The late 1970’s and early 1980’s produced several up and coming stars in NASCAR, most notably Dale Earnhardt, Terry Labonte, Tim Richmond, Bill Elliott, Neil Bonnett, Rusty Wallace, and Ricky Rudd. This expansion of new talent developed after the previous decade featured a handful of drivers such as Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, Buddy Baker, and Benny Parsons who dominated the win column. Finally, the old-timers had some new faces to deal with on Sundays.
The late 1980’s and 1990’s also produced a noticeable amount of young breakthrough stars such of Davey Allison, Alan Kulwicki, Mark Martin, Ernie Irvan, Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, and Bobby Labonte. Additionally, there were several veterans who experienced a significant breakthrough; for example, Dale Jarrett and Sterling Marlin. These guys were ready to challenge the likes of Earnhardt, Wallace, Elliott, Terry Labonte, Rudd, and other savvy veterans.
Tony Stewart was a rookie in 1999, but he is often linked to the influx of youthful talent, which occurred throughout the early 2000’s. Many refer to this as the young gun era. Never before had the sport of NASCAR seen such a rapid and successful youth movement. Following Stewart’s extraordinary rookie season, we witnessed the rise of Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt, Jr, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, and Clint Bowyer. These drivers began winning rather quickly, as they began to phase out the familiar veteran faces in victory circle.
Following the 2006 season, the year we had Hamlin, Bowyer, and Martin Truex Jr competing for the rookie of the year honors, first year drivers have enjoyed little success. Juan Pablo Montoya has been hit or miss since his NASCAR advent, while other young drivers have swung and missed; see Reed Sorenson and David Stremme. The talent pool has seemingly become dry. Nevertheless, that is a common misconception. There have always been a number of talented young drivers with Sprint Cup aspirations, but the timing was simply off. Remember, timing is everything.
In the late 1990’s everyone was looking for the next Jeff Gordon. Joe Gibbs Racing landed Stewart with a hotshot sponsor in Home Depot. Suddenly, car owners and corporations were willing to take a chance on a Matt Kenseth or a Kurt Busch. Many will tell you that sponsorship in NASCAR was considered a somewhat of a bargain a decade ago. Busch, Kenseth, Johnson, Newman, and others came along at the perfect time. Several years later, with the rise in sponsorship costs, as well as the conversion from the old style race car to the Car of Today, COT, whatever it is called now, young drivers no longer had much of an immediate impact. Owners and sponsors became increasingly impatient.
Furthermore, the Busch, now Nationwide Series, became a recreational playground for Cup stars. Since 2006, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, and other Busch-whackers have dominated that series. Sponsors prefer Edwards over Todd Kluever or Erik Darnell. They desire Kyle Busch over Brad Coleman, or Bowyer over Stephen Leicht. It turned into a dilemma in which many people in NASCAR circles were talking about. Now, NASCAR no longer allows Cup drivers to contend for the Nationwide Series championship. This places more emphasis on the young developing drivers, as well as the veterans who are not competing at the Sprint Cup level.
This bodes well for the new crop of young drivers such as Trevor Bayne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Aric Almirola, Brian Scott, Justin Allgaier, Steve Wallace, and Michael Annett. It also is a positive sign for veterans trying to revive their NASCAR careers such as Elliott Sadler and Reed Sorenson, as well as Nationwide veterans like Jason Leffler, Mike Wallace, and his kid brother Kenny Wallace.
It is, though, a bummer for drivers like Erik Darnell, Stephen Leicht, Brad Coleman, Ryan Hemphill, Matt McCall, Danny O’Quinn, Josh Wise, Landon Cassill, Michael McDowell, Kelly Bires, and several others who do not have quality full-time rides. Let us hope it is not too late for those guys, as a few still have opportunities this season.
The future is beginning to look bright again for young drivers, as Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski were fortunate enough to survive the recession of youth movement. Bayne and the above-mentioned Nationwide drivers provide an abundance of hope for the future. Ryan Truex, James Buescher, Austin and Ty Dillon, Johanna Long, Joey Coulter, Cole Whitt, Jeffrey Earnhardt, and Parker Kligerman are ready to make some noise. You have some other drivers converting from other forms of motorsports such as Ricky Carmichael, Travis Pastrana, Nelson Piquet Jr, and even Danica Patrick who possess potential.
In the near future you will be hearing the names of Darrell Wallace Jr, Chase Elliott, and many other developing young drivers from around the country more often.
I believe that by 2013, maybe sooner, we will see another upsurge in young talent in NASCAR’s top level.