Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Jeb Burton and Darrell Wallace Jr. are just a few of the young drivers that have been selected in the past for the NASCAR Next program, showcasing drivers between the ages of 15 and 24 who are looking to move up and star at the Nationwide Series or Sprint Cup Series level. Elliott, the most recent two-time winner on the Nationwide Series circuit, also has a Camping World Truck Series victory to his credit, while Larson has wins in both series as well as four top 10 finishes in his first eight Cup Series races. Blaney joins them with wins in each series, while Burton and Wallace Jr. both have Truck Series wins.
The next batch of NASCAR Next drivers will be introduced at Richmond International Raceway on Friday, April 25, and some of the current and former members had some advice for the next class in a recent NASCAR teleconference. NASCAR Next graduate Wallace Jr., who became just the second African-American driver to win a top-tier NASCAR event last year at Martinsville, said the program brought him closer to his peers.
“You get to do so many things that you didn’t think you’d be able to do,” said Wallace Jr. “It’s just a lot of fun to be able to race with your peers and be along with them. And at such a young age group, you get to have a lot of fun. It’s not so much different like out on the racetrack. Growing up it was you racing against the older guys and not really knowing where you stood, and now it’s a young generation coming through, trying to make their mark on NASCAR and make history. That’s what it’s all about. So bringing in new faces is awesome to be a part of.”
Dylan Kwasniewski, the first driver to win both the K&N Pro Series East and West championships, is a current member of the program, competing for Nationwide Series Rookie of the Year while racing for Turner Scott Motorsports in 2014. He said he learned how to handle the spotlight as part of the program.
“I think the biggest part is it just gets us used to the media, with being involved with such a great class,” said Kwasniewski. “You’ve got the best talent pool that’s out there and up and coming. You get to talk to the media and make friends off the track that you wouldn’t normally want to since you have to compete against them. So you get to know your competitors well. You get to know, hopefully, the people that you’ll be racing against for a very long time. But I think the biggest thing, like I said, getting used to the cameras, being more acclimated to talking with everybody, and kind of just getting used to being in the spotlight because hopefully we will be in it in the future to come.”
While Elliott, Blaney and Burton all have fathers who competed at the Cup level (Bill Elliott, Dave Blaney and Ward Burton, respectively), Ben Kennedy’s surname may not be as familiar as his mother’s maiden name is to NASCAR fans – France. Kennedy is the great-grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., and his mother, Lesa France Kennedy, is the CEO of International Speedway Corporation, which owns more than a dozen current NASCAR tracks. Kennedy has also benefitted from the media exposure through the program.
“I think the program has been great being in it the last year,” said Kennedy, who is competing in the Truck Series for Turner Scott Motorsports. “It really gets you a lot of exposure in front of the media a whole lot. It gets you what I whole lot more comfortable being in the spotlight and everything. Being able to work with all these great drivers, it made a really good bond with everyone throughout the whole program.”
NASCAR’s Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series return to the track April 25 and 26 at Richmond International Raceway.
Source: “Transcript: NASCAR Teleconference with Dylan Kwasniewski, Ben Kennedy and Darrell Wallace Jr.,” NASCAR Media, April 15, 2014