Top 10: Prospects

By Lee Montgomery, NASCAR.COM

The emphasis on younger drivers has never been more apparent in NASCAR. Big-time car owners are drivers to development contracts before they can even vote.

Ford already has Mark Martin's 13-year-old son, Matt, in its camp, and Hendrick Motorsports signed 15-year-old Chase Austin to a contract late last year.

But here is one man's opinion of the 10 best prospects to make it big in NASCAR's top series.

1. Martin Truex

Current series: NASCAR Busch Series

Current team: Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Future: Dale Earnhardt Jr. hand-picked him to drive for Chance 2 Motorsports, and all Truex Jr. did was win the 2004 Busch championship. Nextel Cup is certainly on his horizon after another year in the Busch Series, and many speculate that Truex Jr. could take Michael Waltrip's spot in the No. 15, perhaps sooner than Waltrip wants.

Truex is a winner, and his calm demeanor in and out of the car should serve him well in the future.

2. Shane Hmiel

Current series: NASCAR Busch Series

Current team: Braun Racing

Future: His past has been clouded with a drug-related suspension, but his future is limited only by ... well, nothing. Hmiel is loaded with talent, as demonstrated by his performance in Billy Ballew's truck last season. Hmiel won once in the Craftsman Truck Series and should've won a bunch more. He filled in for Kasey Kahne at Milwaukee's Busch race and finished fourth. Cup teams had his eye on him before the suspension, and chances are excellent they're looking at Hmiel again.

3. Reed Sorenson

Current series: NASCAR Busch Series

Current team: Chip Ganassi Racing

Future: One of the first young development drivers signed by a Cup team, Sorenson has been nothing but impressive in his brief time behind the wheel. Sorenson was dominant in Legends Cars, won the ASA rookie of the year award at age 17, won in ASA and ARCA last year and nearly picked off a Busch Series victory in 2004. Finished 13th or better in five of six Busch races last year and will run full-time in Busch in 2005.

4. J.J. Yeley

Current series: NASCAR Busch Series

Current team: Joe Gibbs Racing

Future: An ABC (ARCA, Busch, Cup) schedule was his baptism in stock cars in 2004, and there were, understandably, some good and bad moments. But the 2003 USAC triple crown winner will devote all his time to the Busch Series next year in a Gibbs car, and the results should be much better, for Yeley is loaded with talent.

5. Brendan Gaughan

Current series: NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series

Current team: Orleans Racing

Future: Gaughan wasn't given enough time at Penske Racing, but the former Georgetown basketball player still has plenty of talent to get it done in Nextel Cup. He'll drop back to the trucks for 2005, but should a ride open in Cup, look for Gaughan to get it.

6. Erin Crocker

Current series: USAC Silver Crown/NASCAR Busch Series/ARCA

Current team: Evernham Motorsports/Kasey Kahne Racing

Future: Crocker could be the first female to make it in NASCAR's top series. At 19, she's a ways away, but Ray Evernham thought enough of Crocker to sign her to a development deal that will put Crocker in Evernham Dodge's in the Busch Series and in ARCA and in a Kahne car in USAC. Crocker won in World of Outlaws last year and has the academic credentials as well, earning an industrial and management engineering degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

7. Kraig Kinser

Current series: USAC Silver Crown

Current team: Kasey Kahne Racing

Future: Comes from the first family of open-wheel racing, as father Steve is the 19-time champion of the World of Outlaws. But for 2005, Kraig will compete in the USAC Silver Crown Series for Nextel Cup driver Kasey Kahne. Dodge will have a hand in the effort, too, and you can bet the Dodge boys will keep an eye on Kinser.

8. Bobby East

Current series: USAC Silver Crown/Midgets

Current team: Lewis Racing

Future: Ford signed another young open-wheel driver back in the early 1990s, and he turned out all right: fella named Jeff Gordon. If East is half as successful, Ford would be thrilled. For now, the 19-year-old son of sprint car owner and engine builder Bob East will stay in USAC while testing for Ford. Don't be surprised to see East, the youngest champion in USAC history, in NASCAR in a year or two.

9. Blake Feese

Current series: NASCAR Busch Series/ARCA

Current team: Hendrick Motorsports

Future: One of three drivers Rick Hendrick signed to development deals, Feese is perhaps the farthest along. Feese won two ARCA races in 2004, at Nashville with Bobby Gerhart Racing and at Talladega in a Hendrick car. Hendrick later started Feese in some Busch races, and Feese finished the season with Haas CNC Racing. With the powerful Hendrick organization behind him, only Feese can stop Feese from becoming a star.

10. Clint Bowyer

Current series: NASCAR Busch Series

Current team: Richard Childress Racing

Future: Childress surprised some when he plucked Bowyer from NASCAR's Weekly Racing Series to partner with Kevin Harvick in the Busch Series, but Bowyer showed he was up to the task, posting four top-five finishes in 17 starts. He'll move to RCR's No. 2 car -- the same one Harvick drove to the Busch title just three years ago -- next season.

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