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Athlon pinpoints the best young drivers in the NASCAR ranks.
To suggest that any player, athlete, coach or driver in any sport after just a few seasons is a lock to make the Hall of Fame is ridiculous. But it is always fun to look at guys who have had instant success and try to extrapolate long-term potential. Limiting the scope to the last three rookie classes, here are the most likely future NASCAR Hall of Famers.
1. Brad Keselowski
Team: Penske Racing
At age 29, Keselowski isn't a spring chicken, however, his rookie season was just three years ago in 2010 and his instant success is impossible to ignore. The driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Penske Ford Fusion finished 25th in his first season, fifth in the points in his second year and became the defending Sprint Cup Champion after edging Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson for the title in just his third full season. Keselowski has nine wins and 28 top-five finishes in just 135 starts. His refreshing yet old-school attitude as a driver is magnetic to the fans, media and, at times, other cars on the track. However, his raw driving talent is painfully obvious and is the reason for such lofty expectations. He is one of just three drivers to win the points championship in the last eight years. This list of potential HOFers begins and ends with Brad-K, and should he continue to achieve at his current rate, an induction into the newly created NASCAR Hall of Fame is well within reach.
2. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
The 25-year-old is making his debut in the Sprint Cup series this year and already expectations are soaring for the driver of the historic No. 17 Roush Ford Fusion. The Olive Branch, Miss., native was a dominant force in the Nationwide Series, winning back-to-back championships the last two seasons before making the full-time jump to Cup racing. He posted eight wins and 35 top-five finishes in his last 67 races during his championship seasons and has proven in short order that he can compete on the next level. He finished no worse than 18th in his first four races of the 2013 season and currently sits 16th in the points, just outside of the Chase with only two finishes outside of the top 20. In fact, in 15 career Sprint Cup races, Stenhouse has finished worse than 20th only four times, including one engine failure. His high-profile relationship with Danica Patrick will only help raise his national awareness. He is the best young talent to enter the sport full-time since Keselowski.
3. Kyle Larson
Team: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
The 20-year old phenom won the K&N Pro Series East in just his first full year racing stock cars in 2012 after growing up in the cockpit of all things open-wheel. The EGR developmental driver has quickly moved his way up the pro ranks, leap-frogging the Camping World Truck Series, and landing directly in the Nationwide Series in 2013 for Turner Scott Motorsports. In just eight races in the No. 32 Turner Chevrolet Camaro, Larson is 12th in the points — due mostly to two crashes — has posted three top 10s and finished runner-up at hallowed Bristol Motorspeedway. His meteoric rise through the sport could land him in a full-time ride at the highest level in a matter of months rather than years.
4. Ty Dillon
Team: Richard Childress Racing
One of two star grandsons of famed NASCAR stallwart Richard Childress, the younger Dillon has all the talent to be an elite driver in the Sprint Cup Series. At 20 years of age, Dillon earned Rookie of the Year honors in the Camping World Truck Series in 2012 after finishing fourth in the points. He posted 17 top tens, seven top fives and got his first career win in a memorable battle with Kyle Busch at Atlanta. He made just three Nationwide starts a year ago and finished in the top 10 all three times. He will compete full-time in the No. 3 Childress Chevrolet Silverado while getting more than a few chances in a Nationwide ride. Expect Dillon to jump to the Nationwide series in 2014 with a Cup ride following close behind. Some believe that he might actually be more talented than his future-star older brother...
5. Austin Dillon
Team: Richard Childress Racing
The older grandson of Mr. Childress has flown through the NASCAR ranks much like his younger brother Ty. He earned Rookie of the Year honors in 2008 in the K&N Pro Series East before claiming a Camping World Truck Series championship in 2011. He moved up to the Nationwide series in 2012 and finished third in the points as a rookie. Dillon posted a ridiculous 27 top tens, 16 top fives and his first two victories during the 33-race schedule. The driver of the No. 3 Childress Chevrolet Camaro is one of the frontrunners for a championship this season. He has five Sprint Cup starts under his belt, including his Daytona 500 debut last month and is poised to drive in the Sprint Cup series full-time next season for his grandfather in the famed No. 3 Chevy Camaro. He is immensely talented and likely has the maturity and appreciation to revive the famous RCR car number.
The Top Prospects to Watch:
Chase Elliott (Hendrick Motorsports)
Son of past champion Bill Elliott drives for the best team in the business.
Ryan Blaney (Penske Racing)
Son of Sprint Cup driver Dave Blaney is polished and mature beyond his 19 years.