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Breakout performances of 2011: Youth is served

December 12, 2011, Official Release, NASCAR.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- If it seems top performers in NASCAR are getting younger and younger -- you're right.

Consider that:

-- A 20-year-old, Trevor Bayne, won the Daytona 500

-- A 21-year-old, Austin Dillon, became the Camping World Truck Series' youngest champion

-- The NASCAR K&N Pro Series boasted an 18-year-old champion, Max Gresham, and a 15-year-old race and pole winner, Dylan Kwasniewski.

Youth being served didn't comprise the season's only break-out performances -- think champion Tony Stewart winning a record five of 10 races during the Chase -- but it was a headline from start to finish in 2011.

Bayne tops list of five first-time winners

A day after his 20th birthday -- and in only his second Sprint Cup Series start -- Bayne raced the Wood Brothers' fabled No. 21 Ford to victory in the Great American Race, the Daytona 500. He wasn't the only first-timer to win a NASCAR "major." Regan Smith triumphed in the Showtime Southern 500 at Darlington and Paul Menard became the only driver to score his initial victory in the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Marcos Ambrose and David Ragan visited Victory Lane for the first time at Watkins Glen and Daytona, respectively.

Dillon, Stenhouse change rookie status in a hurry

Dillon was a season removed from winning the rookie of the year award, as was Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 24, as champion of the Nationwide Series. The "double play" by Dillon and Stenhouse was a first. Both won twice in their respective series. Under current age rules, a Nationwide Series rookie of the year will have a difficult time getting any younger than Timmy Hill, who turned a national series-eligible 18 years of age on the day practice began for the season's second race at Phoenix.

Gresham, Kwasniewski, Wallace Jr. appear ready for prime time

Georgian Max Gresham won twice en route to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East title and will pursue rookie of the year honors in the Camping World Truck Series in 2012. Wallace, the first black driver to win a NASCAR touring event a year ago was second to Gresham in NASCAR K&N Pro Series East points with three victories. Like Gresham, Wallace is 18. Kwasniewski became the first 15-year-old to win a NASCAR touring series race, added a second victory and finished fifth in NASCAR K&N Pro Series West standings.

Stewart took up space -- in Victory Lane

Frustrated by a lack of victories during the 2011 season's first 26 races, Stewart proclaimed he was just taking up space in the Chase. That might have been hyperbole but Stewart suddenly was the driver to beat with victories at Chicagoland and New Hampshire. By the time the checkered flag fell on Stewart's winning No. 14 Chevrolet at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the two-time Cup Series champion had five victories in pocket, most during the Chase in its eight-year tenure. Stewart, by the way, has at least one victory in 13 consecutive seasons (1999-2011) -- the series' longest continuing streak.

Keselowski became genuine star in 2011

Keselowski, the 27-year-old 2010 Nationwide Series champion, proved he must be included among the Cup Series' brightest stars. He won three times -- twice racing with leg injuries suffered in a testing accident -- went from 21st to a "wild card" entry into the Chase and finished the season fifth in the championship.

Multiple milestones reached among three NASCAR national series

Kyle Busch erased Mark Martin's long-standing Nationwide Series victory mark (49) at Bristol in August, ultimately raising his career win total to 51. Busch earlier became the third competitor to win 100 NASCAR national series races with his Truck Series victory at Kentucky in July and reached 104 wins by season's end.

Jeff Gordon won his 85th Cup Series race at Atlanta in September to rank third all-time behind Richard Petty and David Pearson. Gordon's Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin became the eighth Cup Series competitor to win 50 or more poles when he grabbed the P1 position in July at Daytona. Martin added No. 51 at Talladega in October.

Ron Hornaday extended his all-time Truck Series victory record to 51. His milestone 50th win came in October at Kentucky. Sixteen of those wins have come after the 53-year-old Californian's 50th birthday.

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