateful crash off turn 4 in 2001. Only problem is, he's yet to drive like that on a big-time stage (five races, one top-25 finish last year in Trucks) and Rick Ware Racing has a history of funding troubles and revolving doors when it comes to drivers. Wouldn't it be a great story, though, if this full-time Truck rookie could beat the odds?
Johanna Long: She won the 43rd annual Snowball Derby, the prestigious late model race in Florida won by Kyle Busch in '09. Just 18, she has high expectations backing a rookie-of-the-year bid in the Truck Series, and talent-wise I like her over the long-term, I really do. I'm just wondering if money -- she has yet to attract a multi-million dollar sponsor -- plus inexperience will handicap her during the 2011 transition to tougher competition.
Miguel Paludo: For those looking for some foreign flavor, this Brazilian has two top-10 finishes in four career Truck Series starts down in "AA." Aligned with a good minor-league development team, Red Horse Racing, the former Porsche GT3 champion could have a solid season.
Travis Pastrana: The "X" Games man extraordinaire showed some surprising skill in a few early spins behind the wheel of a stock car. But seven races on the Nationwide level in 2011, no matter how good the finishes, will leave us with an incomplete assessment. For the record, I think only one of his finishes will be inside the top 15.
Danica Patrick: She finally broke through with her first top-20 finish in NASCAR's Nationwide season finale. She has the eye of RPM's Andrew Murstein, among others, who would fight to the death to get her in a Cup car next year, but is she really ready for it, let alone a top-10 finish in Nationwide when she's still on the verge of wrecking the stock car half the time? A marketing source told me that to his knowledge, the No. 7 car had nearly $10 million in funding last year, which would have made it the best-supported, non-Cup team in NASCAR's AAA-level garage. That should have helped more.
Brian Scott: He probably has the best chance among those in the longshot category. Scott was a mid-level finisher his rookie year in the Nationwide Series, losing the freshmen rookie race but winning the war (signed with Joe Gibbs Racing for 2011). The jury is out on his upward ceiling, but considering the organization he drives for has won 49 of the last 105 races in the series -- an unheard-of 46.6 percent -- every opportunity to succeed will be there. Oh, Danica, we have a male match for you...
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.: Made a spirited charge to Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year in 2010, and this cowboy boot-wearing, Southern-style driver charmed me after a wreck-filled first half. But something tells me Roush is enamored with Bayne instead, and if all the veterans re-sign on the Cup level (Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth have expiring contracts) there's only so much room at the inn.
Darrell Wallace, Jr.: A two-time winner in K&N Pro Series East competition, another single-A level series, Wallace is just 16. Still, one official who works with the diversity program told me in passing the other day, "Without a doubt, this kid will be the first Tiger Woods-like breakout superstar for us." But I'll believe it once this African-American secures the funding to go beyond the lower levels and starts campaigning against the Big Boys in Trucks, Nationwide, and beyond. With age restrictions, that can't happen until he turns 18 in mid-2012.
Steve Wallace: After toiling in Nationwide for several years, the son of 1989 Cup champ Rusty makes his major league debut in his father's equipment next week at Daytona. But with six times as many DNFs (25) as top-5 finishes (four) in a six-year career in the minors, is this 23-year-old ready to take the next step to Cup?
Cole Whitt: On the heels of 15th- and 17th-place finishes in his first two Nationwide starts for Red Bull Racing, Whitt was recently featured in ESPN the Mag as a "NEXT-level" athlete. There's plenty of potential here for this Californian, especially since the upward-leaning RBR has an automatic Cup opening in 2012 -- Kasey Kahne will leave for Hendrick Motorsports -- and the team has a history of moving up talented youngsters with limited stock car experience (see: Allmendinger, A.J. and Speed, Scott).
But this guy has yet to win a race at the K&N Pro level and his schedule for the year remains a bit uncertain.