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NASCAR: The Next Generation

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Much ado is made about the current crop of NASCAR’s best drivers. The names of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and so many others are almost synonymous with today’s NASCAR. But, in this week’s edition of the “Shakedown Session,” we’ll be taking a look at ten drivers who might not be household names yet, but in three to five years down the road, could be very well held to the same standard as the names above.

There are the obvious names that could be penciled in to this category such as Trevor Bayne, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Austin Dillon, and an argument could be made for Justin Allgaier as well, but these ten drivers that will be covered today are names that don’t immediately come to mind yet in this category but, as the stock market term states, they’re on an “upward trend.” Number ten on this list is Johanna Long. The 19-year old Pensacola, Florida native has had an admittedly bumpy flight in her inaugural Camping World Truck Series campaign, but she has been, slowly but surely, improving her skills a bit more each week. She cut her teeth on the Florida Late Model scene. But, her greatest claim to fame so far has been winning the 43rd Annual Snowball Derby at her home track, Five Flags Speedway, in Pensacola last year. She was only the second female to ever win the race, following the footsteps of Tammy Jo Kirk and she beat out such drivers as Steven Wallace and David Ragan en route to the victory. While her current results haven’t necessarily turned heads, give her some time and she will be a consistent competitor for victories in NASCAR, not to mention a homegrown female star that NASCAR so desperately needs.

Next on the list is Timmy Hill. The 18-year old wunderkind was placed in Rick Ware Racing’s #15 Ford with little to no hype whatsoever and almost one-third of the way through the season, Hill is actually leading Ryan Truex in the current Rookie of the Year battle in the Nationwide Series. While some would argue that the contest really isn’t a fair fight with Truex having less starts than Hill, the fact remains that this unheralded kid has turned some heads with his performance for Rick Ware Racing, a team that isn’t exactly in the upper echelon of NASCAR teams. While Hill likely will need some type of corporate backing long-term to keep from being the next Ken Bouchard, one cannot help but be impressed at what he has achieved so far early in his NASCAR career.

Taking the number eight spot on this list is Joey Coulter. Coulter is another product of the USARacing Inc. Pro Cup Series, a touring group that launched the careers of such drivers as Joey Logano, Regan Smith, Bayne, Brian Vickers, and countless others. Richard Childress took a chance on Coulter when not many owners would have, and despite the fact his results aren’t as eye-catching as the Dillon Brothers have been, Coulter has made Richard Childress once again look like a genius with top-10s at Dover and Phoenix this season, two of the toughest tracks on the Truck Series slate. Coulter’s long-term future likely will depend on if Childress can find suitable backing for him, but he’s definitely proven he has the talent to succeed in NASCAR with his consistent competitiveness in top-of-the-line equipment.

The number seven driver has a last name many fans should be familiar with in Chase Elliott. The second generation driver and son of Bill Elliott has definitely made an impact in his short time in NASCAR. He’s already won a race this year in the USARacing Inc. Pro Cup Series at Rockingham in the Carolina 200 and he’s currently in the Hendrick driver development system. The last driver that had this much hoopla surrounding him in his teenage years was Logano and while it’s too soon to say if Chase will be a better than Joey, both have had comparable stats at this age, winning many late model races and each driver had a Pro Cup win at the age of fifteen. Time will tell if Chase will make the great leap forward, but he’s definitely off to a promising start.

Claiming the sixth spot is a driver who has had a brief flirtation with the NASCAR Nationwide Series already in Coleman Pressley. The third generation racer, grandson of Bob Pressley and son of former NASCAR driver Robert Pressley, turned a few heads in his sporadic appearances last year in the Nationwide Series with R3 Motorsports and JR Motorsports, claiming a best finish of 12th at Nashville Superspeedway in Nationwide Series starts last year. While he has gone to the K&N Pro Series East for X-Team Racing for the 2011 campaign in the #14 Kingsford Toyota, there is little reason to believe that we have seen the last of Coleman Pressley in NASCAR. The 2010 UARA-STARS champion has the pedigree and necessary skills to make it back to NASCAR and make a name for himself.

In the fifth spot is the two-time defending K&N Pro Series East Champion and Nationwide Series rookie Ryan Truex. The younger brother of Martin Truex, Jr. has been attempting to forge his own identity in NASCAR and not solely be viewed as “Martin’s little brother.” So far, Ryan’s rookie season has been a baptism by fire, but he has shown signs of competitiveness with a top-10 at Richmond. However, Ryan’s career following Chicagoland will go on a temporary hiatus as Pastrana-Waltrip has decided to only participate in races that they have sponsorship lined up for. But, with the credentials that Ryan has, don’t expect him to be on the sidelines for too long.

Number four on this list is Parker Kligerman. The Westport, Connecticut native seemingly came out of nowhere in 2009 in the ARCA Series, nearly winning the series championship for Cunningham Motorsports and capturing a pole position for Roger Penske in his first career Nationwide Series start. He had a bit of an up-and-down 2010 season, starting the year with DNQ’s at Daytona and Bristol, but late in the year, he rebounded to capture a couple of top-10 finishes, one for Team 42 Racing at Bristol and one for Penske Racing (using the No. 26 from K-Automotive Motorsports) at the Circuit Gillies Villeneuve in Montreal. Brad Keselowski was so impressed by Kligerman’s skills, he signed Kligerman to drive for his Camping World Truck Series team for at least the first 15 races and so far, Kligerman, while not putting up the most flashy results, has been remarkably consistent, earning 3 top-10’s in eight career Camping World Truck Series starts and is currently sitting ninth in points.

Which brings us to the third spot on this list, Darrell Wallace, Jr. Most NASCAR fans have likely not heard the name Darrell Wallace, Jr., but for a sport in dire need of diversity, Wallace, Jr. could very well be something of a godsend. The Joe Gibbs Racing development driver has been breaking records and barriers, respectively, as he became the first African-American driver in NASCAR history to win a K&N Pro Series race, winning at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in 2010. Sponsors have been taking notice as well with the U.S. Army now sponsoring his K&N Pro East efforts. Two more victories, including the recent Blue Ox 100 at Richmond International Raceway, have followed, proving that Wallace, Jr. is for real. The sport has needed someone like this for 40 years to fill the void of Wendell Scott and Wallace, Jr., with his marketability and talent, could be the guy to change the face of NASCAR and usher in a new era of diversity.

Taking the second position is the brother of NASCAR Camping World Truck Series star Austin Dillon, and a third generation athlete, in Ty Dillon. The grandson of Richard Childress and son of former NASCAR Busch Series veteran Mike Dillon, like his brother before him, cut his teeth in dirt late model and open wheel modified racing in the Southeast and in the K&N Pro Series East, with a win at Gresham Motorsports Park in 2010 along with two top-5’s and six top-10’s in 11 starts. But his ARCA stats have made many within the racing community stand up and take notice, with four wins, six top-5’s and seven top-10’s in eight starts! That’s basically, in baseball terms, a hitting percentage of .500! Dillon’s wins haven’t just come at NASCAR-staples such as Kansas and Talladega, but he’s won at Rockingham and Toledo as well, proving his versatility. One thing is for certain, the Dillon brothers could very well become NASCAR’s answer to a kinder, more down to earth version of the Busch brothers.

And taking the top spot on this list is Cole Whitt. Let’s face it, race fans. Rookies are not supposed to be leading the points in a major NASCAR touring series, especially with a team that struggled to crack the top-15 last year. Its just not done! But Cole Whitt has managed to toss conventional NASCAR wisdom right out the window with his amazing performance so far in 2011. The former USAC standout had a solid 2010 season in the K&N Pro Series East, with two poles, six top-5’s, and seven top-10’s in ten starts en route to a fourth-place points finish.

Whitt failed to qualify for the season opening race at Daytona, but managed to rent a ride for the race in SES Motorsports’ No. 93, normally driven by Shane Sieg. Whitt was able to finish a decent 14th that evening. Back in his Red Bull-sponsored No. 60 after Daytona, he has finished no worse than 12th since and now finds himself in the top spot in points. While Whitt’s points lead likely will not last long, it still stands to reason that he’s done something no other rookie has ever done in a major NASCAR touring series and that cannot be ignored. Red Bull is already accelerating his learning curve by trying to work out some more Nationwide races for Whitt. But Red Bull has had a bad habit of moving drivers up too soon, such as AJ Allmendinger and Scott Speed. Let’s hope Whitt doesn’t fall into that trap.

In closing, these ten drivers are just some of the many future faces of NASCAR that are going to be future stars in this sport. Sure, they’re not household names yet, but each of these ten drivers has the necessary ingredients to be a part of the sport for a very long time and with names and credentials such as these, NASCAR’s future is looking brighter than ever!

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