One was already known well before he debuted, the benefactor of a last name beloved by many in NASCAR circles. The other, though not part of the conversation in NASCAR just yet, has rattled off impressive statistics in multiple racing series, including four top-five finishes in the 2012 ARCA Racing Series as a 15- and 16-year-old.
When it comes to NASCAR, both can lay claim to the same thing: a top-10 in their first Camping World Truck Series race.
Chase Elliott and Erik Jones, two up-and-coming youngsters who have made waves in stock cars even before their 18th birthdays, made their NASCAR debuts last Saturday in the Kroger 250 at Martinsville, joining fellow rookies Devin Jones, Robert Bruce and Grant Galloway. Elliott’s No. 94 Chevy was owned by Hendrick Motorsports and prepared by Turner Motorsports, while Jones’s No. 51 had a familiar backer: Kyle Busch and Kyle Busch Motorsports.
When the dust settled from an 11-caution, 250-lap slugfest, Elliott emerged in sixth place, after starting eighth. Jones, meanwhile, brought his Toyota from a 19th-place starting spot to finish ninth.
Years down the road, the 2013 Kroger 250 may not be remembered as a Johnny Sauter victory, even though his two-race winning streak to start the season is highly admirable. Instead, could the April 6, 2013, event be regarded as the day two future NASCAR stars first made their mark on the sport?
Looking back through the years, it certainly seems possible. Jones and Elliott are two of 21 total drivers who since 1996 have marked their NASCAR debuts in the Trucks with a top-10 finish. The club was created with the first race of the 1996 season, the sophomore year for the fledgling trucks, when Ron Barfield Jr., Bryan Reffner, Terry McCarthy and Jay Sauter all scored top-10s in a Homestead race won by Dave Rezendes. They were joined later in the year by Rob RIzzo, who finished seventh at Watkins Glen.
Following 1996 and prior to 2013, 14 more drivers scored formidable finishes in their NASCAR Truck debuts, all of them having never raced in a major NASCAR season prior. Current NASCAR competitors included in this list are Kyle Larson, Ross Chastain, Nelson Piquet Jr., Miguel Paludo, Michael Annett, Donnie Neuenberger and Matt Crafton. Justin Johnson, Craig Goess, Willie Allen, Brandon Miller, Joe Bean, Scot Walters and Kenny Martin round out the group.
Of the listed drivers, some have gone on to big things, while others are still pursuing them. Crafton in particular has found himself a not-too-shabby career in the series — in fact, he’ll set the record for the longest consecutive streak of races started in the Truck Series this weekend at Rockingham, with 297 starts dating back to the end of 2000.
Brazilian duo and Turner Motorsports teammates Paludo and Piquet are still finding their groove within NASCAR, but have made considerable leaps even since their respectable debuts. Piquet scored his first series win in 2012 and slotted in seventh in the final points, earning him a promotion to the Nationwide Series in 2013, while Paludo finished 10th and returns to the seat of the No. 32 Chevy in 2013.
Annett, though currently on the sidelines due to an injury sustained in the season-opening Daytona Nationwide race, is even further ahead, having chalked up four commendable full-time gigs in NASCAR’s second-tier series and finishing fifth in its points in 2012 with six top-fives and 17 top-10 finishes. Following his great debut in 2011 for SS-Greenlight Racing, Chastain is currently driving part-time for Brad Keselowski Racing in its No. 19 Ford. Neuenberger is an infrequent competitor in NASCAR these days, attempting but failing to qualify for the first race of the Nationwide Series season this year.
And then there’s Larson, the current best-thing-since-sliced-bread in NASCAR. After a head-turning Trucks stint in 2012 that included three top-10 finishes in five races, he’s the pilot of the No. 32 for Turner Motorsports in the Nationwide Series, currently sitting seventh in points.
There’s the other side, too. Though Miller was heard from briefly in a one-off start for NTS Motorsports in 2012, many of the other drivers who notched top-10 debuts are nowhere to be found these days. Many were mere journeymen drivers who were perhaps never looking for major NASCAR rides, but Miller, Allen, Goess, Walters and Johnson all pursued the series on a more permanent basis — with varying results, mostly underwhelming.
One has to think things will turn out different for Elliott and Jones. The former has the backing of Hendrick Motorsports and his dad, Bill, to help carry him. The latter, though without a family precedent in the way of Elliott, turned some heads during his ARCA campaign and has obviously impressed Kyle Busch quite a bit if he’s willing to let a teenager drive his truck. Though Miller was a Richard Childress Racing development driver, he had to contend with bigger-name drivers to get seat time. Elliott and Jones, at least for the moment, don’t have that kind of issue, though Jones will share the seat with his owner.
Oh, and Elliott’s 17, while Jones is 16. They have quite a bit of time to continue to develop, as the minimum age to race in the Nationwide and Cup series is still 18. Coupled with the Camping World Truck Series’s rule of only allowing sub-18-year-old drivers on smaller tracks, full-time driving is still a ways off. For now, both will continue to progress, hoping to follow up their formidable starts with even better results down the road.
Word-of-mouth is sure to spread now that both youngsters have made their NASCAR debuts. Time will tell whether they tend toward rising stars or minor flops, but at least for the next year or two, bet on hearing a lot about them and seeing them near or at the front in whatever they’re driving. It may be too early to call them future superstars, but the future does certainly seem bright.
Top-10 Finishes in NASCAR Trucks Debut Since 1996 (Must Not Have Raced in Other Major NASCAR Series Prior to Trucks Debut)
Erik Jones 9th 2013
Chase Elliott 6th 2013
Kyle Larson 10th 2012
Ross Chastain 10th 2011
Justin Johnson 8th 2011
Nelson Piquet Jr. 6th 2010
Miguel Paludo 9th 2010
Craig Goess 10th 2010
Michael Annett 6th 2008
Willie Allen 6th 2005
Brandon Miller 8th 2003
Kenny Martin 5th 2000
Donnie Neuenberger 9th 2000
Matt Crafton 9th 2000
Scot Walters 7th 1997
Joe Bean 9th 1997
Bryan Reffner 5th 1996
Jay Sauter 8th 1996
Ron Barfield Jr. 4th 1996
Rob Rizzo 7th 1996
Terry McCarthy 6th 1996
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