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.

Hunter-Reay released from hospital; not yet cleared to drive at Pocono

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Ryan Hunter-Reay has been released from a nearby hospital at Pocono Raceway after his accident in qualifying for Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) but has not yet been cleared to drive. He’ll be re-evaluated by INDYCAR Sunday morning.

The full release from INDYCAR and Andretti Autosport is below:

Verizon IndyCar Series driver Ryan Hunter-Reay was evaluated at Lehigh Valley Hospital – Cedar Crest in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on Saturday for injuries to his left hip and knee sustained in a crash in qualifying for the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway. Hunter-Reay was treated and released but has not been cleared to drive, pending a re-evaluation Sunday morning.

“During qualifying today, out of nowhere, the car stepped out on me,” Hunter-Reay said. “It was a bit of a wiggle, which I caught. The second time it happened, it came with no warning – which is a bit confusing. I hit my hip pretty bad as well as my knee, so the doctors thought it would be best to go in for further evaluation. After a CT scan and MRI, I am able to go and get a good night’s sleep. I’m sure I’ll wake up sore, but will hopefully be able to get back in the DHL machine tomorrow.

“I know the entire Andretti Autosport team worked hard to get the car put back together and with 500 miles, there is still a chance to win from the back of the field. I can’t thank the Holmatro Safety Team enough for their quick response along with the medical staff at INDYCAR, Pocono and Lehigh Valley Hospital – Cedar Crest. Also, thank you to the fans for reaching out with their support.”

IndyCar Paddock Pass: Pocono (VIDEO)

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NBCSN’s coverage of the Verizon IndyCar Series continues this weekend with the series trip to the “Tricky Triangle” for the ABC Supply 500 (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass also continues for another episode from the three-turn oval, Pocono Raceway, in Long Pond, Pa.

NBCSN IndyCar pit reporter and Indy Lights analyst Anders Krohn checks in for the latest edition of the show, which you can see above.

On tap in this week’s episode are interviews with Team Penske teammates Josef Newgarden and Will Power, and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Hunter-Reay led first practice; however was involved in a heavy accident in qualifying later Saturday afternoon and transported to a nearby hospital.

His status is unclear for Sunday.

Newgarden leads the championship but had a tough qualifying run – he was only 14th Saturday afternoon – while Power was second among Chevrolets and starts fifth. He is the defending Pocono race winner.

You can see the episode above. Past IndyCar Paddock Pass episodes are below:


Chaves, Harding continue to shine at Pocono

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LONG POND, Pa. – In two previous starts in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing have been shining stars, finishing ninth at the Indianapolis 500 and fifth at the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, avoiding several crashes and incidents in both races to do so, and advancing from 25th and 20th on the grid, respectively.

Returning to the series for this weekend’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway (Sunday 2:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the combination continues its remarkably strong form, qualifying eighth for Sunday’s race, third fastest of the Chevrolet runners.

And with the goal of turning the team into a full-time effort next year, Chaves and the team appear to be picking up right where they left off.

“We’re just here to improve our team, get it ready for next year,” Chaves told NBC Sports. “We’d like to go home with a great result of course, that’s always the aim. But I think the work we did throughout the practice improved the car enough to wear I was pretty comfortable at the end.”

Of course, even though the team is still very new to the world of racing (their first race was this year’s Indianapolis 500), it doesn’t stop Chaves from having lofty expectations.

“You always want to shoot for the win,” he asserted when asked about expectations for this weekend’s ABC Supply 500. “Obviously it’s never easy – with the limited time we have on track, it just makes it even harder on top of it. We’re always trying to keep our expectations high and do the best job we can to accomplish them.”

Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing have been very impressive out of the box. Photo: IndyCar

And perhaps Chaves is right to have big expectations given the team’s first two races. Ninth at Indianapolis and fifth at Texas are genuinely impressive results for the brand new team. And on the surface, they are a surprise, given the organization itself hadn’t run any races at any level prior to this year. But, Chaves explained that the people involved in the team are more than familiar with the sport and know how to build a successful operation.

“It’s just a matter of having the right people involved,” Chaves said of their early success. “Our team owner, Mike Harding, is very dedicated to making sure that we have the means to go out and hire the best people we can. It’s hard to do when the full-time teams have already got most of those guys, but there’s a few guys left out there who are very quality guys. Then that comes down to our team manager, Larry Curry, who has been able to track down these guys and give them a good offer to come on board with us. We’re just going to get better from here.”

Specifically, team manager Curry has been instrumental in recruiting talent and helping the team get ahead of the game, as Chaves explained.

“When it came down to our Indy deal, we started getting our car ready, and a little bit through his connections, we were able to get our mockup engine a little sooner, our body fit sooner – enough that we had the time to go out and test and do a shakedown run at Texas before Indy. It’s that type of experience and knowledge that Larry brings to the team that helps us out.”

NBCSN’s Robin Miller reported earlier this weekend in a piece for RACER.com that the team is ready for a full season in 2018, with Harding also telling the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network’s Jake Query that “100 percent number” Miller cited is closer to 95 percent.

Chaves stopped short of going that far, but feels confident that a full-season effort will come together.

“Obviously, our plans are still to go out and run the full season. I’d say every day we get closer and closer to that. I’d say it’s looking really good. I know (Robin Miller’s report) mentions 100% – I think we’re close to that. But, it’s not done until it’s done. So I’ll just keep focused on my job here this weekend.”

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Power tops final practice at Pocono

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LONG POND, Pa. – Team Penske’s Will Power topped final practice for tomorrow’s ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway. Power’s best lap of 216.294 mph was turned late in the session and pipped teammate Simon Pagenaud for the top spot, making it a Team Penske 1-2 in final practice. Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Max Chilton and Tony Kanaan were third and fourth, the best of the Honda teams, while Helio Castroneves rebounded from his earlier qualifying crash to end the session in fifth, putting three Penske cars in the top five.

Of note: pole sitter Takuma Sato was 11th quickest and Ed Carpenter was 16th, Carpenter having missed qualifying as Ed Carpenter Racing made repairs to his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet and missed the lineup time for pre-qualifying inspection by only a few minutes.

Also: Andretti Autosport’s No. 28 DHL Honda, usually piloted by Ryan Hunter-Reay, did not venture onto the track for final practice, with Hunter-Reay currently being evaluated at a local hospital following a qualifying crash.

Times are below. Tomorrow’s ABC Supply 500 begins at 2:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.