New NASCAR Next Class Already Making Mark on Track
Five of the six NASCAR K&N Pro Series race winners in 2015 are 21 years old or younger. The championship points leaders in both the East and West are 17 and 16. And a 17-year-old just became the highest-finishing female in the 61-year history of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West.
It is fitting that as fans celebrate Jeff Gordon’s final year of competition, the ranks of NASCAR is becoming filled with young drivers battling to one day fill that void. And on Tuesday, in a building that honors the sport’s history, NASCAR introduced some of those potential future stars of the sport.
During a ceremony at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina, 12 drivers were formally announced as the newest NASCAR Next class, a group of up-and-coming talent that joins the industry program and spotlights NASCAR’s emerging stars.
“The NASCAR Next initiative spotlights the future of NASCAR, a collection of promising young talent who have shown the potential to one day reach the highest level of our sport,” said Jill Gregory, NASCAR senior vice president for Industry Services. “Alumni – and current members – of the NASCAR Next program are achieving success at the national series level, and we are confident that this class will build upon that foundation of excellence for many seasons to come.”
Now in its fifth season, the career résumé of NASCAR Next alumni is impressive, highlighted by Chase Elliott’s 2014 XFINITY Series championship, Kyle Larson’s 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award, and Cole Custer’s September 2014 win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in the Camping World Truck Series, making him the youngest winner in NASCAR national series history.
Of the 28 drivers previously selected for the program, 21 have raced in one of NASCAR’s three national series – Sprint Cup Series, XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series – and 11 are competing full-time there in 2015.
Selecting the team was through an evaluation process that included industry executives and veteran racers. Drivers are between the ages of 15-25, have tangible and expressed goals in eventual competition in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and show the potential to realize that goal.
Each driver in NASCAR Next are actively competing in a NASCAR touring or weekly series – K&N Pro Series East or West, Whelen Modified Tour, Whelen Southern Modified Tour, Canadian Tire Series presented by Mobil 1, Mexico Series, Whelen Euro Series or Whelen All-American Series. XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series competitors also are eligible provided they are not slated to run a full season in their respective series.
The NASCAR Next members for 2015-16 are:
- Rico Abreu (23, Rutherford, Calif., Twitter: @Rico_Abreu) – A 2014 USAC national champion and winner of the 2015 Chili Bowl, he has two top-ten finishes in three K&N Pro Series East starts, his first season racing in stock cars.
- Nicole Behar (17, Otis Orchards, Wash., @NicoleBehar33) – Tied the series record for highest finish by a female driver in just her fifth K&N West start with her second place mark at Irwindale Event Center, and has top-ten finishes in four of six West starts.
- Kyle Benjamin (17, Easley, S.C., @kylebenjamin71) – This Roush Fenway Racing developmental driver earned his first K&N Pro Series win at Bristol Motor Speedway, and is the youngest race winner in ARCA history.
- James Bickford (17, Napa, Calif., @Bickford_James) – The 2014 K&N West Sunoco Rookie of the Year earned his first win at State Line Speedway last season and finished fifth in the season championship.
- William Byron (17, Charlotte, N.C., @WilliamByron) – With a win at Greenville Pickens Speedway and three top-ten finishes, he sits atop the K&N Pro East season championship standings.
- Cole Custer (17, Ladera Ranch, Calif., @colecuster00) – He holds the records for youngest pole award and race winner in both the Camping World Truck Series and NASCAR’s touring series, and led late in the Truck race at Martinsville Speedway earlier this season.
- Ruben Garcia Jr. (19, Mexico City, Mex., @rubengarcia4) – The runner-up in last season’s Mexico Series season championship, he had one win and ten top-ten finishes there while also competing in three XFINITY Series races.
- Austin Hill (21, Winston, Ga., @_AustinHill) – Had three consecutive K&N East wins, in the last two races in 2014 and the 2015 season opener at New Smyrna Speedway where he captured his first pole award and led every lap.
- Jesse Little (18, Sherrill’s Ford, N.C., @jesselittle97) – Had a win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, four top-five and ten top-ten finishes in 2014 to finish fourth in the season standings. Won the pole at Bristol Motor Speedway in his 2015 K&N East début.
- Dylan Lupton (21, Wilton, Calif., @LuptonDylan) – Was the 2014 K&N West championship runner-up with a win at Kern County Speedway and registered 14 top-ten finishes; made his XFINITY Series début at Phoenix International Raceway in March.
- John Hunter Nemechek (17, Mooresville, N.C., @JHNemechek) – Earned six top-ten finishes in ten Camping World Truck Series starts in 2014, and won the prestigious Snowball Derby Late Model race at Five Flags Speedway in December.
- Dalton Sargeant (17, Boca Raton, Fla., @DaltonSargeant) – Has a win at Kern County Raceway Park in the West this season, and four top-five finishes in five East and West combo events.