New class of “NASCAR Next” talent unveiled

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12 young drivers from across the United States and Mexico were revealed as the 2014-2015 NASCAR Next class this afternoon at Richmond International Raceway.

Together, the dozen competitors have combined for 20 NASCAR-sanctioned victories. Five of the competitors were also part of last year’s NASCAR Next class, which featured current Nationwide Series phenomenon Chase Elliott.

The drivers are all between the ages of 15-25 years old and were chosen through an evaluation process that included input from industry executives and veteran racers.

All drivers must also be competing in an NASCAR touring or weekly series and have the desire and skills to one day drive in the top-tier NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

“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 NASCAR VP of industry services Jill Gregory in a statement.

“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.”

Your returning NASCAR Next competitors are:

• Gray Gaulding (16, Colonial Heights, Va., @graygaulding) – Youngest pole winner in both NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and West. Recorded first series win at Phoenix last fall.

• Ryan Gifford (25, Winchester, Tenn., @ryangifford2) – NASCAR Drive For Diversity driver. Won last year in NASCAR K&N Pro Series East at Richmond. Top-10 finish in NASCAR Nationwide Series debut last August in Iowa.

• Ryan Preece (23, Berlin, Conn., @RyanPreece16) – Became youngest champion in NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour history last season while running 43-race schedule in NASCAR Whelen All-American Series (finished fourth in national standings). Also made NASCAR Nationwide Series debut.

• Ben Rhodes (17, Louisville, Ky., @benrhodes) – Current points leader in NASCAR K&N Pro Series East with three poles in four races, and a win at Greenville (S.C.) Pickens Speedway. Top-10 finish in NASCAR Camping World Truck series debut at Martinsville.

• Kenzie Ruston (22, El Reno, Okla., @KenzieRuston) – Finished sixth in last season’s K&N Pro Series East standings and has Top-10 finishes this season at New Smyrna and Daytona. Has the highest finish – both in a race and in the standings – for a female driver in K&N Pro Series East history.

 And here are those involved with “NASCAR Next” for the first time:

• Rubén García Jr. (18, Naucalpan, Mexico, @rubengarcia4) – 2012 NASCAR Mexico Toyota Series Rookie of the Year. Finished fourth in the standings last season. Earlier this season, he made his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut.

Cole Custer (16 years old, Ladera Ranch, Calif., @colecuster00) – Two-time winner in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East last year. Opened K&N Pro Series West season this year with win from the pole in Phoenix.

• Austin Hill (20, Winston, Ga., @hillbroracing) – Won last year’s K&N East race at Dover. Has two Top-5 finishes in this season’s four races.

• Erik Jones (Pictured; 17, Byron, Mich., @erik_jones) –  Became youngest winner in NASCAR Camping World Truck Series history last November at Phoenix.

• Jesse Little (17, Sherrills Ford, N.C., @jesselittle97) – Last season’s rookie of the year in NASCAR K&N Pro Series East. Made his first series start just 11 days after turning 15 in 2012.

• Dylan Lupton (20, Wilton, Calif., @LuptonDylan) – Last season’s rookie of the year in NASCAR K&N Pro Series West. Picked up first series win at Evergreen Speedway in August.

• Brandon McReynolds (23, Mooresville, N.C., @Bmcreynolds28) – Currently second in NASCAR K&N Pro Series West standings. Has starts in four different NASCAR series.

Red Bull Air Race: Yoshi Muroya joins Sato as Japanese champs at Indy

Photo: Joerg Mitter/Red Bull Content Pool
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Takuma Sato isn’t the only major Japanese athlete to take home top honors at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year. Countryman Yoshihide Muroya joined him in that on Sunday after winning Red Bull Air Race at IMS, and the Red Bull Air Race World Championship in the process.

Fittingly, the 101st Indianapolis 500 champion was there on site to join him in the celebration.

Muroya flew with a track-record run in the final and erased the four-point deficit to points leader Martin Sonka. The record run came after a disappointing qualifying effort of 11th in the 14-pilot field in the Master Class.

A day after the win, Muroya joined Sato in heading to Sato’s new Verizon IndyCar Series team, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s, Indianapolis-based shop.

A few social posts from Muroya’s victory and the subsequent celebration are below.

CHECKING OUT EACH OTHER’S RIDES

ASTLES BREAKS THOUGH AS WELL

Muroya wasn’t alone among big winners at the Speedway. In the Challenger Class, Melanie Astles of France became the first woman to win a major race at IMS, and is the first female winner in the Red Bull Air Race World Championship.

Nine women have competed in the Indianapolis 500 (Janet Guthrie, Lyn St. James, Sarah Fisher, Danica Patrick, Milka Duno, Simona de Silvestro, Pippa Mann, Ana Beatriz, Katherine Legge) and Mann is the first woman to have been on the pole position at IMS, having done so for the Freedom 100 in 2010 in Indy Lights.

Photo: Joerg Mitter/Red Bull Content Pool