As we start the 2021 NASCAR season, drivers are looking to prove that they can become a future NASCAR Cup Series star. Ranging from USAC midget drivers to part-time drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series, we have compiled a list of 25 drivers who have the greatest potential for Cup Series stardom in the future.
When making the decisions on this list, there are multiple questions to ask yourself:
- Which driver would I want 10-15 years from now (Driver A) vs (Driver B)?
- How has the driver raced in the equipment they were given? Have they overperformed or underperformed, and by how much?
- How much maturity and consistency has the driver shown for his or her age?
- Is the driver’s untapped potential higher than what we know other drivers have (Xfinity, Truck)?
Age requirements: Nobody older than 29 years old (all series), Xfinity: 29 years old, Truck: 27 years old, ARCA: 25 years old.
A driver is no longer considered a prospect if they:
- A) Have declared to run full-time in the NASCAR Cup Series in 2021 at the time of this article.
- B) Have made 18 starts or more in the NASCAR Cup Series.
- C) Are not actively trying to move up from their current ride.
Each driver will have their birthday, current team, manufacturer, current series, and some statistics.
Let’s get this started.
1. Chandler Smith
Birthday: June 26th, 2002 (18) | Kyle Busch Motorsports | Toyota | Truck
Chandler Smith’s rise in NASCAR has been full of success, which has been easy to see in every car he has driven. Smith, 18, boasts a 27.3 winning percentage in the ARCA Menards Series, which shows his dominance in the series as Sam Mayer’s is 21.7%. Last season, Smith finished in the top-5 positions five of the last six races in the NASCAR Truck Series and has made the jump to full-time for Kyle Busch Motorsports. The 18-year-old driver could be the best prospect since Joey Logano and it’s very easy to see why.
2. Sam Mayer
Birthday: June 26th, 2003 (17) | JR Motorsports | Chevrolet | Xfinity/Truck/ARCA
Sam Mayer has been considered one of the best prospects in NASCAR ever since his K&N Pro East Series championship in 2019. Mayer, 17, also won his first NASCAR Truck Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway last season driving for GMS Racing. There are many things to be excited about when it comes to Mayer, who will be running the second half of the season with JR Motorsports in the No. 8 car due to age restrictions in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. The 2021 season will be big for Mayer to see where he stands with other drivers.
3. Harrison Burton
Birthday: October 9th, 2000 (20) | Joe Gibbs Racing | Toyota | Xfinity
Harrison Burton didn’t do much in the NASCAR Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports, however, he showed what he was capable of with Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series last season. Burton, 20, boasted four wins, 17 top-5 finishes, and 22 top-10 finishes in an impressive rookie season. It may be surprising to see him over former NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric, but his statistics and younger age show he’s on a faster trend than Cindric is right now.
4. Austin Cindric
Birthday: September 2nd, 1998 (22) | Team Penske | Ford | Cup/Xfinity
Austin Cindric had the best season of his career in 2020 when he won six races en route to his first NASCAR Xfinity Series championship. While doing this, he won his first oval race in the top levels of NASCAR and showed he’s capable of being a contender in the NASCAR Cup Series one day. Cindric, 22, will take his talents to the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing ford next season to replace current driver Matt DiBenedetto. The 22-year-old driver should be the favorite for another championship this season.
5. Noah Gragson
Birthday: July 15th, 1998 (22) | JR Motorsports | Chevrolet | Xfinity
Noah Gragson could be the unluckiest driver in NASCAR, but he will be around this sport for a very long time. Gragson, 22, is in his third season with JR Motorsports and should be one of the favorites for the NASCAR Xfinity championship this season. Gragson tallied an impressive two wins, 17 top-5 finishes, and 25 top-10 finishes in 2020. He is arguably the most marketable driver in the sport and is on a slightly better trend compared to Austin Cindric, with better statistics in his first two seasons in Xfinity.
6. Jesse Love
Birthday: January 14th, 2005 (16) | Bill McAnally Racing | Toyota | ARCA/ARCA West
Jesse Love took Sam Mayer’s spot as the youngest champion in NASCAR history at the age of 15 years, 9 months, and 24 days after winning the ARCA Menards West Series title. Love, 16, will look to defend his championship in 2021 as he looks to improve on an already great 2020 season. Love is in a very similar direction as Derek Kraus, who also raced for Bill McAnally Racing during his years in the lower ranks. The 16-year-old driver’s potential should not be underestimated as he will have a bright future in NASCAR.
7. Derek Kraus
Birthday: September 1st, 2001 (19) | McAnally-Hilgemann Racing | Toyota | Truck
Derek Kraus had two great years before entering the NASCAR Truck Series with McAnally-Hilgemann Racing full-time in 2020. Kraus, 19, put up incredible numbers with a 23.8% winning percentage in the K&N Pro West Series from 2017-2019. Kraus won 10 races in three full-time seasons and won one K&N Pro West Series championship in 2019. The 19-year-old driver should have higher expectations in 2020 after only finishing in the top-5 three times in the NASCAR Truck Series.
8. Taylor Gray
Birthday: March 25th, 2005 (15) | David Gilliland Racing | Ford | Truck/ARCA/ARCA East
Taylor Gray is the younger brother of Tanner Gray, who races full-time for David Gilliland Racing in the NASCAR Truck Series. Gray, 15, put up amazing numbers in the ARCA Menards Series in 2020, with others such as Chandler Smith and Sam Mayer on the track. Gray finished in the top-5 positions eight of 12 times last season and won a race in the ARCA Menards West Series. At only 15-years-old, Gray has shown incredible potential as he will run full-time in the ARCA Menards East Series.
9. Ty Gibbs
Birthday: October 4th, 2002 (18) | Joe Gibbs Racing | Toyota | Xfinity/ARCA
Ty Gibbs is the grandson of NASCAR Cup Series owner Joe Gibbs. Gibbs, 18, had an amazing 2020 season after winning six races in the ARCA Menards Series last year. Gibbs also shocked the NASCAR world after he won his first career NASCAR Xfinity Series race in his debut with Joe Gibbs Racing. There are questions about the equipment Gibbs drove in the lower ranks which will keep him lower on the list for now, but if he can drive as he did at the Daytona Road Course, he will drastically climb this list.
10. Christian Eckes
Birthday: November 10th, 2000 (20) | ThorSport Racing | Toyota | Truck (PT)
Christian Eckes is currently driving part-time for ThorSport Racing after being released from Kyle Busch Motorsports at the conclusion of the 2020 season. Eckes, 20, showed potential with Kyle Busch Motorsports, but when there is a future NASCAR Cup Series superstar behind you and a driver with sponsorship, it’s hard to maintain a ride. Eckes still has the potential to become a NASCAR Cup Series driver, but the path will be harder with a part-time schedule with a team that rarely has drivers move forward.
11. Sheldon Creed
Birthday: September 30th, 1997 (23) | GMS Racing | Chevrolet | Truck
Sheldon Creed broke through in 2020 after winning five races en route to his first career NASCAR Truck Series championship. Creed, 23, has an interesting stat-line after only finishing in the top-5 positions nine times. Even though Creed is a champion, he could be in danger of staying in the lower top-3 series’ since he’s 23-years-old and entering his third full-time season in the NASCAR Truck Series. He should have another great season, but more consistency in 2021 would really help his case to move up.
12. Zane Smith
Birthday: June 9th, 1999 (21) | GMS Racing | Chevrolet | Truck
Zane Smith hasn’t taken the traditional path most drivers take when climbing through the racing ladder. Smith, 21, went from the ARCA Menards Series to the NASCAR Xfinity Series with JR Motorsports and had an average finishing position of 10.3. Smith then moved back down to the NASCAR Truck Series to drive the No. 21 truck for GMS Racing in 2020. The 21-year-old driver won two races and put up a similar stat-line compared to teammate Sheldon Creed. Smith could have a breakout year in 2021.
13. Justin Haley
Birthday: April 28th, 1999 (21) | Kaulig Racing | Chevrolet | Cup/Xfinity
Justin Haley has been one of the best superspeedway drivers in NASCAR after winning the rain-shortened NASCAR Cup Series race at Daytona International Speedway in 2019. Haley, 21, won three races in the NASCAR Xfinity Series last year, which were all at superspeedway tracks. Haley has driven in seven NASCAR Cup Series races, which may help him with experience. The 21-year-old driver looks to take the next step and win more races outside of a specific type of racing, like Austin Cindric with road courses last season.
14. Corey Heim
Birthday: July 5th, 2002 (18) | Venturini Motorsports | Toyota | ARCA
Corey Heim currently races full-time with Venturini Motorsports after driving a part-time schedule in 2020. Heim, 18, dominated the last race in the ARCA Menards Series at Kansas Speedway in 2020. Heim also won the first race of the 2021 season at Daytona International Speedway, which is a good start for a driver who truly had to earn their ride after being given a chance. The 18-year-old driver has great potential and should have a great season after winning two consecutive races at two different tracks.
15. Todd Gilliland
Birthday: May 15th, 2000 (20) | Front Row Motorsports | Ford | Truck
Todd Gilliland was one of the top prospects in NASCAR before he entered the NASCAR Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2018. Gilliland, 20, won back-to-back championships in the K&N Pro West Series in 2016 and 2017 after winning almost half of races each season with six victories. Gilliland has shown that he can become a future star, but he needs to put it together in his second season with Front Row Motorsports. The 20-year-old driver looks to regain his winning ways in his fourth full-time season.
16. Brandon Jones
Birthday: February 18th, 1997 (24) | Joe Gibbs Racing | Toyota | Xfinity
Brandon Jones has improved every season he has been in the NASCAR Xfinity Series with Joe Gibbs Racing. Jones, 24, is in his sixth full-time season in the Xfinity Series and won a career-high three races last season. Jones already has two top-5 finishes in 2021 and could be one of the favorites this year. Jones may be running the risk of becoming an Xfinity Series lifer, but if he can win even more races, it’ll help his cause. The 24-year-old driver has the sponsorship and talent to make it to the top level of racing.
17. Raphael Lessard
Birthday: July 5th, 2001 (19) | GMS Racing | Chevrolet | Truck
Raphael Lessard took strides last season with Kyle Busch Motorsports and won his first career NASCAR Truck Series race at Talladega Superspeedway. Lessard, 19, currently drives the No. 24 truck with GMS Racing after parting ways with Kyle Busch Motorsports at the conclusion of the 2020 season. Lessard has shown speed and could be one of the breakout stars in the series this year. The 19-year-old driver has a chip on his shoulder to prove everyone wrong after his departure.
18. Tyler Ankrum
Birthday: March 6th, 2001 (19) | GMS Racing | Chevrolet | Truck
Tyler Ankrum is one of the least talked about drivers at GMS Racing in the NASCAR Truck Series. Ankrum, 19, is in his third full-time season and has shown potential to be a good driver in the future. Ankrum won the K&N Pro East Series championship after winning four races. He also won his first NASCAR Truck Series race in 2019 after winning the fuel mileage game at Kentucky Motor Speedway. The 19-year-old driver looks to the take next step of winning multiple races this season.
19. Buddy Kofoid
Birthday: December 1st, 2001 (19) | Keith Kunz Motorsports | Toyota | USAC
Many drivers might not know Buddy Kofoid, but he could be the next Kyle Larson or Christopher Bell from the Toyota pipeline. Kofoid, 19, is currently in his second season with Keith Kunz Motorsports in the USAC National Midget Series. While Kofoid hasn’t put up the statistics like Larson and Bell, he still remains a dangerous driver as his goal remains to race every Sunday in the NASCAR Cup Series. The 19-year-old driver will be one to keep your eye on since he makes his pro and super late model debuts this spring.
20. Riley Herbst
Birthday: February 24th, 1999 (21) | Stewart-Haas Racing | Ford | Xfinity
Riley Herbst currently drives the No. 98 car for Stewart-Haas Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series after parting ways with Joe Gibbs Racing at the conclusion of the 2020 season. Herbst, 21, is in his second full-time season in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and still seeks his first win in the series. Herbst has won two races in NASCAR, both coming in the ARCA Menards Series. The 21-year-old driver will look to take the next step with a team that won nine races during the 2020 season.
21. Drew Dollar
Birthday: December 2nd, 2000 (20) | Kyle Busch Motorsports | Toyota | Truck/ARCA
Drew Dollar is currently racing part-time with Kyle Busch Motorsports in the NASCAR Truck Series after driving full-time last year in the ARCA Menards Series. Dollar, 20, won one race at Talladega Superspeedway and finished fourth in the point standings. Dollar hasn’t put up the same results as other drivers in the Toyota pipeline, but an opportunity with Kyle Busch Motorsports may bring the best out of him as he tries to make the next step.
22. Tanner Gray
Birthday: April 15th, 1999 (21) | David Gilliland Racing | Ford | Truck
Tanner Gray made the transition from drag racing to stock car racing in 2019. Gray, 21, is in his second full-time season with David Gilliland Racing after winning one race in the K&N Pro East Series in 2019. Gray has the potential to be a good driver in NASCAR, but he will need more experience before he can take that next step. It’ll be smart for the 21-year-old driver to take his time as he moves up the racing ladder so he isn’t rushed as other drivers have been.
23. Hailie Deegan
Birthday: July 18th, 2001 (19) | David Gilliland Racing | Ford | Truck
Hailie Deegan is one of the notable names on this list of drivers. Deegan, 19, races full-time for David Gilliland Racing in the NASCAR Truck Series driving the No. 1 truck. Deegan has won three races in the K&N Pro East Series in 2018 and 2019. She is one of the main drivers in the pipeline for Ford as they don’t have many drivers as Chevrolet and Toyota. Deegan looks to make the playoffs in her first full-time NASCAR Truck Series season and improve throughout the season.
24. Kaz Grala
Birthday: December 29th, 1998 (22) | Kaulig Racing | Chevrolet | Cup (PT)
Kaz Grala is currently driving part-time in the NASCAR Cup Series for Kaulig Racing after running a part-time schedule for Richard Childress Racing in 2020. Grala, 22, substituted for Austin Dillon at the Daytona Road Course in 2020 after Dillon was ruled out due to COVID-19. Grala finished in seventh place in his debut in the NASCAR Cup Series. The 22-year-old driver has talent, but he needs a good opportunity to show what he is capable of doing.
25. Gracie Trotter
Birthday: August 27th, 2001 (19) | Venturini Motorsports | Toyota | ARCA (PT)
Gracie Trotter is one of the most talented women drivers in the lower NASCAR ranks. Trotter, 19, won one race in the ARCA Menards West Series at the LVMS Bullring and finished third in the point standings. Trotter made the move to Venturini Motorsports where she will run part-time in the ARCA Menards Series. There are many things to like about Trotter and an opportunity at Venturini Motorsports will bring out the best of her driving abilities.