Predicting NASCAR's biggest risers in 2018

Erik Jones didn't win a Cup race in 2017, but don't count him out as a top-10 driver in 2018. AP Photo/LM Otero

Matt Kenseth. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Carl Edwards. Tony Stewart. Greg Biffle. Jeff Gordon. Danica Patrick. Brian Vickers. Marcos Ambrose. Casey Mears.

No, that isn't a rundown of potential 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff drivers. It's a partial list of drivers who have stepped away from the sport over the past few seasons.

An unprecedented level of turnover means the Cup series will have a much different look in coming seasons. Young stars Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney and Austin Dillon were among the final 16 in 2017, and the next batch of talent will make its push for a spot in 2018.

Here are the drivers primed for a big leap forward in 2018:

Chase Elliott

You'd be hard-pressed to find a driver who has been as dominant as Elliott two years into his career without a Victory Lane visit to show for it. Thrown into the spotlight as Gordon's replacement in the No. 24 car back in 2016, Elliott rang up 10 top-5s, 17 top-10s and 358 laps led en route to a 10th-place finish in points. He improved to 12 top-5s, 21 top-10s, 560 laps led and a fifth-place finish in 2017. His average race finish of 12.0 last season was fifth best in the series. Elliott makes the switch to No. 9 this year, a car number that has been in Victory Lane 53 times in series history. That's notable because 38 of those wins were by Chase's father, Bill.

Expect the 22-year-old to follow in the Hall of Famer's footsteps by finding Victory Lane in 2018 -- likely more than once

2018 prediction: 4th

Erik Jones

Jones made his debut as a full-time Cup driver in 2017 and led 310 laps (10th most) while posting a 17.1 average finish (16th). He failed to win a race or qualify for the playoffs, but was strong enough that he knocked off Daniel Suarez for the series' Rookie of the Year award. Jones won the Camping World Truck Series championship at age 19 in 2015 and has racked up an impressive 16 wins in the Truck and Xfinity series since 2013. The 22-year-old landed himself an even better ride in 2018, as he moves from the Furniture Row No. 77 to replace Kenseth in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20. Count on Jones to score his first Cup win in 2018.

2018 prediction: 10th

Ryan Blaney

Blaney enjoyed a breakout 2017 season, posting his first career win (Pocono) and finishing ninth in points. Though he was impressive, Blaney will need to take a step forward in 2018 to become a legit title contender. He finished 14th in top-5s (four), 12th in top-10s (14), 11th in laps led (301) and 18th in average finish (17.2). Helping Blaney's cause will be a better ride in 2018. He departs the Wood Brothers' No. 21 and will take over car No. 12 as the third driver at Team Penske. The 24-year-old is a strong candidate to make a leap into stardom in 2018.

2018 prediction: 11th

William Byron

Kasey Kahne's replacement will drive the No. 24 made famous by Gordon at Hendrick Motorsports. Don't expect it to take long for the 2017 NASCAR Xfinity Series champ to add to the HMS win total. Byron will be one of the series' youngest full-time drivers as a 20-year-old, but he's fresh off a dominant Xfinity Series season in which he won four races and finished top-10 in 22 of 33 events. Byron also finished fifth in the Camping World Truck Series at age 18 in 2016 and won the K&N Pro Series East title at age 17 in 2015. Byron's youth figures to lead to a few bumps in the road, but if teammate Chase Elliott can make the playoffs at age 20 (as he did in 2016), Byron can certainly follow suit as part of one of the series' top organizations.

2018 prediction: 12th

Daniel Suarez

Thrust into the spotlight after Carl Edwards' shocking retirement last offseason, Suarez performed about as expected. He was a borderline playoff driver, posting an average finish of 16.2 (13th best), while managing one top-5 and 12 top-10s. Granted it was a fairly nondescript debut, but Suarez has quite a bit of pedigree after winning the 2016 Xfinity Series championship. At 26, Suarez is a bit older than the other "young guns," but he's a solid bet for his first Cup win and a playoff appearance in his second season at the sport's highest level.

2018 prediction: 13th

Darrell "Bubba" Wallace Jr.

Here's a bold call: Wallace will win a race and snag a 2018 playoff spot in his first full Cup season. Wallace has appeared in only four Cup races in his career but steps into a solid ride as Aric Almirola's replacement in the legendary No. 43. Wallace has no career Xfinity or Cup wins, but he posted an average finish of 17.8 in four Cup races in place of Almirola last season. That was better than playoff drivers Austin Dillon and Kahne as well as fringe contenders Earnhardt, Ty Dillon and Paul Menard. Wallace has worked his way up the ranks with a pair of top-eight seasons in the Camping World Truck Series (2013-14) and a pair of top-11 seasons in the Xfinity Series (2015-16). Now 24, he's right on schedule for a breakout in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

2018 prediction: 14th

Alex Bowman

Bowman is one of four drivers at Hendrick Motorsports, three of whom are on this list, which goes to show just how different the organization will look in 2018. Bowman steps into the No. 88 Chevrolet that had been piloted by Dale Jr. since 2007. The 24-year-old essentially was redshirted last year, appearing in zero Cup races, two Xfinity (one of which was a win at Charlotte) races and one truck race. Of course, the excitement surrounding Bowman traces back to 2016 when he filled in for an injured Dale Jr. Bowman competed in 10 races, posting six top-16 and three top-10 finishes. Not bad. On the other hand, however, Bowman sports an unusually short and underwhelming résumé on the NASCAR circuit (zero wins and 13 top-10s in 122 career Cup, Xfinity and truck races before 2017). It might take some time for Bowman to get rolling, but his strong 2016 performance, coupled with last weekend's dominant Daytona 500 pole run, suggests he'll certainly be in the mix for a win in 2018.

2018 prediction: 17th

Extra credit: Complete 2018 playoff prediction

1. Kyle Larson
2. Martin Truex Jr.
3. Kyle Busch
4. Chase Elliott
5. Jimmie Johnson
6. Kevin Harvick
7. Brad Keselowski
8. Denny Hamlin
9. Joey Logano
10. Erik Jones
11. Ryan Blaney
12. William Byron
13. Darrell Wallace Jr.
14. Daniel Suarez
15. Kurt Busch
16. Jamie McMurray