51’s Short Track Draft  – The Original - The Underclassmen
Our Panel Of 30-Plus Picks The Top-51 Short Track Racing Prospects - Under 18 Years Of Age
1. Austin Dillon   (NASCAR East Series)

When talent and opportunity come together for a young driver, it can be a perfect storm that leads to instant success.  That may be the case for 17-year-old Austin Dillon. 

As the grandson of NASCAR team owner Richard Childress and son of former NASCAR Busch Series driver Mike Dillon, Austin didn’t exactly have to work at a drive-thru window to save his pennies for a local track mini stock ride.  Instead, he has attracted some good sponsorship and is driving for the powerhouse team of Andy Santerre Motorsports in the NASCAR Camping World East Series.

But opportunities alone don’t lead to success and Dillon has the talent to back up where he’s at.  He’s won at every step so far in his racing career – in Legend cars, in dirt Late Models and after one career start, the CW East Series.  Just like Joey Logano did last season, Dillon won the first race that he entered in NASCAR’s top development series.  The way that he won was a little different; the official victory came after his teammate Peyton Sellers was disqualified for a shock violation.  Yet Dillon had to put himself in the position of finishing second against a tough crowd to benefit from that.

With Santerre coaching him and the obvious talent that he has, there’s no telling where Dillon can go in his career.  But we’re not sure that he’s exactly draft material – we have a suspicion that the Richard Childress Racing team might snatch him up before he ever becomes eligible for anyone else to sign him.
Some athletes in some sports declare themselves eligible for the draft before they even graduate from college.  In sports terms, that’s an underclassmen.  There is no NASCAR school, but since the sanctioning body will not allow anyone under the age of 18 to compete in any of its “Big Three” series, the underclassmen term applies here as well.

So, the following list is the Top-10 Underclassmen in the Short Track ranks according to our esteemed panel of more than 30 people (media, industry leaders, parts manufacturers, series reps, etc).

Speed51.com will also put out a complete Top-40 list of underclassmen on Thursday.  So if a driver is not listed here today, it means only that he or she did not make the top-10 and that driver may still indeed be on the Top-40 draft of underclassmen.

And so, the #1 pick in the underclassmen draft is…
2. Logan Ruffin  (ASA / Crate Late Models)

Ok, so Logan Ruffin needs a tire as a stepping stool to climb into his Late Model.  The bottom line is the the 13-year old has talent.  13?  Yes, your eyes aren’t deceiving you.  Heck, since we are talking underclassmen here, we don’t even know if this kid is eligible for that status because Ruffin isn’t even in high school yet! 

Ruffin began his career in the Quarter Midget ranks where he had great success.  From there his success continued in Mini-Cup cars.  He struggled immensely in the Pro Challenge Series (3/4 scale Cup cars), but to the surprise of many, he stepped into the Late Model Ranks and took to the cars fairly quickly.  During the 2008 edition of Speedweeks at New Smyrna Speedway (FL) he scored three-wins in six-races to become the youngest winner and champion in the ASA/Crate Late Model division.  He also impressed a lot of racers and onlookers in the Crate Late Model race during Lakeland’s Speedfest weekend and even won a weak Pro Late Model event at Lanier Nat’l Speedway near the end of last year.

Age is quite possibly the biggest thing he has going for him right now.  At 13 years old, he’s for sure on everyone’s list.  His attractive mother is a country artist, so the family knows how to handle spotlight and success.  Surprisingly for his age, Logan is a very good interview too.  Running an assortment of races in different series in 2008 will help hone his skills.

Ruffin needs more experience, but that will come in time (remember, he is only 13, two years removed from the Quarter Midget ranks!).  He must be careful not to move up the ladder too fast because doing that has been known to hinder a young driver’s development at times.  He’s got plenty of time to make it and everyone must realize that.
3. Trevor Bayne (Pro Cup / NASCAR East Series)

He might be the next big thing behind Joey Logano, or at least that is how he is being billed.  Next year he should, without a doubt, be in the top ten of the overall Speed51.com Short Track Draft, if he hasn’t already run in a Nationwide Series car.

Bayne has already won at the Pro Cup level which paved his way to a full-time ride in the Camping World East Series (just like Logano).  In 2007, Bayne won at both Hickory Motor Speedway and Myrtle Beach Speedway on his way to a runner-up finish in the final Pro Cup point standings.  He also scored seven top five finishes in only 13 starts last season. 

He’s a well-rounded kid who speaks well and looks good doing it.  Don’t be surprised if his name pops up more and more as he gets closer to the age of 18.

The 17-year-old has already accomplished a lot at an early age.  His ability to learn so quickly is a strong key.  Team Chevy and Dale Earnhardt Inc. has a lot invested in him and he knows it.  He’s been hanging around the track, both for races and testing, in the early part of this season.

Time will tell if he’s ready to handle the massive amounts of pressure that he will face in the years to come.
4. Zach Stroupe (Super Late Models)

We’re very familiar with young Zach Stroupe around here.  He caught the eye of our own Bob Dillner, who built a Super Late Model program around the 15-year-old rising star.  But there are plenty of reasons why Stroupe deserves to catch the eye of other scouts as well.

After being a terror to his competition in the Bandolero and Legends Car ranks, Stroupe stepped up in the Pro Challenge Series and adapted instantly to a stock car.  He battled a much more experienced Terry Mathis for the National championship, falling just a few points shy of that goal.  He did capture the Rookie of the Year and Most Popular Driver titles while winning he share of race.  In fact, Stroupe is undefeated in a Pro Challenge car at the tough New Smyrna Speedway, with four victories there in four starts.

The Iron Station, NC native, who is as tall as many basketball players, has outgrown those cars and now he has entered the competitive world of Southern Super Late Model racing.  In two PASS South races so far in 2008, he’s led one (Watermelon Capital) before a trailing-arm broke and he finished fourth in the other (at Hickory) against one of the deepest starting fields we’ll see anywhere all season.  Stroupe has gone wheel-to-wheel with guys like the Rowes, Butch Miller, Ryan Lawler and Corey Williams with some very promising results.

He isn’t running any one particular series, instead his team is opting to have him compete in several different series’, which should gain him much more experience.  He does, however, need to hone his interview skills.
5. Matt DiBenetto (Late Models)

This kid has experience from winged kart on dirt to Legends Cars to Late Models.  He’s young and he’s quickly learned how to wheel the Late Model Stock Cars around the tracks of the Southeast. 

Last year, DiBenedetto shocked everyone with his win at Concord Motorsport Park in the UARA-STARS opener. He followed that up with another win that season at Franklin County Speedway. This propelled him to a fourth place finish in the final season standings. He also beat out over 100 cars at Martinsville in the historic Baileys 300, were he finished fourth.

In 2008, DiBenedetto has taken a step back by leaving UARA to run the weekly series at Tri-County Speedway, but the finishes remain strong with a win and a second place finish.

If the 16-year-old wants to succeed in this sport he will need to get back to the regional racing realm and not just compete at one track.  Running something other than a Late Model stock certainly would help as well.
6.  Derek Ramstrom  (PASS North and South Super Late Models)

When you see 16-year-old Derek Ramstrom and his father at the racetrack, you might think that they are just local racers having fun.  After all, they enjoy themselves, are very laid back and tow to the track with a simple pick-up truck and enclosed trailer.  But while one of Ramstrom’s driving duties is to race weekly in a Pro Stock (Super Late Model) at Thompson International Speedway (CT), there is nothing that is small about his racing abilities.

The Ramstroms, who operate an auto repair shop in Massachusetts during the week, have towed to tracks from South Carolina to Canada while chasing points in the tough PASS North Tour.  He also travels to compete in the big PASS South events as well. 

At age 15, he was already a PASS Outlaw Late Model champion.  He has since stepped up to the big cars and is a threat every week to win his first race against the likes of Ben and Mike Rowe, Cassius Clark, Johnny Clark and Richie Dearborn.  Whenever he’s entered a PASS South race, he’s shown well too.

Unfortunately, Ramstrom isn’t going to make the next step in his racing career by buying a Camping World East, ARCA or Pro Cup ride unless someone in his family picks the right numbers in a Powerball drawing.  But the talent, personality and potential are there for any big-time team owner to “adopt” him and make him a racing star.
7.  John Stancill (PASS South)

Recently, many drivers like Reed Sorenson and David Ragan have come out of a successful stint in the Legends Car realm to move on to bigger cars and eventually to the NASCAR world.  In both of those driver’s cases though, they haven’t had a brother just a few years older paving the way. 

15-year-old John Stancill comes from a family with two siblings trying to get to the big time.  Older brother Ben currently races in the NASCAR Camping World East Series in 2008 and Pro Cup last season.  When Ben isn’t driving, he is helping his younger brother John at the track as a spotter and coach in the PASS South Super Late Model Series.  This season, in his first stint in a full-sized car, Stancill has two top-10 finishes, including a strong third-place run in his first start, just one day after he sat in the car for the first time.

In the Legends world, he claimed multiple victories and took the 2007 Semi-Pro National championship with ease, albeit with use of the bumper now and again.  He also was successful the Pro Challenge in 2006. 

While he has only race twice in a SLM, it appears Stancill has shed the overaggressive tendencies he learned in Legends Cars and can get it done with patience and determination in a Late Model.  John’s only problem though might be his brother.  Both are trying to make it in the business, therefore eventually they will be competing for the same attention.  It worked for brothers Kyle and Kurt Busch, but will it work again?  Time will tell.
8.  Casey Roderick (Super Late Model / Legends)

Being 15 years of age and moving into the full-sized stock car world from Legends cars is a popular career advancement method.  Casey Roderick, just like John Stancill, is ready to take that next step in racing by getting his feet wet in big cars, just one year after winning a championship in the scale cars. 

A massive amount of wins in his Legends Car Pro division earned the Georgia driver four 2007 championship belts – the Asphalt National Pro Championship, the INEX Pro Championship, the Atlanta Motor Speedway Championship and the Lanier Nat’l Speedway championship.  That’s impressive.  While he struggled a bit on his trips to the Carolinas Legends realm last year, he still stole the first-place trophy from the natives, including a couple trips to victory lane during the Summer Shootout Series at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

In 2008, Roderick will continue to race in his Legends Car, but has a Super Late Model car he is looking at racing in a few series throughout the year.  The key for Roderick though might just be location.  Being a Georgia driver, he caught the eye of NASCAR driver David Ragan.  The Ragan and Roderick families are known to be good friends.  In fact, Ragan spent a bunch of his money to put top-notch materials in Roderick’s #6 machine so the Cup driver could drive it in the PASS South race at Watermelon Capital Speedway (GA) in April.  The combination of Ragan’s fourth-place finish and the car going home in one piece has left Roderick with a solid machine to compete with the big boys this year and maybe pull out a few victories.
9. Hunter Robbins (Pro Cup / Super Late Models)

Alabama native Hunter Robbins comes from a state deep in heritage in the sport of auto racing.  Bobby Allison, Donnie Allison, Davey Allison, Neil Bonnett, Red Farmer and many others have come out of the state.  They, of course, were known as the “Alabama Gang.”  Josh Hamner, ranked 15th in our Short Track Draft for the “of age” group, is also from Alabama, so the talent runs deep in the southern realm of the country.  In fact, the late-Charlie Bradberry, who was also from Alabama, was a consistent pick in the draft over the years.

Robbins raced his first Late Model at age 13 in 2004 and won his first race later that season.   During the past few years, his name has been listed as the winner of multiple races and big time events, including the Snowball Derby’s sister race, the Snowflake 100, in 2005.  In 2007, he went to victory lane a few times, but mechanical woes and wrecks dominated his season and that put a black mark on his promising rise through the ranks of racing.

Seeing the troubles he had was nothing to do with his talent slipping, Goodson Racing hired Robbins at the start of the 2008 season to run the Pro Cup South tour for the year while Robbins also fields his Super Late Model in various races in the south at tracks such as Five Flags Speedway (FL) and Mobile International (AL).

If now 16-year-old Robbins can get rid of the mechanical gremlins that seem to follow him around, he will be hard to beat at multiple tracks.  The kid is very eager to learn and knows what it takes to get it done from behind the wheel.
10. Larry Wright (Super DirtCar Series Modified)

Larry Wright could become the youngest winner ever on the Advance Auto Parts Super DirtCar Series this year.  At 15, Wright is turning heads with the DIRT Mods in the Northeast.  And just like any good football player, he has a bunch of mentors.  On his high-buck Gypsum Racing team is veteran Mod Hotshots Billy Decker and Pat Ward, plus dirt slingers Tim Fuller and Ryan Phelps.

The kid comes from the karting world and mini-mods in the upstate New York dirt kingdom.  He has been pretty quick in everything he has raced and that would make him a monster on tracks that resemble the tough confines of Chicago’s Soldier Field.  Last year he was the DIRT organization’s Sportsman (Crate Engine Modifieds) Rookie of the Year.  This year he won the Sportsman Series kickoff at Black Rock Speedway.

Now he is turning his up-field focus on the Big Blocks… the Advance Auto Parts Super DirtCar Series.  He’s going up against some of the grittiest competition on dirt, including Brett Hearn, the Johnson’s and his teammates themselves on tracks such as Weedsport, Lebanon Valley, Middletown and of course the “Moody Mile” of the Syracuse fairgrounds.

Wright has a great smile and a great feel for the wheel.  We are told he is savvy, but needs to work a little more on his interview skills.  This should be a big year for the 15-year-old, but soon after this, Wright will need to climb into an asphalt car because Hearn himself proved years ago, the transition from a Mud Bus to NASCAR is pretty difficult.