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.
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.
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.
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.
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.