Strong Rookie Class Set For 2014 Sprint Cup Season
NASCAR's "golden age" of young drivers appears to be on the upswing for the 2014 season.
Drivers such as Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick, some of the top drivers in NASCAR, entered the sport's top division from 2001 to 2002, a time that some have described as the "golden age" of rising stars in NASCAR.
With a new season approaching, history may be repeating itself with two young and talented drivers — 21-year old Kyle Larson and 23-year old Austin Dillon — stepping into top-flight rides in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
Both will be in the spotlight as the season begins.
Larson, who has drawn accolades from the likes of Tony Stewart, moves to the No. 42 car at Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.
"That kid is a lot better than (Jeff) Gordon or I was at his age," Stewart said last year during a media interview. "You're going to be hearing about him for a long time. He's a special talent."
Dillon gets behind the wheel of one of racing's most famous numbers. His Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet will bear the No. 3 as the car number returns to NASCAR's top division for the first time since the death of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. in 2001.
"I think it's something the sport needs, to bring back some of those kinds of things, those elements of excitement, and I think Austin is the right guy to do it," Darrell Waltrip told NASCAR.com last month. "He's a great kid, he'll be a great representative, he's respectful of the sport, he understands the importance of the number, and I think he'll do a really good job of representing the memory of Dale Earnhardt."
Back when drivers such as Johnson and Newman came into the sport, they did so in well-supported situations; Johnson with Hendrick Motorsports and Newman with Penske Racing. Their cars were backed by owners intent on doing all within their power to ensure their driver would be successful. It continued an era in NASCAR that began with Jeff Gordon's entry to the Cup Series full-time in 1993, a trend of car owners overlooking inexperience to put talented drivers behind the wheel of a racecar.
What NASCAR has in Larsen and Dillon is two drivers that have already caught the eye of many. Dillon initially made a name for himself on dirt tracks, but has recently shown success in points championships in the NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series.
As for Larson, he won the 2011 4-Crown Nationals at Eldora Speedway, winning in all three different types of USAC cars in a single night, only the second driver in history to accomplish that feat. In February 2012, he got behind the wheel of a stock car for the first time at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida and won the Pete Orr Memorial Orange Blossom 100.
He made his Nationwide Series debut last February, finishing eighth in the final points standings in a season in which he had five top-five finishes including a pair of second-place finishes.
Both of these drivers are immensely talented. Will they endure some rookie-year adversity? Probably so and it's going to be very exciting to see how these two talents transition into NASCAR's top division and try to make an impact.