NASCAR has been in a bit of a slump lately, with declines in both attendance and TV ratings and the loss of major sponsors like Sprint and Dollar General. Since its brief moment in the sunshine in the mid 2000s, the sport has slowly receded from the consciousness of the American public, leading to fears that the sport could eventually wither away into nothingness.
Spoiler alert: The reports of NASCAR’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
Despite a shrinking fanbase and the cost of fielding a competitive team, NASCAR has an abundance of the one things any sport would die to have: a promising group of fresh young talent that is about to take the circuit by storm. These drivers are hungry, talented, and poised to make noise in the sport for the next decade or so.
To highlight these fresh faces, I considered the following question: In five years (2021), who makes the Chase for the Cup? Here’s my list thus far:
- Chase Elliot. Son of a former NASCAR champion, won the Xfinity Series championship as a rookie in 2014, made the Chase for the Sprint Cup as rookie this year, came within a couple of rough restarts of winning two or three Sprint Cup races. Oh, and he’s only 20 years old. By far the easiest pick for this list.
- Kyle Busch. The younger Busch (he’s only 31?!) and reigning Cup champion is already one of the winningest drivers in NASCAR history. Barring injury, he’s not leaving the sport—or the Chase—anytime soon.
- Jimmie Johnson. Six-Time has never missed a Chase since the format was adopted in 2004, and even though he’ll turn 46 in 2021, I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt in this case. (He himself has been vague on the subject of retirement when asked.) Like the New England Patriots and the San Antonio Spurs, I’ll believe Johnson’s run of excellence is over when I see it, and not a moment before.
- Kyle Larson. The 24-year-old Larson has shown great speed in first three years in Cup, and he finally broke through to pick up his first win (and his first Chase berth) this year. He’s a no-brainer pick for the 2021 Chase, and he’ll win at least one championship before his career is over.
- Austin Dillon. Despite his relative youth (26), exceptional credentials (he’s a former Truck and Xfinity champion) and numerical legacy (he drives the freakin’ 3 car!), Dillon tends to get overshadowed by other young drivers like Elliott and Larson. He shouldn’t be—his Newman-esque consistency in the Cup Series this year earned him his first Chase berth, and it’s only a matter of time before he finds his way to Victory Lane.
- Brad Keselowski. He’s a past champion, he contends for wins week in and week out, and at 32 he’s got at least another decade to terrorize the NASCAR circuit. The only way he misses the 2021 Chase is if he gets wrecked intentionally (multiple times) by drivers who get fed up with his hard-nosed, give-no-quarter driving style.
- Joey Logano. At 26, Logano is basically a younger version of Keselowski. He won’t just be in the 2021 Chase, he’ll probably be a member of the Final Four at Homestead (or wherever they decide to hold the final race).
- Ryan Blaney. Blaney has been turning heads since he scored a Top 10 in his Nationwide Series debut in 2012, and he’s looked fairly strong in the Cup Series despite driving for the storied-but-small Wood Brothers organization. He just missed the Chase cutoff this year, but at 22, his best days are still in front of him.
- William Byron. Don’t know who Byron is? Don’t worry, you will—he won the K&N Pro Series East last year, and followed it up with six wins (and counting) and a No. 1 Chase seeding in the Camping World Truck Series this year. He’s 18 years old! He’ll be running in the Xfinity series full-time next year, and my guess is that by 2021, he’ll not only qualify for the Chase for the Cup, he’ll be a legit championship contender.
- Erik Jones. The 2015 Truck Series champion is on the same rocket-ride to the big leagues as Byron. The 20-year-old has notched three victories in the Xfinity series this year and become a strong contender for the championship, and has already signed on to join Furniture Row Racing in Cup next year. He’ll still be contending for Cups in 20 years, let alone in five.
- Martin Truex Jr. Speaking of Furniture Row Racing… In the past four years, Truex has transformed from a mediocre, B-level MWR driver to a true championship contender with Furniture Row Racing. Although he’ll be on the back side of 40 by 2021, his recent surge makes me think he’s still got at least 6-7 good years left in him. (Plus, his brother Ryan should be in the Cup series by then, so perhaps that will be further incentive for him to keep on racing.)
- Denny Hamlin. Hamlin is 35, has fallen just short of championships in the past, and is in a prime position with Joe Gibbs Racing to contend for more Cups in the future. He’s already on record saying he’ll probably race eight or ten more years, and I’m betting he’ll still be a legitimate contender when 2021 comes around. His injury history, however, is a cause for concern.
- Carl Edwards. Edwards is a more-extreme version of Hamlin: He’s older (37), he’s come as close to winning a title as anyone can without actually pulling it off (losing on a tiebreaker in 2011), and his transition to JGR has been pretty successful. He’s declared that winning a championship is his singular goal, so could he walk away if he wins a title before 2021? He hasn’t gone on the record with any retirement talk, however, and as one of the fittest drivers on the circuit, his age shouldn’t play a big a role in the decision. My money says he’s in.
- Kevin Harvick. Call this one a gut feeling. Harvick is already 40, and he already captured his elusive championship back in 2014. Would he really still have the desire to keep racing in 2021? Call me an optimist, but I think Happy will stick around: He’s got a great relationship with his crew chief and owner (not so much with his pit crew, though), and he arguably running stronger now than he was earlier in his career. Harvick hasn’t formally addressed retirement, but I see number 4 running strong for at least another 5.
- Ricky Stenhouse Jr. This pick might be more of a stretch than Harvick! Stenhouse will certainly be around in another five years, but will he ever show enough speed to break into the NASCAR playoffs? Despite his Cup mediocrity, I’m going to say yes: He was a two-time winner of the Xfinity Series championship, so he certainly has the talent to succeed. The Roush-Fenway organization has been struggling for several years now, and other drivers (most notably Logano) have taken a long time (and sometimes a team change) to reach their potential. I’m predicting a similar slow rise for Stenhouse, although his commitment to Roush may hamper his Chase chances.
- Alex Bowman. Ok, this pick even caught me by surprise. Bowman, however, has acquitted himself quite well filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr. (although some of the drivers disagreed with me in New Hampshire). He’s convinced me that given the right opportunity in the right equipment, he could make some noise and make the Chase.
To recap: My hypothetical 2021 Chase contains nine drivers that are 28 or younger, five that are 23 or younger, and three that are 20 or less! And as crazy as it sounds, my list still doesn’t capture the extent of of the oncoming talent wave. There’s no Chris Buescher, or Trevor Bayne, or Justin Allgaier, or Ty Dillon, or Cole Custer, or Daniel Suarez, or Darrell Wallace Jr., or Ryan Reed, or Ryan Truex… The list could go on for days!
One thing is for sure: When JJ, Junior, and the rest of NASCAR’s current generation call it a career, the sport will remain in good hands. The only things that could make NASCAR’s future brighter would be turtle shells and banana peels, but that’s a story for another blog post… 🙂