NASCAR's Top 5 Faces of Tomorrow and their contemporary counterparts
The GeneratioNext Drivers in NASCAR's lower-tier series have been making names for themselves this season and will be the face of the sport in the future. So who do the drivers of tomorrow resemble those of today? Here are the Top Five Faces of the Future — and their contemporary counterparts.
Tony Stewart — Kyle Larson
Kyle Larson was originally Tony Stewart’s prodigy … which is a bit ironic given their disparate physical characteristics and different teams for which they drive. While Larson may look like a stiff gust of wind will blow him away, he has been doing just that — blowing away expectations for a rookie at Chip Ganassi Racing (with special guest Felix Sebates) this season. While his career did get off to an inauspicious start at Daytona last year by nearly parking it in the cheap seats, he is born again hard this year.
He brought home his first Nationwide Series win at Fontana in just the fifth race of the year, and nearly followed it up with a last lap assault on Kyle Busch for a runner-up finish in just his ninth Cup Series start. Last week at Eldora, Larson was knocking on the door to a dirt track dream as he about knocked down every wall in the process. With a Cup team which had fallen by the wayside in recent years, Larson and the No. 42 Ganassi Racing bunch are 12th in points and shaping up to make the Chase in their first season together.
While Larson hasn’t competed in IndyCar as Smoke did prior to his coming to stock car country, something tells me that if there is another driver who might be able to pull off the Indy-Charlotte “Double” along with Stewart and Kurt Busch, it’s Kyle Larson. He’s with the right guy if he wants to give a go at it. Talent obviously isn’t an issue, and having just celebrated his 22nd birthday, time is on his side.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Chase Elliott — Jeff Gordon
As Jeff Gordon crossed the yard of bricks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, any talk of retirement faded into the background of cheers celebrating his 90th career win. The milestone victory tied him with Michael Schumacher for most wins at the Speedway with five, and gets him within a realistic shot of reaching David Pearson’s mark of 105 victories — second all-time to Richard Petty’s unobtainable mark of 200. While the “Drive for Five” has had new life breathed into it, “The Race for the Chase” is just getting underway. The only question is how long can you hold him back?
Having graduated high school two months ago, Elliott has already scored three wins in his rookie Nationwide Series season — including triumphs at treacherous tracks such as Darlington and Texas, where youth typically takes a backseat to old age and treachery. Then again, his dad seemed to fair pretty well driving a No. 9 car at intermediate tracks back in the mid- to late-1980s, and Chase is following in his footsteps to be sure. It’s no secret that he’s the heir apparent to the No. 24 once Gordon steps aside. However, now that he’s having such a stellar year, will Gordon go the route of Mark Martin, remaining competitive for another decade?
Jimmie Johnson isn’t going anywhere, and the 2014 renaissance of Dale Earnhardt Jr. means that ride is tide up for the foreseeable future. That would leave the No. 5 of Kasey Kahne as the only viable alternative. The plan at this time is to not move Elliott up too soon. That said, if he keeps winning and progressing at this rate, the argument for holding him back will become a more difficult one to make.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Darrell Wallace Jr. — Carl Edwards
Hot on the heels of Darrell Wallace Jr. winning his third career Truck Series race, second of the season, and first on dirt, was the revelation that Carl Edwards will not be returning to Roush Fenway Racing in 2015. So how are the two linked? Well, each got his NASCAR starts in Trucks and is making the most of it. Wallace broke down a barrier that stood for 50 years last fall at Martinsville, and is among the best young ambassadors the sport could ask for. As Dale Earnhardt Jr. said of Wallace following his post-race interview at Gateway this year, “He gets it.”
If there is one driver in the Cup Series who “gets it” and “has had it” for the better part of a decade, it’s Carl Edwards. Originally tapped to replace Roush stalwart Jeff Burton following a mid-season departure in 2004, he burst onto the scene with a door-slamming side draft move on Jimmie Johnson to win his first race in the spring of 2005. Twenty-three backflips later, Cousin Carl appears to be joinging Joe Gibbs Racing next season. If one were to read the tea leaves and connect the dots, Edwards will likely be teamed up with Wallace in the not too distant future — or possibly at MWR given, the current driver cap. Either way, Toyota isn’t letting Wallace get away, unlike Ford, which has once again bid a fond farewell to a flagship driver that was a firebrand for the Blue Oval.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Ty Dillon — Kyle Busch
It’s one thing to follow in your father’s footsteps like Davey Allison and Kyle Petty had to do. It’s quite another when you have to fill your big brother’s shoes. With the Busch brothers, those shoes often end up one of two places: in their mouths or up the asses of their competitors. No shrinking violets, while Kurt Busch was building his pre-Outlaw reputation, word on the street on Kyle was, “As bad as Kurt is, wait until you meet his brother.”
NASCAR changed the age rule of the younger Busch to bar him from the Truck Series, and Jack Roush had a taste of what was to come, fumbling the ball to Rick Hendrick. While the speed and flashes of brilliance were there — bringing the No. 5 car back to relevance after several years of mediocrity — it wasn’t until he joined with Joe Gibbs Racing and was deemed the No. 1 driver for an organization that he began to flourish. Sure, the petulance and irritability remains, even after every effort to market New Kyle v.5.0 … but isn’t that what gives him his edge?
Enter Ty Dillon. He got into a bit of a dust-up with Kevin Harvick last fall at Martinsville, leading the latter to air some dirty laundry on television, while somebody chucked a floor jack at Dillon’s No. 3 Silverado. Austin is obviously the cool, calm, and collected one of the Dillon brothers, while Ty has a bit of fire about him. I’ve always felt that given the equipment, Ty might just hold a bit of an edge over his big brother and, following his win at the most famous racetrack on the planet last weekend, he managed to do something that Austin was unable to do in his championship run a year ago.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Bobby Labonte — Chris Buescher
Mark my words: Chris Buescher will be a household NASCAR name in the next two years. Many may question this, as even the average fan who actually follows the sport may say, “Chris who?”
The cousin of 2012 Truck Series champion James Buescher, Chris is the current pilot of the Roush Fenway No. 60 Ford in the Nationwide Series. The Bueschers hail from the Lone Star State, as did brother Terry and Bobby Labonte. At just 21 years old, the younger Buescher is in his first full season of NASCAR competition, having posted 10 wins in the ARCA Series since 2010 — at the ripe old age of 17.
He’s currently seventh in points, despite having missed the season opening race at Daytona. He’s posted seven top 10s in 18 starts and finished on the lead lap in all but three races so far.
And therein lays the Bobby Labonte connection. If there is one thing he was known for was quiet consistency, finishing races and not tearing up equipment. After a rough few years servicing the crumpled remains of cars driven by Travis Pastrana, Ryan Reed and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in his formative races, Jack Roush has to be pleased that Buescher does not require his own traveling fabrication team. Also fitting that Buescher is in Roush’s No. 60 — the original driver of that car was pretty good at logging laps, preserving equipment and waiting for the right time to make his move as well.
Labonte took a couple of seasons to get up to speed (and took a back seat to Jeff Gordon as part of the celebrated 1993 rookie class), and Buescher will likely end up doing the same to Chase Elliott as their careers mature. Write it down though — you might not hear his name before Chase Elliott or cousin Chris, but he will be heard from, and for quite some time.
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