NASCAR Notebook: Bubba joins Cup ranks, Dale Jr. picks his list of best young drivers

Darrell Wallace Jr. makes the move to the No. 43, Earnhardt singles out young guns for his fans and Hendrick driver still fighting to get back in Victory Lane

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Over the last several years, some of the biggest names in the sport have exited while young guns have gradually proved themselves. Names like Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney have slowly become some of the most popular drivers, replacing names like Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon.Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. hopes to add his name to that list.The 23-year-old driver is finally getting his opportunity on Sunday at Pocono, taking over the reins of the No. 43 car in place of injured Aric Almirola. He’ll not only drive at Pocono, but will be behind the wheel for the remainder of the races until Almirola is able to return after a back fracture suffered in Kansas.While his timeline to prove himself is unknown at this point, Wallace is keeping his expectations tempered.”There’s no need for me to go out there and try to set the world on fire, try to win races and put myself in a tough spot, not be able to capitalize on it,” Wallace said. “If the opportunity presents itself, yeah, we’ll jump on it. There’s no need for me to force a hole, end up tearing up a race car. I’m getting this opportunity because people believe in me and seen my talents coming up. “I have to go out there, just back that up, show them I can manage and perform, and I belong in the series.”Wallace is so much more than just another young driver, though. He carries the weight of being the lone black driver in the sport and the first to start in what is now the Monster Energy Cup Series since Bill Lester drove in two races in 2006.When he won in the Trucks Series back in 2013, Wallace became the first driver to collect a checkered flag in any of NASCAR’s top three series since Wendell Scott in 1964. When we spoke to him following that win, Wallace spoke about being the lone black driver to carry the torch in NASCAR’s top series.”Nah, there’s no added pressure,” Wallace said. “The only pressure I ever feel is what I put on myself. No one outside of myself adds to that. As far as the standing out part, I definitely feel like I get noticed more often.”I’m also proud that I’m well accepted in the sport. At the driver intros, I sometimes get the biggest cheers from fans, so that’s amazing to me. It’s only my first year at this level, so to have fans embrace me that much is incredible. It sends chills down my back every time.”He also hopes to be seen as a role model for young black drivers wanting to get into the sport.”It’s obviously a long process to get to this level, but I’d love to see NASCAR become a more diversified sport,” Wallace said. “It just takes a lot. Kids have to do more than just want it, they have to have the talent, get with the right people and back it all up with hard work, dedication and determination. It’s definitely not going to be easy, but it would be cool to see.”On Sunday, Wallace gets his first true shot to prove it’s possible for black drivers to work their way into the Cup Series. While it’s unknown how long he’ll remain at the top level of the sport, simply having the opportunity to prove himself with a team that has made the Chase in the past is a massive one for Wallace.Earnhardt singles out his favorite young driversWallace is looking to make a name for himself. Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 14-time Most Popular Driver Award winner, has already well established his name in the sport. But with his retirement after this season, many of his fans have been asking one question: Who do we root for next?Earnhardt has the answer, sort of.Earlier this week, Junior shared a handful of names — 11, to be exact — to watch when he exits in November. Of those, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson were the only drivers over the age of 30 on the list. Truex and Johnson are clearly two of his friends, but Busch was interesting given the past between the two and Junior Nation’s obvious feelings about Rowdy.”He wears the black hat,” Earnhardt said of Busch. “He wins a lot of races, creates controversy here and there, not liked by everyone but he does have a rabid core fan base. … Kyle is going to keep it interesting. You’re going to be entertained. He ain’t changing. You’ve got to have good personalities. “So you have Jimmie on one end of the spectrum and Kyle on the other end. Those guys are obvious choices if you want to go with winners winning now.”As for the previous seven drivers on the list, most were either first or second-year drivers including Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney and Hendrick teammate Chase Elliott. Then there were the younger staples like Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., each of which has a win this season.Some of the most interesting comments from Earnhardt were about Larson, who he compared to two of the greatest in racing history — NASCAR or otherwise.”He is the modern day A.J. Foyt, Tony Stewart,” Earnhardt said. “Kyle Larson is another incredibly skilled driver. Another guy with a great personality, really funny. Family man, squeaky clean, doesn’t get in trouble and races hard.”There’s a little bit of chatter in the media of whether he’s aggressive enough. He finishes second a lot. Why isn’t he winning more races? Trust me, Kyle Larson has no problem putting the chrome horn to you. That guy there would be one I would be personally inclined to consider to pull for.”As for the final current racer, Junior said his dark horse is 2015 Xfinity Series champion Chris Buescher. Though he’s with a small, underfunded team right now, Earnhardt said he’s a guy that’s going to “make it” and invited his fans to “go along with him for the ride.”Kahne still digging despite lengthy droughtOne surprising name not on that list was Kasey Kahne. Despite being Earnhardt’s teammate since 2012, he was the lone Hendrick Motorsports driver left off the list. But all it takes is one look at Kahne’s recent stats in the Cup Series to understand why.After compiling five wins with Hendrick over the first three years of his contract, Kahne is nearing a three-year winless drought with his last victory coming in Atlanta on August 31, 2014. He’s also amassed no more than three top-five finishes over the last four years, raising questions about his future with the team.Obviously feeling some of that pressure, Kahne responded to his critics earlier this week on Twitter.I love racing and still have a ton of drive. All I want to do is perform and win again. I'm not done yet!— Kasey Kahne (@kaseykahne) June 5, 2017
Can Kahne turn things around in the No. 5 car? Sure. There’s no question he has the talent with three finishes inside the top 10 in points over the first nine full-time seasons at the Cup level. He’s also in one of the best situations with Hendrick, a team that has compiled 12 championships in the last 22 seasons.But at 37, it appears Kahne’s prime years are behind him. And with young drivers like Larson, Dillon and eventually Elliott, Blaney, Suarez and Jones winning races, Kahne is even getting passed over by his own teammates. If Kahne misses the playoffs for a third straight year, he might have to prove he’s “not done” somewhere other than Hendrick.