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Nationwide Series Rookie Crop: The Future Face of Sprint Cup

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By Vito Pugliese – Every decade or so, there is a youth movement in NASCAR, particularly in the Nationwide Series. The Series was always billed as the start of tomorrow competing in the series against a sprinkling of veterans.

What had always been the stepping stone to the Cup Series had in recent years, become a test series for Cup drivers and teams in the mid-2000s. Think otherwise? From 2006-2010, the series championship was won by a full-time Cup driver. Not just the most races – the championship.  In 2006, Nationwide regulars combined to win a total of two races.

Yeah. Both of them.

Things weren’t always this way. In the early 1990s there was a slew of Nationwide regulars who would go on to become Cup contenders – and champions.  @JeffGordonWeb, Bobby Labonte, and Kenny Wallace were among the first wave of new young talent, competing with the established veterans of the day:  Tommy Ellis, Tommy Houston, and Jimmy Hensley. Johnny Benson earned the first of his two NASCAR championships here in 1995, prior to becoming Cup Series Rookie of The Year in 1996, and Truck Series champ in 2008 once he was done with the Cup Series grind.

Cup drivers competed in the events but not to the degree that they have in recent years. @MarkMartin, Harry Gant, and Dale Earnhardt would all lend their names and talents to the series, helping to teach the next generation of Cup drivers how things were done.  By the end of the decade, the next fleet of superstars were the face of Nationwide. @DaleJr, @KevinHarvick, @gbiffle, and @MartinTruex_Jr were winning races and championships, and have been the face of the sport for the better part of the past 10 years. Things however, have changed in recent years with Ricky @StenhouseJr and @austindillon3 making the transition to Nationwide champion to Cup contenders.

For 2014, the Nationwide Series has a new crop of fresh talent that promises to be the face of the sport for the next generation, as highlighted in the most recent commercial NASCAR has recently started running to help promote the series.

@chaseelliott – Second generation driver and son of Awesome Bill from Dawsonville, he certainly has the pedigree and most certainly has the chops to succeed at the Cup level. If anything, he’s already proven he’s not the quiet shy redhead like his dad was early in his career. He kicked in the door on his first Truck Series win – and that of Ty Dillon – at Mosport last summer, in one of the wildest finishes of the CWTS season. At the close of 2013, Elliott managed to do something that no other driver had done before: winning the four biggest short track series races in the country: The World Crown 300, Winchester 400, All American 400, and The Snowball Derby.

The later however was thrown out once it was discovered in post-race inspection that the car had tungsten used as ballast (Cup Series technology trickle down?), and was disqualified. No matter; as dominant as he was in the race, a piece of weight wasn’t going to make that much difference. Currently sitting fourth in NNS points, Elliott has four top 10s and a top five just five races into the season, driving for JR Motorsports.

@tydillon Speaking of Ty Dillon, he’s the other half of the Dillon brothers who also runs the black No. 3. The Dillon brothers are a bit of a dichotomy; Austin is more reserved, patient, and steady while Ty is a bit more brash, aggressive, and bullish on the track – appropriate given the steer skull insignia next to his name on the roof of his Camaro. To draw a brother parallel, he’s more Kyle than Kurt in the driving department.

While he hasn’t won the two championships his brother has, he’s sort of on the same path that Chase Elliott was, not spending a lot of time in each series before moving up. He won three truck races and finished runner up in the points for 2013; the jump to Nationwide with the defending championship team is certainly not a bad way to begin your rookie campaign. So far a pole and four top 10s have him third in points as he gets his legs under him learning a new feeling machine and series.

@JamesBuescher Another Truck Series alumni proving the value of that series for gaining experience, confidence, and preparing for the next level. Of these three drivers, Buescher is the only one who actually has a Nationwide Series win under his belt. He managed to escape the carnage of the 2012 Daytona 300 on the final lap, putting his name on the NASCAR map. It kicked off a watershed year for him as he went on to win four races and the Truck Series Championship. For 2013 he made the difficult decision to leave the confines of his father-in-law’s operation, moving to the Robby Benton No. 99 Toyota team. So far results have been mixed; this is a true Nationwide team with little Cup affiliation. He currently is ninth in the season standings, with a best finish of 12th at Phoenix.

The new talent doesn’t stop there however. 18-year old @DylanKRacing won the pole at Daytona, Chris_Buescher (cousin to James) may have failed to qualify at Daytona, but the first year Roush Fenway driver followed it up with a ninth place run at Las Vegas just two weeks later. @KyleLarsonRacin though a Cup competitor is but a rookie in that series, won his first Nationwide Series race two weeks ago at Fontana in his second season of NNS competition.

With each weekend a battle to see who can beat @KyleBusch or Brad @Keselowski, the current crop of Nationwide rookie competitors are well positioned to help challenge for their home turf. It’s early in the year, but it will be interesting to watch as they mature and progress throughout the year, and provide some competition for the Cup regulars who although are there to help teach – are also taking their prize money.

These guys will be the face of NASCAR over the next 10-15 years – so get to know them now.

Follow @VitoPugliese on Twitter

POPULAR SPEED is a Social Media driven website featuring exclusive content, photographs, news and pointed editorials. It’s makeup consists of veteran motorsports journalists as well as the unique voice of developing young talent. POPULAR SPEED was launched in 2013 under the direction of former Sprint Cup Series spotter, Mike Calinoff.

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