"Richie took me over, and I met Dale Jr.," says Truex. "We hit it off right away. He eventually asked me to drive for his Busch team. We had success right away. But I never would have gotten the opportunity if Richie hadn't introduced me to Junior at Richmond."
Truex, whose father was a longtime Busch North racer, quickly proved he belonged in the big Busch series: He won the points title in 2004 and '05. As for Junior and Truex, the two have become close friends. In '06 they'll be full-time Cup teammates. "The key for us is to get off to a good start and be competitive," says Truex. "Just because I'll be a rookie doesn't mean I can't win."
HOMETOWN: Thomasville, N.C.
TEAM: Hendrick Motorsports
CREDENTIALS: 2003 Busch Series champion
BREAKTHROUGH MOMENT: In 2003 Vickers, at 20, became the youngest national series champion in NASCAR history when he won the Busch title.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS: In his third full season on the Cup circuit Vickers will qualify for the Chase in 2006 and be a major player deep into autumn.
Brian Vickers, 22. On Oct. 26, 2002, Vickers came to Atlanta Motor Speedway to compete in a Busch series event. At the time Rickey Hendrick, son of Cup owner Rick Hendrick, was looking to start a Busch team, and he needed a driver. As Rickey (who would die in the plane crash that claimed 10 Hendrick family and team members 24 months later) watched the race in Atlanta, he couldn't take his eyes off Vickers, who was driving a car owned by his father, Clyde, and passing cars on old tires as he took the turns on the high line late in the race.
"That day was my big break," says Vickers, who started racing off-road karts at age seven. "I'd been bugging owners for a long time to give me a chance, but I never got the opportunity. Then Rickey asked me to drive for him. That really started my career."
In 2003, his first season with Hendrick, Vickers had 13 top five finishes and won the Busch title at age 20, becoming the youngest national series champion in NASCAR history. Though Vickers has yet to win a race at the Cup level, he and Kyle Busch, who share a race shop in Charlotte, may one day soon supplant Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson as the marquee Hendrick drivers. "We're getting better each race," says Vickers. "Our time is coming."
So, Mr. NASCAR dad, what did we learn from this six-pack of drivers? For starters, while there's no by-the-book way to get your kid to the Cup level, almost all of these guys started racing as soon as they could see over the steering wheel. They also all learned the sport at the knee of their fathers, and they all created their own luck with heart and tenacity. "This is a hard sport to break into," says Vickers. "You have to want it real bad."
Oh, yes, there's one other small thing these Gen Y racers have in common, and this talent, more than anything else, explains why millions of race fans watch them 36 weekends a year. To borrow a popular pit road expression: These guys can flat-out drive.