2014 Stock Watch for Drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Week 19 Edition
Score one for the underdog and the 30-and-under crowd (excluding established NASCAR Sprint Cup stars such as Kyle Busch, who is barely 29, having celebrated that birthday in May).
Busch may be a young gun, as is 2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski, who turned 30 just before the running of the last Daytona 500.
But this is about the young and unsung Sprint Cup drivers, such as Aric Almirola (pictured above), who captured his first victory in NASCAR's premier series just last Sunday when he was declared winner of the rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. His long-awaited coronation began after 112 of 160 scheduled laps and a series of rain delays that forced what was supposed to be a Saturday night race well into Sunday afternoon.
Among the young and unsung, whose stock is rising, whose is falling and who deserves at least another look? Based on recent races, the momentum of their current race teams and even what some guys are able to do with less than fellows given more can't accomplish, or vice versa, here is a stock-watch update of the young NASCAR Sprint Cup crowd.
Austin Dillon started this season amid much fanfare as the first driver of the No. 3 car in the Sprint Cup Series since the passing of the late Dale Earnhardt in a last-lap accident during the 2001 Daytona 500.
But for those who expected Dillon to drive like Earnhardt in the No. 3 right away, which was a mistake, it has been a disappointing season.
The fact is, Dillon needs the seat time in his first full-time Cup ride before he can be expected to be consistently competitive. Folks tend to forget that in his first full-time season in 1979, after running a handful of Cup races the previous four seasons, the legendary Earnhardt wasn't an immediate success, either, winning only one race.
Dillon is only 24 and just scored the first top-five finish of his rookie Cup season in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. He's likely to only get better as the second half of this season unfolds.
At this point, who knows, really, if 22-year-old Ryan Truex can competitively drive a Sprint Cup car?
After all, his start in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, which resulted in a 32nd-place finish, was only the 18th of his career in NASCAR's premier series. And, in fact, he has failed to finish five of the 15 events he has started this season—wrecking out of four of them, including the latest at Daytona.
But you know what? The guy took center stage by storm during driver introductions as everyone waited out a long rain delay last Saturday night, turning the rain-soaked red carpet into his own personal Slip 'n Slide. The fans, media and even his fellow competitors loved it.
There is something to be said for having crowd appeal, and Ryan, the younger brother of Sprint Cup Series veteran driver Martin Truex Jr., obviously has it. Let's see where he can take it.
Remember when Trevor Bayne became the youngest winner ever of the Daytona 500, winning the Great American Race one day after his 20th birthday in February 2011?
He was the toast of NASCAR then. In fact, he was one of the great hopes of NASCAR then.
The world was watching, and you could almost feel the powers that be willing Bayne to become the sport's next big star. He had the looks, the charisma, the star power, the youth...everything, it turns out, but the driving ability to take it all to the next level.
Yes, Bayne is a great kid who has battled multiple sclerosis just to stay on the track, which is a major triumph in itself. But as he prepares to finally get his first full-time Sprint Cup ride next season with Roush Fenway Racing, the fact is that he has done little since that Daytona 500 upset to prove that he really belongs in the Cup Series.
OK, so Josh Wise actually turned 31 in February. He's still young enough and obscure enough to be included in this group.
Wise is the guy who capitalized on the Internet Dogecoin craze (yes, there was one) to earn entry into two Sprint Cup events earlier this season that he otherwise would not have been able to run in.
Since then, his car owner, Phil Parsons, has been able to piece together additional sponsorships that have, at least in part, come about because of the positive publicity generated by the earlier feel-good story.
Wish also is an accomplished triathlete who once said, according to Ryan Schneider of Ironman.com (h/t Wikipedia):"I get way more stressed in a triathlon than I do in a race car." That kind of comment makes it hard not to root for the guy.
Verdict: Buy (Dogecoins accepted, cash preferred)
Alex Bowman is only 21 years old and last week, like Ryan Truex, used the rain-soaked stage for a personal Slip 'n Slide during driver introductions for the Coke Zero 400.
Truthfully, we don't have any idea of what to make of Bowman as a driver just yet. He seems to run into a whole lot of stuff—walls, other cars, etc.—and his 13th-place finish in the latest race at Daytona was his first finish better than 23rd in NASCAR's top series.
But he's run all 18 Sprint Cup races this season for BK Racing, whose other driver is none other than the young Truex.
And like Truex, he looked good on the stage at Daytona, and even a little better than he has most of the season on the track itself later. Let's give him some time and see how he develops.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. looked like a Sprint Cup star in the making when he made the jump to NASCAR's top series two years ago after winning back-to-back titles in the Nationwide Series.
But now, after 59 Cup starts, he has a grand total of two top-five and six top-10 finishes and has come nowhere close to winning a single race.
To put that in perspective, the 26-year-old has not been much better than his girlfriend, Danica Patrick, who has three top-10 finishes (and no top-fives) in 64 career Cup starts.
But at least he's still dating her, so he has that.
Michael McDowell is only 29, but it seems like he's been around so long he should be older. He also must feel somewhat like a forgotten man in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series
An accomplished open-wheel racer when he was younger, he made his first 20 Cup starts for Michael Waltrip Racing back in 2008 and once was considered an up-and-comer by some of the bigger organizations in the sport, including Joe Gibbs Racing, which put him in some Nationwide Series cars.
But he eventually became known mostly for his spectacular crash during qualifying at Texas Motor Speedway for the Samsung 500 and then became an afterthought after registering only one top-10 finish in his first 155 career Cup starts.
He now drivers a part-time Cup schedule for underfunded Leavine Family Racing—and in his 156th career Cup start at Daytona last Sunday, he registered his second career top-10 finish with a seventh. Maybe he's just a late bloomer who deserves another look.
Verdict: Hold (until the next restrictor-plate race, at least)
Forget the fact that he was among the many who wrecked out of the Coke Zero 400 in spectacular fashion.
Sprint Cup rookie Kyle Larson is the real deal, and it's only a matter of time until he starts winning races with regularity in NASCAR's top series.
Of all the young guns, Larson, at 21, seems to have the most promising future. And he knows it, exuding a quiet confidence that matches his considerable talent and is all part of his total package.
“I don’t want to just ride around,” he told David Scott of The Charlotte Observer recently. “I want to give the fans something they can get excited about.”
Justin Allgaier seems to be a nice enough guy.
But at 28 years old, and just now running his first full-time Sprint Cup season, he just isn't a guy anyone can seem to get all that excited about.
He's run all 18 Cup races this season for Turner Motorsports and has finished inside the top 20 just twice—with a 16th at Michigan and a 17th at Bristol.
It seems like folks talked about his potential for a long time. Now they just don't talk about him much at all.
Almirola's victory in the rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 at Daytona was memorable in so many ways.
Not only was it the first Sprint Cup win of Almirola's career and the first for Richard Petty as a car owner since John Andretti won at Martinsville in 1999, but it also came on the 30th anniversary of the King's last win in a storied career.
That was win No. 200 for Petty, and it came at Daytona in July 1984 in remarkable fashion. In attendance was President Ronald Reagan, who sat down with Petty and fellow driver Bobby Allison to share a Kentucky Fried Chicken picnic afterward.
Now, the 30-year-old Almirola is forever tied into that delicious piece of NASCAR history, as well as writing a new footnote to go along with it all for himself. Plus, he virtually assured himself of a spot in this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup that will determine the season's champion.
Joe Menzer is the author of six books, including two about NASCAR, and now writes about it and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.