NASCAR embraces youth movement; recognizes 13 rising stars in NASCAR Next class
By: Staff Report, NASCAR Wire Service, Superior Telegram
For decades, NASCAR’s success has been linked to the number and talent level of its drivers. With the arrival of so many talented, young competitors among NASCAR’s different series in recent years, it is evident that the sport’s future will continue to be bright.
On Friday, at Iowa Speedway in Newton, NASCAR unveiled the 2013 driver roster for the NASCAR Next program. This year’s class features 13 drivers between ages 15 and 24, representing three countries and 10 U.S. states. The drivers have compiled 32 NASCAR touring series wins and one series title among them, and have racing backgrounds that range from asphalt to dirt and open wheel to stock car.
NASCAR Next is an evolution of the Next9 initiative that began in 2011. The program is an overarching industry initiative to help spotlight NASCAR’s rising stars – and bolster fan recognition around talent that will grow into NASCAR Sprint Cup Series mainstays. In addition to competing in various NASCAR series across the country, drivers will participate in several media and promotional activities throughout the next 12 months.
Eleven of the 13 drivers were on hand for announcement, including 21-year-old Kenzie Ruston of Oklahoma, who is highest finishing female driver in NASCAR K&N Pro Series East history.
"All of the guys in this class are phenomenal," Ruston said. "They pick awesome drivers, like Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney, Corey Lajoie and Kyle Larson. They all moved up to the top-three series."
All of the drivers included in each class have aspirations, and usually the talent to one day make it to NASCAR’s three national touring series.
"Hopefully, we can get exposure from this this year, and next year be in a Truck or Nationwide car," Ruston said.
The success of former drivers who have been included in past NASCAR Next classes speaks for itself: Blaney, Alex Bowman, Larson and Darrell Wallace Jr., who have all moved on to NASCAR’s national touring series and have done well.
The importance of being a part of the NASCAR Next class is not lost on the drivers.
"It’s big," said Brett Moffitt, who has 31 top-five finishes in 52 races in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East. "It’s big for media exposure. Hopefully, it will open some eyes and for the outlook of the future. Hopefully, it will bring me some more success."
Each driver included in the NASCAR Next program must be actively competing in a NASCAR touring or weekly series – NASCAR K&N Pro Series East or West, NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour, NASCAR Canadian Tire Series presented by Mobil 1, NASCAR Mexico Toyota Series, Euro-Racecar NASCAR Touring Series or NASCAR Whelen All-American Series. NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series competitors also are eligible providing they are in the first full-time season in their respective series.
The NASCAR Next members for 2013-14 are:
• Jeb Burton (20 years old, Halifax, Va.) – Four top-10 finishes in six NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starts this season with three pole wins as a rookie.
• Chase Elliott (17, Dawsonville, Ga.) – A two-time Most Popular Driver in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East where he had a win and 15 Top 10s and has two top-five finishes in three NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starts this season.
• Gray Gaulding (15, Colonial Heights, Va.) – The NASCAR K&N Pro Series East rookie set series records for youngest pole winner and race leader in April at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.
• Ryan Gifford (21, Winchester, Tenn.) – The NASCAR Drive For Diversity product became the first African-American driver to win a NASCAR K&N Pro Series East pole – Martinsville (Va.) Speedway in 2010.
• Cameron Hayley (16, Calgary, Alberta, Canada) – The NASCAR K&N Pro Series winner at inaugural UNOH Battle At The Beach at Daytona International Speedway in February is a K&N Pro Series West championship contender.
• Ben Kennedy (21, Daytona Beach, Fla.) – Has two NASCAR K&N Pro Series East wins in five starts this season and will make his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series debut in August at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway.
• Dylan Kwasniewski (18, Las Vegas, Nev.) – The 2011 NASCAR K&N Pro Series West Sunoco Rookie of the Year and 2012 series champion is competing for a NASCAR K&N Pro Series East title this season.
• Brett Moffitt (20, Grimes, Iowa) – Has 31 top-five finishes in 52 career NASCAR K&N Pro Series East starts and is among the series’ all-time leaders in wins and poles.
• Ryan Preece (22, Berlin, Conn.) – A two-time championship runner-up in NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour with five career wins and 12 poles and is a top competitor in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series’ Modified Divisions in Connecticut.
• Ben Rhodes (16, Louisville, Ky.) – Has driven his NASCAR Whelen All-American Series late model to podium finishes this year at the UNOH Battle At The Beach in Daytona and the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown in Richmond, while also making his NASCAR K&N Pro Series debut.
• Kenzie Ruston (21, El Reno, Okla.) – As a rookie, has three top-five finishes in five career NASCAR K&N Pro Series East starts and recorded the highest finish by a female driver in series history with a third-place effort in April at Greenville (S.C.) Pickens Speedway.
• Michael Self (22, Park City, Utah) – As a relative newcomer to stock-car racing, he is a bona fide NASCAR K&N Pro Series West title contender and has four wins in last 13 series starts.
• Daniel Suárez (21, Monterrey, Mexico) – A product of the NASCAR Driver For Diversity program, competes fulltime with Rev Racing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and is a title favorite in the NASCAR Mexico Toyota Series.