David Smith looks at the next great haul of rookie talent in NASCAR
Welcome to the Athlon Rookie Report, where each week David Smith will evaluate the deepest crop of new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series talent since 2006. The Report will include twice-monthly rankings, in-depth analysis, Q&A sessions with the drivers and more.
Today, David looks toward the future with a menu of potential Cup Series drivers for which you may want to start rooting.
At some point, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver roster will get an infusion of young talent, drivers that aren’t rookies now and might not be in 2015. Some of those names you might already know, especially if you make NASCAR Nationwide Series races appointment viewing every Saturday. You might already have a favorite or two out of the latest litter, but in case you don’t, I’ve compiled this handy fan’s guide to the future Cup Series rookies:
Are you a fan of nostalgia, strong family ties and easy championships? Chase Elliott is your driver.
A frustrating sight at short tracks is when a young driver fails to succeed despite having the best car and crew and deepest resources. Elliott had all of that, plus a famous dad, but capitalized on the opportunities given to him, smoking fields at hallowed grounds across the nation, collecting trophies from such notable events like the All American 400, the Snowball Derby and the Winchester 400.
Bill Elliott, the 1988 Cup Series champion and a 16-time winner of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award, helped make sure his son Chase, now 19, had everything at his competitive disposal. That Chase was able to take advantage was a good sign — one seen by Rick Hendrick, who signed the younger Elliott to a development contract over three years ago.
Now in the Nationwide Series, Elliott, the top-ranked Cup Series prospect per MotorsportsAnalytics.com, is poised for a series title in his rookie year, having collected wins at Texas, Darlington and Chicagoland. His aggression level is high, and a weapon he used to pick off the win at Darlington, easily his year’s best highlight. He’ll fit into the system already in place at Hendrick Motorsports, which amplifies the talents of drivers who utilize intelligence and aggression. He’s the closest thing to a sure thing among a deep crop of rising talent.
Are you a motorsports snob and appreciate refined race craft? Ryan Blaney is your driver.
While Blaney was still acclimating to life in high school, he was displaying a veteran-like presence on short tracks around the Carolinas.
Unlike his father Dave, who is a Dirt Sprint Car legend, Ryan was nurtured on pavement and learned pace and conservation early enough — my best memory of him was a conservative ride at Hickory Motor Speedway that resulted in a savvy up-front finish as other gas-happy kids wore their equipment out — to have it translate to higher-mileage contests in NASCAR. His assimilation has been quick. He has a win for each year he’s raced in a NASCAR division, none more impressive than his score this summer at Bristol when he stymied Kyle Busch on a final restart in a Nationwide Series race.
Team Penske, a ubiquitous presence in practically all forms of racing, employs Blaney and has so much belief in him that they crammed his 2014 season full of races across three divisions and are loaning him out to Wood Brothers Racing for a partial Cup Series season in 2015.
Are you a blue-collar worker with dirt under your nails and might have rooted for a black No. 3 car back in the day? Corey LaJoie is your driver.
Richard Petty Motorsports holds contractual rights to LaJoie, but didn’t bend over backwards for him until recently, placing him into four Nationwide Series races with fellow Ford team Biagi-DenBeste Racing. Up until that, LaJoie went at it alone, essentially acting as his own crew chief in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, where he ran neck-and-neck with Kyle Larson in 2012, scoring more victories (five) than Larson (two), but falling short in the title battle.
LaJoie’s outspoken nature could prove polarizing in the Dale Earnhardt sense or entertaining in the Clint Bowyer sense; however, he has enough talent — he’s a bit of a chameleon, an aggressive driver with a high Race IQ while also an ace equipment and tire conservationist — to back up whatever statements he chooses to make. And despite having family ties to the sport — father Randy is a two-time Nationwide Series champion — LaJoie created much of his heightened prospect status with his work ethic, a relatable trait to even the most old-school of NASCAR fans.
Do you seldom watch racing, choosing only to watch the Daytona 500, the finale at Homestead and the occasional driver appearance on a late-night talk show? Darrell Wallace is your driver.
This isn’t a knock on Wallace, who became the first African-American winner in NASCAR’s three major divisions in 50 years with his Truck Series triumph at Martinsville last season. This season in the Truck Series, he has already tripled his 2013 win total and has an outside shot at the series title with three races remaining. He’s got driving chops.
He also oozes star power, reaching to both African Americans and millennials. To the latter group, Wallace is inherently relatable, displaying a style not familiar with the Wrangler-wearing crowd and poise beyond his years that today’s kids should aim to emulate. Already firmly entrenched at Joe Gibbs Racing and with manufacturer Toyota, Wallace’s ticket is already punched for the big time. Becoming a personality that transcends the sport of racing is only a matter of when. He’ll be playing egg roulette with Jimmy Fallon in no time.
Do you root for the Cinderella team every year during March Madness? Chris Buescher is your driver.
There isn’t a single driver among the next batch of NASCAR stars that has transformed themselves more than Buescher, a rookie for Roush Fenway Racing in the Nationwide Series. Once a wild-driving kid in Legend Cars, Buescher’s aggressiveness, once enrolled in the Roush School of Driving Like Matt Kenseth Does, balanced out and he emerged as a textbook racecar driver, one who conserves equipment yet finds unmatched speed. This resulted in an ARCA Series championship in 2012. That season he became the first driver in series history to complete every lap of competition during a calendar year while also winning four races, tying for the season’s most.
Buescher is already a Nationwide Series race winner and, with the organization promoting Trevor Bayne to the seat of its new No. 6 team in 2015, is in the on-deck circle once a Cup ride opens up at Roush Fenway. He might be an underdog, though, if he remains at Roush, which has lacked title-worthy pop the last three years. Buescher is a quiet kid, one who might not attract a large number of fans or the ritziest of sponsors. Fans that do latch on to Buescher will be a part of group cheering on something special and when one of his seasons breaks the right way, they’ll have a plum seat on the bandwagon ride to the top.
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.