HOMETOWN: Las Vegas, Nev.
TEAM: Hendrick Motorsports
CREDENTIALS: Nextel Cup Rookie of the Year, 2005
BREAKTHROUGH MOMENT: In his first Busch Series start, in 2003, Busch finished second at Charlotte. The next season he won five Busch races.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS: In '04 Kyle's brother, Kurt, at 26, became the third youngest driver to win a Cup title; Kyle will be even younger when he wins his first.
What's that? You say you want your kid to be a Nextel Cup driver? Better start grooming that 10-year-old now, Mr. NASCAR Dad, because that's the average age at which NASCAR's current crop of rising stars (call them the Younger Guns)-- Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, David Stremme, Martin Truex Jr. and Brian Vickers--first slid behind a wheel and, with mini goggles on, tore around a track.
In fact, Mr. NASCAR Dad, if you want to find out how these six Generation Y racers advanced to the Cup level at such tender ages, you'll find some answers in their remarkably similar biographies. They all had fathers with Mobil 1 in their veins, dads who taught them how to push a vehicle to its limit years before the kids ever attended driver's ed. What's more, as teenagers these six were all traveling salesmen, knocking on the doors of strangers in search of a chance to drive for some deep-pocketed owner. And they all are at the forefront of a trend that is changing the face of NASCAR: Drivers as young as 20 are now landing rides with top teams.
"These days sponsors want younger drivers to promote their products. That's the main reason so many of us are getting opportunities," says Truex, who will drive the number 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevy full time on the Cup circuit for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. (DEI), in 2006. "But the bottom line is that you still need to be good--real good--to make it."
Mark Martin remembers when things were very different. "When Rusty Wallace and I were coming up, you had to prove yourself before you got a chance to make it," says the 46-year-old veteran. "Cup owners didn't want young guys. They wanted veterans with judgment. But that's not the way it is anymore."
And over the next decade the Cup circuit will likely be dominated as never before by twentysomethings. So study these six stories, Mr. NASCAR Dad, and perhaps you'll find a formula for raising a Nextel Cup driver.
Kyle Busch, 20. On Sept. 4 Busch, the little brother of 2004 Cup champion Kurt, became the youngest driver ever to win a Cup race (20 years, four months, two days) when he took the Sony HD 500 in Fontana, Calif. "A lot of the older guys don't like it when you come in and run well and win a race at such a young age," says Kyle, who drives for Hendrick Motorsports. "But owners want young drivers because they can mold them. Older guys are set in their ways; drivers like me aren't."
This isn't to say that Busch lacks experience behind the wheel; he first sat in a go-kart at age three. His father, Tom, put little Kyle in his lap as he drove around a course he'd laid out on a cul-de-sac near their Las Vegas home. When Kyle was seven and tall enough to reach the pedals of a go-kart, he began racing the 14-year-old Kurt on neighborhood streets. Then, in 2000, when Kyle was a freshman in high school, Kurt won an open tryout to drive for Jack Roush in the Craftsman Truck Series. Two years later, with Kurt running full time for Roush in the Cup series, Kyle started winning late-model races across the Southwest. When Jack Roush and Roger Hendrick each offered Kyle a ride in the American Speed Association (ASA) series in '03, Busch signed a multiyear deal with Hendrick that promised him an eventual Cup ride.
"I really wanted to create my own identity and not be so closely linked with my brother, so I chose to go with Hendrick," says Busch, who finished his rookie season 20th in the Cup standings. "But there's no question that my big break in the sport came about because of Kurt. At the same time I wouldn't be here if I couldn't hack it. I plan on being in the Chase next year."
HOMETOWN: Columbia, Mo.
TEAM: Roush Racing
CREDENTIALS: 2003 Craftsman Truck Series Rookie of the Year
BREAKTHROUGH MOMENT: In 2003 Edwards took Rookie of the Year honors in the Craftsman Truck Series with three victories and 13 top five finishes.
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS: After taking four checkered flags in the '05 Chase for the Nextel Cup, Edwards will be a serious contender for the title in '06.
Carl Edwards, 26. Almost every day for three years Edwards would walk into Mike Mittler's race shop in Foristell, Mo., and ask the same question: Can I race your truck this week? Mittler owned a truck that he raced in the Craftsman Truck Series, and finally in 2002 he gave Edwards, who had by then won two Dodge Weekly Race Series titles, a shot. Edwards didn't disappoint: In seven races he consistently ran in the top 15 and had one top 10 finish. Impressed with Edwards's car control and aggressive approach, Jack Roush offered Edwards a chance to drive a truck for him full time in '03. Edwards responded by winning Rookie of the Year honors, which prompted Roush to promote Edwards to his Cup team midway through the '04 season.