The 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup season marks a changing of the guard in the sport of NASCAR. Gone are the likes of elder statesmen such as Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr, both of which hung up their helmets for good after the 2017 championship race at Homestead. In just the last few seasons, NASCAR has seen an exodus of the sport’s most popular drivers, with another superstar retiring seemingly every year. In fact, six of the ten most popular drivers in the sport from the 2015 season are at now least semi-retired, including the likes of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Matt Kenseth, and Danica Patrick. This rash of retirements has left many NASCAR fans scratching their heads and screaming at the NASCAR “gods”, asking for answers on how the heck are they supposed to move on from their now retired favorite driver, and who are they gonna root for now?! Luckily for NASCAR fans however, the sport is currently experiencing a tidal wave of new, young, and interesting drivers, who are poised to take over from the old guard and become the new face of the sport. Before the new season kicksoff, we here at Honky Tonk Haven thought it would be a mighty fine idea to take a look at some of NASCAR’s newest drivers. Here is a look at several of the new young guns in new rides this year, and why you should care about them.
• William Byron: Driver of the #24 Axalta ZL1 Camaro for Hendrick Motorsports
- oWho is he? Byron is a 20-year-old kid from the heart of NASCAR country in Charlotte North Carolina, and he’s what many are calling the next big deal in NASCAR. Byron is somewhat of an oddity in the NASCAR world, given the fact that he didn’t even start racing at local tracks until he was 16 years old, an extremely late start for the current generation of NASCAR stars, many of whom start racing cars well before they even hit their teens. A completely different breed, Byron got his start on the PC simulation racer called iRacing. That’s right, NASCAR’s next superstar got started playing video games. Byron credits much of his early success to his start in iRacing, and he may symbolize the start of a new trend of young drivers brought up on the virtual race track.
- oWhy you should care? He’s the newest driver of the legendary #24 car for Hendrick Motorsports, that’s why. The kid from Charlotte, nicknamed Willy B by his Hendrick teammate Chase Elliott, already has seven wins in the NASCAR Truck Series, and another four wins plus a series championship in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. He’s young, the real deal, and he’s gonna be here for a long time. If Byron can win a NASCAR cup series title, he could become the first person from North Carolina since Dale Jarrett in 1999 to bring back NASCAR’s ultimate prize to the heart of NASCAR country.
• Darrell (Bubba) Wallace Jr: Driver of the #43 STP ZL1 Camaro for Richard Petty Motorsports
- oWho is he? Darrell Wallace Jr, better known as Bubba, is a talented 24-year-old driver born in the heart of Dixie in Mobile Alabama. The son of a white father and black mother, Bubba Wallace Jr is the first African American to have a full time ride in the cup series since Wendell Scott in 1971, who remains the only African American winner in the Cup Series. Bubba Wallace Jr began racing at the age of 9, and made his NASCAR national series debut in 2013 in the NASCAR Truck Series. Bubba maintains a close friendship with fellow cup driver Ryan Blaney, and the duo often find themselves in a variety of hilarious situations, from impersonating other drivers together to playing in a death metal band together.
- oWhy you should care? For one the guys hilarious. Bubba and Blaney’s friendship is easily one of the most entertaining dynamics in all of sports, not just NASCAR. On top of that, Bubba represents what could be a new era for NASCAR as the sport’s first full time African American driver in over 40 years. But Wallace didn’t race his way up to the cup series simply because of his skin color; Wallace is the owner of six NASCAR Truck Series wins and did an admirable job when filling in for injured Cup driver Aric Almirola last season, finishing as high as 11th. Did I mention he also drives the legendary #43 car for Richard fricking Petty?! Keep your eye on Bubba Wallace Jr.
• Alex Bowman: Driver of the #88 Nationwide ZL1 Camaro for Hendrick Motorsports
- o Who is he? Bowman is a 24-year-old from Tucson, Arizona, and although this is his first year driving the #88 car full time it is not his first season in the Cup Series. Bowman’s rookie season in 2014 was far from a fairy tale, with the young driver struggling to be competitive while racing for the underfunded BK Racing. Bowman’s 2015 season wasn’t much better, as he finished a dismal 33rd in points while racing for another shoe strong operation, Tommy Baldwin Racing. However, the young driver’s luck turned around when he caught the eye of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Dale Jr gave Bowman a shot in his Xfinity Series car during the 2014 season, and again in 2016. Jr was so impressed by Bowman that when he was sidelined by a concussion in 2016, he vouched for Bowman to fill in for him. After Dale announced his retirement, he endorsed Bowman as his successor.
- o Why you should care? Bowman is arguably stepping into the most pressure packed ride in the sport as the successor to Dale Earnhardt Jr in the #88 car. Bowman has one Xfinity Series win to his credit, and he wants to get the ball rolling early in 2018 to appease JR Nation. “Obviously the 88 has got a large following, so I’m going to do my best to keep Junior Nation happy and keep that 88 car out front,” Bowman said in an interview with USA Today. Bowman is arguably the most seasoned of the young drivers, already having paid his dues while driving for small time cup teams. Expect him to be competitive from the start.