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The future looks bright for young drivers in NASCAR

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With Jimmie Johnson's sixth championship in 2013, NASCAR fans started to wonder aloud who would be the next star in the series to dethrone the almost constant champion. The 2014 season brought the largest rookie crop to the series in twenty years, and several of these drivers, including Chase Elliott and fellow rising star Kyle Larson have already made it into the 2014 win column.

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Before their headline-making victories on one of the sport’s biggest stages, though, Elliott and Larson were ‘next’ – the next in a wave of young talent making its way up the NASCAR ladder. Like Elliott and Larson before them, the 12 drivers named today to the 2014-15 NASCAR Next class have résumés loaded with accomplishments and promise. The roster was unveiled at Richmond International Raceway and marks the kickoff of the fourth installment of the industry initiative designed to spotlight NASCAR’s rising stars.

“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.”

The 12 drivers have already won 20 times, and hold the honors as the youngest winners in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series, NASCAR Mexico Toyota Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, as well as youngest NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion and highest finishing female in NASCAR K&N Pro Series history. The list also includes the 2013 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and West Sunoco Rookies of the Year.

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 possess the potential to realize that goal.

Additionally, 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 Toyota Series, NASCAR Whelen Euro Series or NASCAR Whelen All-American Series. NASCAR Nationwide 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.

Former NASCAR Next members who have made an impact in NASCAR’s national series include Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Jeb Burton, Chase Elliott, Dylan Kwasniewski, Kyle Larson and Darrell Wallace Jr.

This years crop of drivers provide an idea of who you should be watching out for in the future, as well as a guide for today's drivers on who might be waiting in the wings to take their place if something bad happens.

The field features two 16 year old drivers, who have been driving competitively long before they wee able to drive legally on public highways and byways. Cole Custer of Ladera Ranch, Calif. is a two-time winner in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East in 2013, and opened the K&N Pro Series West season this year with a victory from the pole in Phoenix. Gray Gaulding of Colonial Heights, Va. 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.

Three seventeen year olds made the cut, although with their experience and name recognition, you'd think they were at least twice that age! Erik Jones of Byron, Mich. made his mark on the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series last November in Phoenix by becoming the youngest winner in series history. Jesse Little of Sherrills Ford, N.C. was 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. Ben Rhodes of Louisville, Ky. is 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.

The lone 18 year old in the field, Rubén García Jr. of Naucalpan, Mexico was the 2012 NASCAR Mexico Toyota Series Rookie of the Year, and continues to improve after finishing fourth in the standings last season. Earlier this season, he made his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut.

Their two decades on this Earth barely give justice to their immense talent on and off the track. Austin Hill of Winston, Ga. was the winner at last year’s K&N East race at Dover, and has two top-five finishes in this season’s four races. Dylan Lupton of Wilton, Calif., was awarded the 2013 NASCAR K&N Pro Series West Sunoco Rookie of the Year, and picked up his first series victory at Evergreen Speedway in August.

As the lone woman in the field, 22 year old Kenzie Ruston of El Reno, Okla. 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.

Twenty-three can be a very lucky number, and the two 23 year olds in the class hope that it serves them well in 2014. Brandon McReynolds of Mooresville, N.C. has starts in four different NASCAR series, and is chasing the championship in the K&N Pro Series West, where he is second in points. Ryan Preece of Berlin, Conn. 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.

As an old man at 25, Ryan Gifford of Winchester, Tenn., the only NASCAR Drive For Diversity driver in the group, 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.

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