DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Jeff Gordon has ridden off into the sunset — or, more precisely, the bright lights of the television booth.
Tony Stewart, when healed from an off-season back injury, is in his final NASCAR season.
Several other key NASCAR drivers have reached their 40th birthdays. Matt Kenseth is 43, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 41, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick 40. Greg Biffle, struggling to resurrect his career, is 46.
Quite a few of the drivers who have carried NASCAR for the past decade are retiring or approaching that status.
Where are the replacements? And will they have the same sparkle and popularity as Gordon, Stewart and Co.?
The empty places in the spotlight will be there for drivers like Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Chris Buescher, Erik Jones, Darrell Wallace Jr. and Austin and Ty Dillon and Kyle Larson. There are other drivers — Daniel Suarez, Jeb Burton, Alex Bowman, Rico Abreu — racing around the edges and waiting for their shots.
“Replacing the star power — in the end I think that happens organically,” Toyota racing official David Wilson told USA TODAY Sports. “Each driver has the opportunity to build a fan base and use their own personality to win over the fans. The exciting thing is that there is a rich level of talent coming up behind the seasoned veterans.”
Jones, 19, is near the top of that group. Scheduled to be a regular in the Xfinity Series this season after becoming the youngest champion in Camping World Truck Series history in 2015, Jones is a major player in Toyota’s future plans, and the approach to those has changed considerably in the past two years.
“Ten years ago, I would have told you that we have no responsibility for driver development,” Wilson said of Toyota Racing Development, the car builder’s motorsports arm. “It was our thinking that teams are involved with that, that we’re just along for the ride. Over the past 18 months, we’ve made a conscious change to that perspective.
“We think that as a stakeholder in the sport we have a responsibility to help the teams develop young drivers with the full knowledge that we won’t be able to keep every driver racing a Toyota. But we still believe there’s an opportunity there to develop talent and that ultimately it’s good for the sport.”
Wilson mentioned drivers like Jones, Suarez, Abreu and Christopher Bell — all in Toyota’s building program. “They do have a lot of personality,” he said. “We’re seeing it. I’m confident they will be the stars of tomorrow. I’m sure their star power will grow as they mature in the sport.”
Perhaps the two most prominent full-time newcomers to the Cup series this year are rookie of the year candidates Elliott and Buescher.
Elliott, 20, steps into the driver’s seat formerly filled by Jeff Gordon in the Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 Chevrolet. And he already has made a splash, becoming the youngest driver to win the pole for the Daytona 500. The 2014 Xfinity Series champion, Elliott’s toughest task will be thriving under the pressure of being the guy after Gordon.
Buescher, 23, was the standout driver last year in what was otherwise a sour season for Roush Fenway Racing’s Ford program. He won twice in the Xfinity Series, coasted to that division’s championship and pushed himself into position to get a Cup ride.
The deal put together for Buescher sent him to the Front Row Motorsports team, which will race with technical assistance from Roush Fenway and with one of its crew chiefs, Bob Osborne, in charge.
Although the pursuit of the Xfinity championship kept Buescher in points-racing mode much of the second half of the season, he showed significant on-track improvement and could be a star of the future.
“I really like where we are going into the season,” Buescher said. “The alliance with Roush Fenway will be great for both parties. It’s really coming together well.
“There’s a lot of ‘new’. Bob Osborne as crew chief. Landon Cassill as a teammate. I think it’s going to be a matter of getting everything to mesh as quickly as possible so we can make the best use of everything as soon as we can.”
Buescher, Jones, Elliott and Blaney figure to be the drivers in the 20-year-old group with good shots at moving up and forward.
Blaney said the rookie group (which Jones is not a part of) is “a really strong class. The strongest in a long time, I think. It’s neat to be a part of it and be racing with some of your friends.”
Blaney’s part-time schedule in 2015 gave him a boost, he said.
“We spent half a season working with everybody and getting into the right rhythm, getting in the flow, I guess you’d say,” he said.
Jones has seven Camping World Truck and two Xfinity series wins over the past three seasons.
“It’s fortunate for me to have so much young talent around me,” Jones said. “Without guys like Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney, I would have never been on anybody’s radar. I don’t have that last name the people would recognize. When people were watching those Late Model races and watching them, I was there, too.
“I’m not sure the last time NASCAR saw a young class coming up with so many guys. There are a lot of guys who are going to need a lot of seats in the next few years. It’s going to be interesting to see where they go.”