Jeff Gordon was a 21-year-old Winston Cup rookie in 1993. A lot of doubts were tossed in Rick Hendrick’s direction when he announced his choice of who to start his third team around. Now Gordon’s name is synonymous with the sport.

Since then, owners have been looking for the “next Jeff Gordon.” Gordon started gaining national recognition in 1988 on ESPN’s Thursday Night Thunder telecasts of USAC racing. He was a Busch Series rookie by 1991 and caught Hendrick’s eye in 1992. The rest, as they say, is history.

But in 1985, if someone were to say Gordon would be the Cup champ in 10 years, a majority of NASCAR fans would have responded with “who?” In keeping with that theme, here is a pitch for who will be among the top Cup drivers in 2020.

1. Sergio Pena
Prior to January 29, 2010, I had never heard of Pena. After Jan. 30, 2010, Pena’s name was on the lips of quite a few NASCAR people. He won the pole and finished second to Joey Logano in the All-Star Showdown in Irwindale, Calif. The Showdown is one of the biggest short-track races of the year and grabs a lot of attention by being held while most of the motorsports world is still in an offseason. Just 16 years old, Pena displayed the poise and talent of a veteran behind the wheel of a NASCAR Pro Series machine. He performed well under the national spotlight with just a single season of late model stock car competition under his belt. When he matures and gains some more experience, look for a Cup team to guide him under its wing.

2. Cody Darrah

“The Pennsylvania Posse” has some of the most respected drivers in all of sprint car racing. When the World of Outlaws tour through the Keystone State, their work is cut out for them to capture a victory. Darrah is one of those local stars and a big winner in the sprint cars. At only 20 years old he signed with Kasey Kahne Racing for a rookie-of-the-year attempt on the WoO Series. Unfortunately his year got off to a bad start with a traffic accident in Florida resulting in a broken leg. The young racer now faces a temporary setback while he recovers. In the future look for Darrah to follow in other sprint car racer’s footsteps like Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Gordon and Kahne.

3. Josh Richards
Another World of Outlaw star, but this time from the Late Model ranks. And not just any driver but the 2009 series champion. Richards’ family owns Rocket Chassis, a well-known dirt late model builder. He has a racing pedigree and was born into the sport. When Stewart’s schedule allows, he drives a car fielded out of the Rocket shops. “Kid Rocket” is making inroads towards pavement superspeedway racing with ARCA starts on his schedule. He continues to make a name for himself at age 21 on dirt tracks. At the same time, NASCAR owners are recognizing his talent.

4. Johanna Long
Female drivers are garnering a lot of attention in 2010 with the stock car arrival of Danica Patrick. There are a few already at the grassroots level outrunning the boys. Long is a track champion at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Fla. She also was the pole-sitter for the speedway’s famous Snowball Derby last December. The Florida Panhandle resident is a regular winner in regional Super Late Model events at Pensacola and Mobile, Al. Long is taking a more traditional path through stock car racing’s ladder system. Her victory lane appearances have her in the pipeline at only 17 years old.

5. Sean Caisse
Joey Logano was groomed in the NASCAR Pro Series with Joe Gibbs Racing. Logano won races and the championship. Overshadowed by this was another top talent who provided Logano with strong competition. Caisse piloted an Andy Santerre Motorsports car and visited victory lane at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in South Carolina. He has made Truck Series and ARCA starts for Germain Racing, Venturini Motorsports, and is now a development driver for Richard Childress Racing. At 24 years old, he is ready to shine and prepare for a Cup future.

(Patrick Reynolds is a former NASCAR mechanic who co-hosts the One and Done auto racing radio talk show Tuesdays at 11am ET. Listen at www.wsicweb.com.)

Related links:

RCR rises at Fontana
Five NASCAR Myths
Daytona 500 track analysis
Best Daytona 500 Finishes
I Prefer The Busch Clash
A Few Moments with Ned Jarrett
Steve Waid looking forward
NASCAR Scene closes
Best Cup races of the 2000s
Top grassroots races
Biggest disappointments of 2009
The races that won Johnson’s title
Best Cup titles
Why the Sprint Cup needs a dirt race
Fan fixes for Talladega and why they won’t work
How to improve NASCAR
The perfect Sprint Cup schedule


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