Mark Story

Bummed that Dale Jr. is retiring? Find your new favorite NASCAR driver here

Kyle Larson celebrated after winning his first career Cup Series race last year at Michigan International Speedway. The California native, 24, has won twice this year in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and leads the points standings.
Kyle Larson celebrated after winning his first career Cup Series race last year at Michigan International Speedway. The California native, 24, has won twice this year in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and leads the points standings. Associated Press

You may have noticed, NASCAR is hemorrhaging star power.

Jeff Gordon retired after 2015. Tony Stewart left after last year. Carl Edwards departed before this season. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — the most popular NASCAR star of all — will exit after 2017.

It may not be an exaggeration to say the fan bases of those four drivers may account for three-fourths of all NASCAR fans — or more.

The good news for a sport that can use some is that an exciting cast of young drivers is looking to give the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series that “new star smell.”

“In the past few years, a lot of drivers have retired who have been big for the sport, from Tony to Jeff and with Dale Jr. retiring this year,” Ryan Blaney, one of the emerging NASCAR stars, said Wednesday. “I would hope (their) fans still enjoy the sport and will want to pick new drivers.”

For those seeking a new favorite, here are six drivers, all 25 or younger, who will compete in Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway who could become NASCAR’s next big thing.

KYLE LARSON

Age: 24

Hometown: Elk Grove, Calif. (near Sacramento)

Car: Drives the No. 42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing.

2017 calling card: The current Cup Series points leader, the 5-foot-6 Larson has won twice (California and Michigan) and been second in five races.

Did you know? Of Japanese-American descent, Larson considers himself a throwback to the 1970s when even the biggest stars in NASCAR might race 100 times a year in varying kinds of cars. Larson has recently won six sprint car races in a row on dirt tracks.

History at Kentucky: Is not good. In three prior Cup races in Sparta, Larson has yet to finish on the lead lap.

CHASE ELLIOTT

Age: 21

Hometown: Dawsonville, Ga.

Car: Drives the No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.

2017 calling card: Sixth in points but still looking for first Cup Series win after 58 career starts. Finished second at Michigan and third at both Las Vegas and Martinsville.

Did you know? A genuine prodigy, the son of NASCAR icon Bill Elliott began racing at age 8 and signed a development contract with HMS in 2011 at age 15. At 20, he replaced NASCAR superstar Jeff Gordon as driver of the famed No. 24 car.

History at Kentucky: Finished 31st last year in his first Quaker State 400. Best finish in four Xfinity Series races was fourth, twice.

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Ryan Blaney, left, won his first Cup Series race in 2017 at age 23. Chase Elliott, right, is still looking for his first Cup victory but is sixth in the points standings going into Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway. Ralph Freso Associated Press

RYAN BLANEY

Age: 23

Hometown: Hartford, Ohio

Car: Drives the No. 21 Ford for Wood Brothers Racing.

2017 calling card: Won his first Cup Series race at Pocono in June. Finished second in the Daytona 500. Stands 13th in points.

Did you know? The son of former Cup Series regular Dave Blaney has his own podcast, “The Glass Case of Emotion,” and competed on TV’s American Ninja Warrior for an episode scheduled to air July 10.

History at Kentucky: Has won twice (2013 and ’15) in seven Xfinity Series starts with two other top-five finishes. In his first Quaker State 400 last year, finished 35th.

ERIK JONES

Age: 21

Hometown: Byron, Mich.

Car: Drives the No. 77 Toyota for Furniture Row Motorsports.

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At age 21, Erik Jones has already won a Camping World Trucks Series championship and earned a full-time ride in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. LM Otero Associated Press

2017 calling card: Is 17th in points with a best finish of third at Pocono.

Did you know? Jones won the Camping World Trucks Series championship in 2015 and was Xfinity Series Rookie of the Year in 2016 after winning four races. His success last year was tinged with sadness after his father, Dave Jones, owner of a Michigan auto parts and restoration firm, died from cancer at 53.

History at Kentucky: Has led laps in all five NASCAR races he’s run in Sparta — four Xfinity Series events and a trucks race — without winning. This year will be his first Cup Series race at Kentucky.

DANIEL SUAREZ

Age: 25

Hometown: Monterrey, Mexico

Car: Drives the No. 19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing

2017 calling card: Moved into a full-time Cup ride unexpectedly after Carl Edwards’ surprise decision to “step away” from racing in November. Is 18th in the points with four top-10 finishes.

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When Daniel Suarez, 25, won the 2016 Xfinity Series championship, the Monterrey, Mexico, native became the first Latin American to ever win a season title in a NASCAR national touring series. John Raoux Associated Press

Did you know? With the blessing of his father, Alejandro, moved from Mexico to Charlotte with the goal of breaking into NASCAR. Eventually did, becoming the first Latin American to win a NASCAR national touring series championship when he won the 2016 Xfinity Series title.

History at Kentucky: Has finished in the top four three times in four Xfinity races. In two trucks events, finished fourth in one and led 59 laps in the second before finishing 11th. Has never run Cup in Sparta.

DARRELL “BUBBA” WALLACE JR.

Age: 23

Hometown: Mobile, Ala.

Car: Drives the No. 43 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports

2017 calling card: Has driven three Cup races in place of injured Aric Almirola, and has improved his finish in each. Wallace Jr. has gone from 26th (Pocono) to 19th (Michigan) to 15th (Daytona).

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NASCAR legend Richard Petty, left, advised Darrell Wallace Jr. before the latter drove in his first Cup Series race last month at Pocono in the No. 43 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports. Matt Slocum Associated Press

Did you know? Wallace Jr. won five races in the trucks series, becoming only the second black driver ever to claim victory in a NASCAR national touring series (The first was Wendell Scott, who claimed victory in what is now the Cup Series on Dec. 1, 1963, at Speedway Park near Jacksonville, Fla.).

History at Kentucky: Of six NASCAR races in Sparta — four Xfinity, two trucks — has led five of them. Finished between fifth and ninth in all four Xfinity races. Was second in trucks in 2014. This will be Wallace Jr.’s first Cup race at Kentucky.

NASCAR at Kentucky Speedway

Monster Energy Cup Series

Quaker State 400: 7:30 p.m. Saturday (NBCSN)

Xfinity Series

Alsco 300: 8 p.m. Friday (NBCSN)

Camping World Trucks Series

Buckle Up in Your Truck 225: 7:30 p.m. Thursday (FS1)

Complete schedule: Kentuckyspeedway.com

Tickets: Kentuckyspeedway.com/tickets

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