Young drivers making impact

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is best known for being Danica Patrick’s beau, and Kyle Larson made news for his scary crash into the fence in the Nationwide Series race two weeks ago at Daytona.

Each, however, also has shown plenty of glimpses of being part of the next generation of NASCAR drivers.

Stenhouse has won the Nationwide Series title the past two years. Larson won the NASCAR K&N Pro East Series championship last year.

And Brad Keselowski won the Sprint Cup trophy in 2012 and recently turned 29. The next youngest previous Cup champion is Las Vegan Kurt Busch, who is 34.

“There are a lot of good racecar drivers coming into the sport,” Stenhouse said. “The problem is getting everybody funded to go out and race. That seems to be the biggest issue right now.”

The drivers — older and younger — will compete at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend. The Sam’s Town 300 Nationwide race is Saturday, and the Kobalt Tools 400 Sprint Cup event is Sunday.

One question is what constitutes a young driver.

Las Vegas native Kyle Busch is in his ninth season, but at 27 is younger than Keselowski. Yet, because Kyle Busch has been such a force for nearly a decade, imagining him as a still-young driver might be difficult.

“I’m thinking lower 20s,” 41-year-old Jeff Gordon said. “That’s a young driver to me.”

If that is the definition of what would be NASCAR’s future, the sport doesn’t have to look hard to find a deep field.

Stenhouse, 25, has carried over his Nationwide success to a ninth-place showing in the Sprint Cup standings after two races this season.

“I know the tracks I’m going to, and I’m comfortable at those tracks,” Stenhouse said. “Now it’s just trying to get comfortable with an extra 220 horsepower. So that seems to be a bit different.

“It does bring confidence after running and winning those two Nationwide Series championships, especially when you have guys like Kyle and Kevin (Harvick) and Brad that came down and ran with us, and we were able to outrun them quite a bit. That gives you quite a bit of confidence coming into your first year of Sprint Cup.”

Larson was featured by NASCAR as one of its “Next 9” last May in a group that included Las Vegan Dylan Kwasniewski, who is in the K&N series.

“I think it’s cool that they recognize we could be the future of NASCAR,” Larson said.

Larson is only 20, and his win in K&N shows he could be a future champion and be known for something other than the horrifying crash into the fence at Daytona that injured 28 spectators.

“I’m looking forward to these next few weeks,” Larson said. “Hopefully, they go well and they’ll forget about the wreck.”

Stenhouse and Larson are far from alone among the top young drivers.

Austin Dillon, 22, won the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 2011, and his brother, 21-year-old Ty, was that series’ Rookie of the Year last season. Both are grandsons to famed team owner Richard Childress.

Trevor Bayne, 22, won the 2011 Daytona 500; Joey Logano, 22, won 10 Sprint Cup and Nationwide races last year; and Alex Bowman, 19, finished third in the season-opening Nationwide race at Daytona.

“It’s pretty crazy this year,” Bowman said last week from Avondale, Ariz. “There’s a ton good racecar drivers out here. I think it’s one of the most stacked this series has ever been. We were just looking at it on the board. There are 19 racecars here, and probably more, that could go out and win the race.”

There was one winner, of course, in Saturday’s Nationwide race — Kyle Busch, at the ripe young age of 27.

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.

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