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, respectively. 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 are 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 aimed at spotlighting 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 NASCAR 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 NASCAR 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 (NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, NASCAR XFINITY Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series), and 11 are competing full-time there in 2015.
The team was selected through an evaluation process that included input from industry executives and veteran racers. Drivers must be between the ages of 15-25, have tangible and expressed goals in eventual competition in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and demonstrate the potential to realize that goal.
Each driver in NASCAR Next 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 Series, NASCAR Whelen Euro Series or NASCAR Whelen All-American Series. NASCAR XFINITY Series and NASCAR 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-10 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-10 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 10 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 NASCAR 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 NASCAR Mexico Series season championship, he had one win and 10 top-10 finishes there while also competing in three NASCAR XFINITY Series races.
• Austin Hill (21, Winston, Ga., @_AustinHill) – Had three consecutive K&N East wins, in the final two races in 2014 and the 2015 season opener at New Smyrna Speedway where he captured his first pole award and led every lap.