NASCAR desperately needs young drivers challenging for championships. But can they?

Chase Elliott celebrates winning a NASCAR Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway in October.
Chase Elliott celebrates winning a NASCAR Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway in October. AP

Yes, we’re doing this again.

Anyone who watched even five minutes of a NASCAR Cup Series broadcast this past year — and yes, those people are becoming increasingly more difficult to find — knows who dominated the 2018 season.

Martin Truex Jr. Kyle Busch. Kevin Harvick. Joey Logano.

That’s it. That’s the full list.

And, really, Logano’s only on there by virtue of his championship win at Homestead (Fla.) in November. Before that, it was all Truex, Busch and Harvick, dubbed the “Big 3” months ago to both save us time and make for a catchy marketing ploy. Fair enough.

But here’s the thing: That’s not what NASCAR promised its fans back in February before the season began. Back then, there was little mention of the sport’s elder statesmen (Harvick, Truex and Busch are 43, 38 and 32 respectively) as potential champions.

Instead, all the hoopla revolved around the “young guns,” everyone touting the “next generation of drivers” as appropriate heirs to the recently retired Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon.

Yep, go ahead and cue that laughing soundtrack.

In all seriousness, expecting NASCAR’s talented crop of young drivers to suddenly flip the switch from “potential” to “complete and utter dominance” was probably unfair. Sure, that turn will eventually be made, but counting on competitors like Busch and Harvick to just willingly hand off the baton was never going to happen.

That all said, there’s still a sticking point here, and an argument to be made that NASCAR should be doing everything it can to hasten that changing of the guard.

As NASCAR’s television ratings and attendance continue deteriorating – “dwindling” is too minor a descriptor for the dramatic fall off stock-car racing is enduring – there has to be some way to slow the decline. One way NASCAR has actively attempted to do that in recent years is by focusing more on appealing to younger fans, the 18-30 demographic that has perpetually eluded them.

To do that, NASCAR has integrated better pre-race concerts into its schedules, established a fantasy sports system that mirrors the always-popular fantasy football, and even become one of the more social media-savvy sports leagues in the nation.

All good steps, of course. It’s just not as good as, you know, having some of those young drivers actually winning.

Young fans will relate to young drivers, that much is obvious. But to what degree they relate, care, become invested in, and then back those drivers is inherently tied to Top 5s and wins.

So, which under-30 drivers have the best chance to truly compete for a NASCAR championship in 2019? An early look at five of the favorites, ranging from fringe winners to legit stars:

5. Alex Bowman

No, Bowman’s first full-time Cup season didn’t exactly go according to plan in 2018. Filling in for Earnhardt’s famous No. 88 at Hendrick Motorsports, Bowman didn’t win a race and only had three Top 5s. Bowman, 25, did show flashes in competing for wins at Bristol and Pocono, and that’s more than you can say for a lot of the Chevy teams this year. As Dale Jr. said last week, if HMS can get Bowman a winning car, then they’ve got someone with a lot of potential in the seat.

4. Erik Jones

Yes, a winner! Jones’ victory at Daytona in July, narrowly edging Truex in the process, proved that the 22-year-old former Cup Rookie of the Year has the goods to back up his potential. Jones had a stretch this year when he finished in the Top 10 in nine of 11 races, which also shows he can string solid runs together. The problem here is, he was already behind Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin on the pecking order at Joe Gibbs Racing, and then the team brought on Truex. Is there enough good equipment and resources to go around?

3. Ryan Blaney

Another one-time winner this year, although Blaney admitted after his “victory” at the Roval that he didn’t enjoy winning via process of elimination. Blaney, 24, started the year well for Team Penske, leading more than 100 laps in the season-opening Daytona 500, but he couldn’t parlay that success into more actual results. Considering one teammate, Brad Keselowski, won three consecutive races at one point and the other, Joey Logano, won the championship, Blaney still has catching up to do within his own shop. Eight Top 5s is encouraging though, and given his carefree, engaging personality, NASCAR has to be rooting for Blaney to continue his upward trajectory.

2. Kyle Larson

Even in a down year, Larson, 26, belongs this high on the list. No, he may not have won in 2018, but his breakout 2017 season was still just scratching the surface of how good he can be. Four wins in 2017 still didn’t guarantee Larson - one of the year’s best drivers - a spot in the championship race, and at this point in his career, the questions surrounding him on whether he can put a full season together. Still, it’s obvious that someone who finished second six times (and third another four times) can drive with the best of them – it’s just a matter of time before Larson assumes the mantle as one of NASCAR’s next superstars.

1. Chase Elliott

Who else could this be? Elliott didn’t turn 23 until after the 2018 season, won the first three Cup races of his career, nearly qualified for the championship for the second season in a row, and then won Most Popular Driver for the first of what should be nearly a dozen times. Elliott’s star has been on the rise for years, but if he puts together a few more years like he did in 2018, soon we’ll stop referring to him as Bill Elliott’s son and just let him stand on his own. Elliott is not only one of NASCAR’s best young drivers, but he’s easily its most marketable (especially with legions of swooning teenage fans). So, does Elliott legitimately have a shot to win it all next season? Let’s let Dale Jr. answer that one.

“I think Chevy as a whole is going to be better, and I think that’s great for Chase because he’s already pretty good,” Earnhardt said last week. “I’m expecting Chase to be a real contender for the championship.”

Brendan Marks: 704-358-5889; @brendanrmarks

Brendan Marks is a general assignment sports reporter for the Charlotte Observer covering the Carolina Panthers, Charlotte Hornets, NASCAR and more. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and has worked for the Observer since August 2017.
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