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NASCAR insiders rank top young drivers

Drivers, crew chiefs and team owners assess who they think will be NASCAR’s next superstar.

NASCAR XFINITY Series Lilly Diabetes 250 - Qualifying Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images

On the same weekend two weeks ago, 23-year-old Chris Buescher and 18-year-old William Byron won the Sprint Cup and Truck Series races at Pocono Raceway, respectively, while 20-year-old Erik Jones captured the Xfinity Series race at Iowa Speedway. This marked the first time in NASCAR history three rookies took all three national division events on the same weekend.

Although it may seem like an aberration, a confluence of circumstances — Buescher prevailed in a weather-impeded race — this was a continuation of a trend within NASCAR where youth is coming to the forefront unlike ever before. It’s an emergence that’s seen 26-year-old Joey Logano, Chase Elliott (20) and Kyle Larson (23) sweep the top three positions in the June 12 Sprint Cup race at Michigan International and become the youngest top-three finishers in NASCAR history, and includes Byron already setting a Truck Series rookie record by amassing five victories.

Young talent flourishing across NASCAR’s three national divisions is not unprecedented, with the sport typically undergoing a transformation every 10 to 15 years with new drivers coming in and the older generation transitioning out.

The last such notable changeover occurred from 2000-05 when Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman, Greg Biffle and Kasey Kahne all began competing in the Cup Series full-time, just as Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd and Terry Labonte were among the veterans entering the twilight of their stellar careers.

However, the current wave of young talent is different from their predecessors, many working within NASCAR repeatedly told SB Nation. This pool of drivers are not just younger — many are still in their teens and not eligible to rent a car — but also possess greater ability, therefore making a more immediate impact.

“These kids coming up are the best I’ve ever seen,” a multi-time Cup Series championship-winning team owner told SB Nation. “They’re able to do things right away that many guys who’ve been in this sport for a long time can’t do. It’s impressive and fun to watch.”

So which of the budding talents are destined to become future superstars? According to more than 60 drivers, crew chiefs, car owners and team managers across NASCAR’s three national touring divisions, the five drivers below are the highest regarded prospects not already racing in the Sprint Cup Series. In exchange for their candor, all those SB Nation spoke with were promised anonymity.

1. Erik Jones

Age

20

Current level

Xfinity Series

Synopsis

Considered Kyle Busch’s protégé, Jones made a name for himself after beating the current Sprint Cup champion in the prestigious Snowball Derby Super Late Model race in 2012. Busch then signed him to drive one of his trucks on a limited basis, and ever since Jones’ career has skyrocketed. He won in just his fifth series start and six additional times in the next two years, and became just the second rookie to win a national championship last season. This season, he is racing Xfinity exclusively where he owns three wins — tops among series regulars — and ranks second in laps led, trailing only Busch. Furniture Row Racing announced last week Jones would drive a second Sprint Cup car fulltime for the team in 2017.

Garage insider’s perspective

“If he were in Cup right now, he’d be performing like Chase Elliott is, if not better.” … “He executes very well and makes minimal mistakes, especially for how quick he is.” … “Really aggressive, but doesn’t get himself in trouble. More calculated than people give him credit for.” … “There is nothing about how this kid drives that says he’s only 20. Unreal how fast he is.” … “He’s going to win multiple Cup championships.” … “If I could, I’d have him in one of my [Cup] cars today.”

2. Todd Gilliland

Age

16

Current level

K&N Pro Series

Synopsis

Just two days after turning 15, Gilliland not only became the youngest winner in ARCA history last year, but he accomplished the feat in his first series start. He has since continued his winning ways in the K&N Pro Series West and East divisions (the sport's equivalent of Single-A baseball) where he’s accumulated six victories in 14 combined starts. Advancement to the Truck Series is a matter of when, not if. He is the son of David Gilliland, a longtime Sprint Cup competitor, and grandson of Butch Gilliland, a former NASCAR West champion.

Garage insider’s perspective

“Every bit as good as Chase Elliott or Erik Jones.” … “He’s so smooth. Lap after lap he just keeps a steady wheel. You don’t see that in young kids.” … “Doesn’t get rattled. Doesn’t make mistakes. You’d think he was a veteran and not some 16-year-old.” … “Some kids tend to be way too aggressive and mistake-prone, but Todd is different. He tends to keep the fenders on it and doesn’t destroy a bunch of cars. That’s hard to teach.” … “You could put him in a truck today and he’d be winning races in little time.”

3. William Byron

Age

18

Current level

Truck Series

Synopsis

In four years Byron has progressed from racing online simulators to being a legitimate title contender. That rapid rise has turned the kid who just graduated high school May 27 into the breakout star of 2016, with five wins in 12 truck starts and atop the point standings.

Garage insider’s perspective

“Yeah, he’s got good equipment, but look what he’s doing with it. He’s gone right to the front and won.” … “A good kid who is smart and knows not to push his stuff beyond its limits; you don’t see that combination too often.” … “He’s got the ‘it factor.’ He’s the real deal.” … “I saw him run the bottom [groove] and manage his tires at Atlanta like he was Kevin Harvick. Can’t imagine what he’s going to be like with some more experience.” … “How has this kid only been racing for a few years? I cannot comprehend it.”

4. John Hunter Nemechek

Age

19

Current level

Truck Series

Synopsis

The son of former longtime Sprint Cup driver and Xfinity Series champion Joe Nemechek, John Hunter won his first Truck Series race last September at Chicagoland Speedway, followed by another victory in February at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Demonstrating a consistency many young drivers lack, he’s finished 10th or better in over 50 percent of his career starts — a feat made more remarkable when you consider he’s done all this while competing on a limited budget for his family-owned team.

Garage insider’s perspective

“Not only is he fast for a single lap, he carries that speed throughout a whole run.” … “Really patient driver, who doesn’t drive over his head.” … “You give him the kind of [equipment] these other kids have and you’ll see how good he is.” … “He’s running like he’s with a high-dollar team, when most weeks they have to scrape together some sponsorship.” … “How a bigger team hasn’t signed him, I don’t understand.” …“Just wait, as he gets a better feel he’s going to start winning in bunches.”

5. Christopher Bell

Age

21

Current level

Truck Series

Synopsis

A dirt sprint car standout by nature, Bell transitioned to asphalt racing in 2014 as part of Busch’s Super Late Model program. The transition was rather seamless, with Bell quickly acclimating and winning several big events. That earned him an opportunity with Busch’s Truck Series team in 2015, and Bell again flourished, winning in his third division start. He scored his second truck victory in June at Gateway Motorsports Park.

Garage insider’s perspective

“Super-fast, but he needs to develop some patience. He too often burns up his tires because he doesn’t know any better. But once he learns, look out. The wins will come and come and come.” … “It was a struggle during the early parts of the season, but he’s come into his own lately and I think has actually been more impressive among the [Kyle Busch Motorsports] drivers. He’s going to go on a big run here soon.” … “Expectations were so high on him, you could tell he was pressing early on. He’s over that now. His car control and ability to squeeze speed is impressive.” … “Considering he’s only been off dirt for a couple years, he’s made a rapid adjustment.”