NASCAR NEXT drivers (back row, L-R) Cale Gale, Jessie Little, Ryan Gifford, Ryan Preece, Brandon McReynolds, Austin Hill, Erik Jones, (front row L-R) Dylan Lupton, Kenzie Ruston, Cole Custer, Ben Rhodes and Ruben Garcia Jr. pose for a photo shoot at Richmond International Raceway on April 24, 2014 in Richmond, Va.
Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images
The future of NASCAR is looking bright, and Friday afternoon at Richmond International Raceway the sanctioning body revealed the newest class of 12 drivers in the NASCAR Next program.
Among the 12 drivers named to the program, they have a combined 20 wins, including the youngest winners in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series, NASCAR Mexico Toyota Series, and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, the youngest NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion, and the highest-finishing female in NASCAR K&N Pro Series history.
"Over the last five years, our sport has undergone a tremendous shift, as we’ve seen an abundance of talented, young drivers begin to achieve their potential at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and NASCAR Nationwide Series level," said Jill Gregory, NASCAR vice president of industry services. "The NASCAR Next program is an instrumental platform to help draw attention to these young drivers — from media and fans to stakeholders and sponsors — and foster their growth within the sport."
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The newest NASCAR Next class includes:
Cole Custer (16 years old, Ladera Ranch, Calif., Twitter: @colecuster00) — A two-time winner in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East in 2013, he opened the K&N Pro Series West season this year with a victory from the pole in Phoenix.
Ruben Garcia Jr. (18, Naucalpan, Mexico, @rubengarcia4) — The 2012 NASCAR Mexico Toyota Series Rookie of the Year continues to improve and finished fourth in the standings last season. Earlier this season, he made his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut.
Gray Gaulding (16, Colonial Heights, Va., @graygaulding) — Holds the mark for youngest pole winner in both the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and West, and recorded his first series win at Phoenix last fall.
Ryan Gifford (25, Winchester, Tenn., @ryangifford2) — The NASCAR Drive For Diversity driver scored the 2013 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East win at Richmond and posted an impressive top-10 finish in his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut last August in Iowa.
Austin Hill (20, Winston, Ga., @hillbroracing) — The winner at last year’s K&N East race at Dover, he has two top-five finishes in this season’s four races.
Erik Jones (17, Byron, Mich., @erik_jones) — Made his mark on the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series last November in Phoenix by becoming the youngest winner in series history.
Jesse Little (17, Sherrills Ford, N.C., @jesselittle97) — The 2013 Sunoco Rookie of the Year in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East. He made his first series start just 11 days after turning 15 in 2012.
Dylan Lupton (20, Wilton, Calif., @LuptonDylan) — The 2013 NASCAR K&N Pro Series West Sunoco Rookie of the Year picked up his first series victory at Evergreen Speedway in August.
Brandon McReynolds (23, Mooresville, N.C., @Bmcreynolds28) — With starts in four different NASCAR series, he is chasing the championship in the K&N Pro Series West, where he is second in points.
Ryan Preece (23, Berlin, Conn., @RyanPreece16) — He became the youngest champion in the history of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour last season while balancing a 43-race schedule in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series (finished fourth in the national standings) and making his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut.
Ben Rhodes (17, Louisville, Ky., @benrhodes) — The current points leader in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East with three poles in four races, and a win at Greenville (S.C.) Pickens Speedway. He scored an impressive top-10 finish in his NASCAR Camping World Truck series debut at Martinsville.
Kenzie Ruston (22, El Reno, Okla., @KenzieRuston) — She finished sixth in last season’s K&N Pro Series East season standings and has top 10 finishes this season at New Smyrna and Daytona. She has the highest finish — both in a race and in the championship standings — for a female driver in K&N Pro Series East history.
Industry executives and former drivers selected the 12 drivers after a thorough evaluation process. Each participant is required to "be between the ages of 15-25, have tangible and expressed goals in eventual competition in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and possess the potential to realize that goal."
Former NASCAR Next drivers include Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Jeb Burton, Chase Elliott, Dylan Kwasniewski, Kyle Larson and Darrell Wallace Jr.