Youth rules at all levels of NASCAR during 2012 season
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- NASCAR has a talent-laden farm system loaded with stock car racing’s future stars.
From the NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series to the sanctioning body’s touring divisions and on the Whelen All-American tracks, there’s a single common denominator: Lightning-fast youth.
The pipeline leading to the ultimate destination -- the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series -- figures to overflow for years to come. And from the looks of 2012, current NASCAR Sprint Cup competitors had best be ready to defend their turf and their jobs.
Dillon brothers lead the charge -- again
Austin Dillon made history in 2011, becoming the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series’ youngest champion at age 22. That goal accomplished, Richard Childress, Dillon’s owner and grandfather, gave the driver an even greater challenge -- a full-time opportunity in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, where he thrived in his No. 3 Chevrolet. The young competitor won twice at Kentucky Speedway, never left the top four in points and claimed Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors.
There’s another Dillon on the horizon -- Ty Dillon, and the 20-year-old is coming up fast in his older sibling’s mirror. Like Austin, Ty won NASCAR Camping World Truck Series rookie honors in his first full season. He also scored a victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway, led the championship standings with his No. 3 Chevrolet and was on the threshold of a title as late as the waning laps at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Buescher triumphs, Piquet’s fortunes rise
A first NASCAR national series victory -- not with his No. 31 Turner Motorsports Chevrolet, but in the 2012 NASCAR Nationwide Series opener at Daytona International Speedway -- propelled James Buescher on a championship course. The 22-year-old Texan did win in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series four times, including twice in Kentucky and at Kansas and Chicagoland.
Piquet, the one-time Formula 1 driver from Brazil, became a NASCAR star in a break-out year. Like Turner teammate Buescher, Piquet won in two series -- NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and NASCAR Nationwide Series, his latter victory scored at the fabled Road America road course in Wisconsin. Piquet, 27, won at Michigan and Las Vegas en route to a seventh-place championship performance. He also led the series with four Keystone Light poles.
Patrick proves ready for prime time
Danica Patrick became NASCAR’s highest finishing female competitor in 2011 with a fourth-place finish at Las Vegas. She set another record for her gender as a full-time NASCAR Nationwide Series competitor in the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet during the past season -- the first female to produce a top-10 finish (10th) in a national series. Patrick’s 17th-place performance at Phoenix, her last of 10 premier series starts, readied her for a NASCAR Sprint Cup rookie campaign in 2013.
Record number of NASCAR Camping World Truck Series first-time winners
There were nine of them in 2012, all under the age of 30, beginning with John King’s upset victory in the season-opening race at Daytona. King, 23, was participating in just his eighth series event. As noted, Buescher, Ty Dillon and Piquet also were first-time winners. They were joined by 2011 Sunoco Rookie of the Year Joey Coulter, 22, at Pocono; Cale Gale, 27, at Homestead; Parker Kligerman, 22, at Talladega; and Justin Lofton, 26, at Charlotte. Ryan Blaney became the youngest series winner at 18 years, 8 months when he captured the series’ second visit of the season to Iowa Speedway.
Among the season’s top-five championship finishers, only runner-up Timothy Peters is older than 22.
Young stars on the rise in NASCAR touring, Whelen All-American
-- A year after becoming the youngest race winner and pole sitter in NASCAR K&N Pro Series West history, Dylan Kwasniewski took the big step in his sophomore season in becoming the youngest champion in the 59 years of the series. The 17-year-old Las Vegas driver won three times and posted 12 top fives in 15 races en route to taking the title by six points over teammate and defending champion Greg Pursley.
-- Kyle Larson had never raced a stock car prior to February. That lack of experience didn’t slow down the transition for the 20-year-old open-wheel star from Elk Grove, Calif., Larson won twice -- including at New Hampshire -- on his way to winning the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship. He joined Joey Logano and Ryan Truex in becoming the only drivers in the series’ history to win rookie of the year and the championship in the same season. He also gave Rev Racing and NASCAR Drive for Diversity their first NASCAR touring title. Larson, an Earnhardt Ganassi Racing development driver, nearly won for Turner Motorsports in his fourth career NASCAR Camping World Truck Series start.
-- Darrell Wallace Jr. picked up his sixth career win in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East early in the year. It was a big milestone year for the 19-year-old from Concord, N.C., a graduate of the NASCAR Drive for Diversity program, as he made four NASCAR Nationwide Series starts for Joe Gibbs Racing. Wallace scored three top 10s and earned his first 21 Means 21 Pole Award presented by Coors Brewing Co., at Dover. He became the first African-American driver to win a pole in the Nationwide Series.
-- After capping 2012 by winning the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West finale at Phoenix, Ryan Blaney continued his successful progression. After rallying from a spin to finish second in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East opener at Bristol, Blaney also finished second at Iowa in a partial season in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series. The 18-year-old from High Point, N.C., made 13 NASCAR Nationwide Series starts and nine in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, highlighted by his breakthrough victory at Iowa.
-- Lee Pulliam has only been racing for six seasons. But the 24-year-old from Semora, N.C., quickly rose to the top in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series. Driving the asphalt Late Model divisions at Motor Mile Speedway in Radford, Va., Kingsport (Tenn.) Speedway, Caraway Speedway in Asheboro, N.C., Southern National Raceway Park in Kenly, N.C., and South Boston (Va.) Speedway, Pulliam collected 22 wins and 30 top fives in 36 starts to win his first NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national title.
Other breakthrough performances
Chase Elliott, 17, became the youngest pole winner in NASCAR K&N Pro Series history and also scored his first career NASCAR win at Iowa. … Ben Kennedy, the 20-year-old grandson of Bill France Jr., earned his first NASCAR victory in the historic inaugural NASCAR oval race in Europe at Tours in France. He also finished ninth in NASCAR K&N Pro Series East points. … Ryan Preece, 22, from Berlin, Conn., had two wins and six poles and finished second in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. He also ran his Modified at weekly tracks in Connecticut and at Riverhead (N.Y.) Raceway, winning 14 times and finishing fifth in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series national standings.