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.

IndyCar’s revised schedule gives Tony Kanaan an extra race in 2020

INDYCAR Photo by Joe Skibinski
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Tony Kanaan got a bit of good news when the latest revised NTT IndyCar Series schedule was released Monday.

Kanaan’s “Ironman Streak” of 317 consecutive starts would have concluded with the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 15. That race was postponed, and the races that followed have been canceled or rescheduled later in the year. The season tentatively is scheduled to start June 6 at Texas Motor Speedway.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is the reason for the tentative nature of this year’s 2020 NTT IndyCar Series schedule.

Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar Series champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner, started the season with a limited schedule for A.J. Foyt Racing in the No. 14 Chevrolet. That schedule included all five oval races, including the 104th Indianapolis 500.

A silver lining for Kanaan is that this year’s trip to Iowa Speedway will be a doubleheader, instead of a single oval contest. His schedule has grown from five to six races for 2020, should the season start on time with the June 6 contest at Texas Motor Speedway and the additional race at Iowa.

“I’m really happy that IndyCar has been very proactive about the schedule and keeping us posted with the plans,” Kanaan told NBCSports.com Tuesday afternoon from his home in Indianapolis. “I’m double happy that now with Iowa being a doubleheader, I’m doing six races instead of five.”

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Kanaan’s “Last Lap” is something that many fans and competitors in IndyCar want to celebrate. He has been a fierce foe on the track but also a valued friend outside the car to many of his fellow racers.

He also has been quite popular with fans and likely is the most popular Indianapolis 500 driver of his generation.

Scott Dixon was Kanaan’s teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing from 2013-17. At one time, they were foes but eventually became friends.

“I hope it’s not T.K.’s last 500,” Dixon told NBCSports.com. “I was hoping T.K. would get a full season. That has changed. His first race of what was going to his regular season was going to be the 500. Hopefully, that plays out.

“You have to look at T.K. for who he is, what he has accomplished and what he has done for the sport. He has been massive for the Indianapolis 500, for the city of Indianapolis to the whole culture of the sport. He is a legend of the sport.

“We had our differences early in our career and had problems in 2002 and 2003 and 2004 when we were battling for championships. We fought for race wins and championships in the 2000s. I’ve been on both sides, where he was fighting against me in a championship or where he was fighting with me to go for a championship. He is a hell of a competitor; a fantastic person.

“I hope it’s not his last, but if it is, I hope it’s an extremely successful one for him this season.”

Even before Kanaan joined Chip Ganassi Racing, Dixon admitted he couldn’t help but be drawn to Kanaan’s personality.

“T.K. is a very likable person,” Dixon said. “You just have to go to dinner with the guy once, and you understand why that is. The ups and downs were a competitive scenario where he was helping you for a win or helping someone else for a win. There was never a dislike or distrust. We always got along very well.

“We are very tight right now and really close. He is a funny-ass dude. He has always been a really good friend for me, that’s for sure.”

Back in 2003 when both had come to the old Indy Racing League after beginning their careers in CART, the two drivers were racing hard for the lead at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on April 13, 2003. They were involved in a hard crash in Turn 2 that left Kanaan broken up with injuries. IRL officials penalized Dixon for “aggressive driving.” Dixon had to sit out the first three days of practice for the next race – the 2003 Indianapolis 500.

Kanaan recovered in time and did not miss any racing. He started second and finished third in that year’s Indy 500.

“We were racing hard and going for the win,” Dixon recalled of the Motegi race. “It was a crucial part of the season. Everybody has to be aggressive. I respect Tony for that. He was not letting up. That is what I always saw with Tony, how hard the guy will push. He will go to the absolute limit, and that is why he was inspiring and why he was a successful driver.

“Those moments are blips. You might not talk to the guy for a week, but then you are back on track. T.K. is very close with our family and we are with his.”

This season, because of highly unusual circumstances, T.K.’s IndyCar career will last for one more race than previously scheduled.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500