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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Richard Petty’s last race and Jeff Gordon’s first.
As the careers of Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett and Terry Labonte wound down, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson emerged as the sport’s new stars.
Throughout the years, the torch has been passed in a near seamless transition as the legends make way for the new faces of NASCAR.
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|FLICKR.COM: #NEXT9 PHOTO GALLERY|
At some point, Johnson, Gordon and Tony Stewart are going to hang up their driver’s helmets and walk straight into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. To see that future, fans need only to look to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series, where tomorrow’s stars are cutting their teeth on bullrings like Stockton and Columbus, and getting their first taste of the high-speed banks of Iowa and Richmond.
The series is a snapshot of what the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will look like in 2020.
It’s where drivers like Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Corey LaJoie are making their own name; where Daniel Suarez and Cameron Hayley are helping trail blaze the international path; where Dylan Kwasniewski and Kyle Larson are bringing a West Coast swagger; and where Sergio Pena and Darrell Wallace Jr. are diversifying Victory Lane with their successes.
It is particularly fitting that as the NASCAR K&N Pro Series heads into one of its biggest weekends of the year, it has a pair of 16-year-old drivers leading the points standings – Elliott in the East and Kwasniewski in the West.
Last year, NASCARHomeTracks.com introduced fans to the #Next9 – nine drivers that are 21-and-under running in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series who represent the next wave of young talent set to make an impact on the national series scene.
Before the green flag flies at Bowman Gray and Las Vegas, it’s time to take a look at the 2012 Class of the #Next9:
Ryan Blaney is looking to follow his father's footsteps and race his way up the NASCAR ladder. (Jennifer Coleman/NASCAR)
It didn’t take long for Ryan Blaney to get people's attention.
And it wasn’t just for his last name. The 18-year-old from High Point, N.C., is a third-generation driver and son of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Dave Blaney. But the lineage only tells part of the story. The youngest Blaney has a win, two runner-up finishes and four top 10s in five NASCAR K&N Pro Series starts dating to his debut at Richmond last year.
Throw in a seventh-place finish in his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut last month at Richmond and it’s easy to what all the buzz is about.
“To tell you the truth, I'm a little bit bummed we don’t have an East win yet,” said Ryan. “We have had fast cars and we know we can contend for wins.”
For Ryan, having dad in his ear helps.
“I’ll listen to my dad before I listen to anybody else,” Ryan Blaney said. “He’s been to all these tracks before. If I’m doing something wrong, he knows how to fix it. I really take his full advice.”
It was a Hallmark moment last fall when father and son were able to share the stage in Victory Lane at Phoenix, after Ryan won in just his third NASCAR K&N Pro Series start.
“It's definitely really special, of course, carrying on that family tradition,” Ryan said. “My grandfather raced and my dad follow his footsteps. And I’m following my dad.”
And they’re leading to plenty of success.
GET TO KNOW RYAN BLANEY:
Chase Elliott earned his first NASCAR win to go with the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East points lead. (Jennifer Coleman/NASCAR)
Chase Elliott’s first win came at Iowa 10 days ago, but the defining moment of his NASCAR K&N Pro Series career may have been at Greenville (S.C.) Pickens Speedway last March.
That’s when the then 15-year-old Elliott rolled off 26th in his NASCAR debut and brought it home fourth. The tiny, nearly flat South Carolina oval is known for chewing up tires and passing is treacherous. And yet, Elliott picked his way to the front with poise and confidence of a veteran.
Now 16, the Dawnsonville, Ga., driver just missed becoming the youngest winner in East history by just two days with his victory at Iowa. While fans may initially recognize him as the son of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series great Bill Elliott, Chase has quickly shown the ability and mettle to forge his own identity.
“A lot of people talk about my dad and having big shoes to fill,” said Chase. “But at the same time, I’m me.
“For me, I can do the best I can. That's all I can ask for.”
Chase finished ninth last year in points and finished third in a competitive Sunoco Rookie of the Year class. He’s avoided a sophomore slump and holds the series points lead after four races. If he continues this pace, he’ll have another thing in common with his dad.
A NASCAR championship trophy.
GET TO KNOW CHASE ELLIOTT:
Cameron Hayley is a championship contender in his second season running in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West. (Jennifer Coleman/NASCAR)
Bill McAnally knows talent when he sees it.
His race team, a staple of the NASCAR K&N Pro Series, has collected a pair of championships in the last four years with Eric Holmes. McAnally has also fielded cars for two-time champion Brendan Gaughan, former series rookie of the year and current NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver Paulie Harraka, and gave Clint Bowyer his first NASCAR touring series start.
Now 15-year-old Cameron Hayley is looking to add his name to the team’s legacy. The Calgary, Alberta, Canada, driver is in his first full season running in the series and is the leading Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate.
Hayley got his start, like most kids, racing karts when he was 7, and has quickly progressed through the ranks. While getting his feet wet in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series last year, Hayley also claimed a Super Late Model touring series title in Western Canada and finished second in the Late Model series at Montana.
Too young to make his debut in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series until August of 2011, Hayley set the record for youngest driver to compete in the series history with his first race just a month after turning 15. Hayley impressed quickly with a second-place finish in that race at Montana. He added a third-place run at All-American later in the year, where he led his first laps.
It’s been more solid runs in the 2012 season, where he’s collected three more top 10 finishes, as he heads to Las Vegas – a track he’s had success on in lower divisions.
Now he’s looking to turn that fast start into more championship hardware at BMR.
GET TO KNOW CAMERON HAYLEY:
Dylan Kwasniewski already set records as the youngest driver to earn a pole and win a race. Now he's eying a championship, too. (Jennifer Coleman/NASCAR)
Has there every been a more appropriate sponsor pairing in NASCAR than Dylan Kwasniewski and Rockstar?
Since finishing fourth in his NASCAR K&N Pro Series West debut last year, the 16-year-old Las Vegas driver has been turning heads with the poise and presence of a veteran and the swagger and exuberance of youth.
There wasn’t much Kwasniewski didn’t accomplish last year en route to Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in the West. He became the youngest driver to win a pole and a race in the history of the series, which stretches back to 1954. He backed that first win at Colorado up with a win a week later at Montana.
His West schedule this season will also be dotted with several East starts for Joe Gibbs Racing’s Steve DeSouza. Kwasniewski started 29th and finished seventh in his first start at Greenville, and recently tested at Gresham.
Now he heads back home as the West series points leader.
It's definitely stressful sometimes," said Kwasniewski. "But I know and I see what I can be in the future. And it sounds like so much fun that that fear backs me and pushes me to strive to win every single one of these races."
Kwasniewski joked after his win earlier this year at Stockton about his subdued Victory Lane.
“I was strongly debating planking, Tebowing, or doing a back-flip, and then I just opted for none,” said Kwasniewski. “Next time. Next time, excessive celebration.”
There’s a pretty good chance there will be a next time in Victory Lane.
GET TO KNOW DYLAN KWASNIEWSKI:
Corey LaJoie works on his own cars all week and then drives the wheels off them at the race track. (Jennifer Coleman/NASCAR)
Corey LaJoie was asked earlier this year if he listens to the advice his dad, two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Randy LaJoie gives him, and he laughed.
“Actually, the old man don’t give me a whole lot of tips,” Corey said with a grin. “He’ll give tips to everybody else in the garage, but he doesn’t really walk up to me and give me tips. I probably don’t ask him, either, because dad will go tell Darrell (Wallace) something and I won’t necessarily believe what he tells me. But he can tell Darrell the same thing, and I’ll believe Darrell if he tells it back to me.
“That’s probably not the best way to go about it. I probably don’t listen to my dad as much as I should.”
As Randy will tell you with the same candor and smirk: “That’s my boy.”
That, in a nutshell, is what you get with Corey. The 20-year-old Concord, N.C., is a throwback to the days his dad was running short tracks in the northeast and having a good time doing it.
People’s Exhibit 2: Ask him if he’s having fun on the race track.
“We’ve definitely been bringing good cars to the race track,” Corey said. “It’s definitely fun when you have a good car. It doesn’t matter if you’re racing shopping carts. If you’re shopping cart is handling better than the other guy’s, it’s fun to drive.”
Dig a little deeper under the wisecracks and southern drawl, however, and you’ll find one of the hardest workers in the garage. LaJoie helps his dad out with The Joie of Seating, which is at the forefront of driver safety, and builds and maintains his two race cars with the help of a friend. Despite the limited resources, LaJoie managed to finish eighth in points last year and finish second in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings against a stout field.
He has three runner-up finishes and was out front in the season-opener at Bristol vying for his first win when he cut a tire. Undaunted, LaJoie is right in the thick of the championship battle.
“We’re doing the best we knew we can,” LaJoie said.
GET TO KNOW COREY LAJOIE
Kyle Larson has been a quick study transitioning from open-wheel racing to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East this season. (Jennifer Coleman/NASCAR)
Kyle Larson has been around racing his whole life. Literally.
The 19-year-old from Elk Grove, Calif., accompanied his dad to the local dirt track when he was just a week old. At 4, his dad built him a little fun kart to navigate around in. He spent his formative years learning to master go karts before transitioning to sprint cars, Silver Crown cars, midget cars – with and without wings. So it’s no surprise that Larson has taken to stock cars with an extraordinarily smooth transition.
“That just helps me adapt quicker to all the different race cars I run,” Larson said. “And I play a lot of video games on iRacing.”
It’s worked. Larson impressed many observers when he climbed into a Late Model for the first time last fall and was turning some of the fastest laps at the NASCAR Drive For Diversity Combine at Langley Speedway in Hampton, Va. The performance earned him a spot in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series program for Rev Racing – his mother is Japanese-American – and he has rolled off three top 10s in four starts and heads to Bowman Gray third in points.
Larson’s reasoning for switching from open wheel to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series is simple.
“I want to get to the Sprint Cup Series, so that's the step you have to take,” said Larson. “Plus, there’s a lot of really good young drivers to compete against, and I get to go to some of the tracks the Cup guys go to.”
He’s already on the right track. Last year, Larson won features in the World of Outlaws, the American Sprint Car Series, and all three divisions of USAC. The only other driver to accomplish that feat? Tony Stewart.
GET TO KNOW KYLE LARSON:
Sergio Peña has his sites set on a title run in his third season in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East. (Jennifer Coleman/NASCAR)
Perspective and patience.
For a driver, these two fundamentals can mean as much to winning a championship as going fast. Sergio Peña, in the midst of his third season in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series, will point to them as the two biggest keys he's learned from his experience in NASCAR's top developmental series.
Going fast was never a problem. After earning a spot with NASCAR Drive for Diversity, Peña earned the pole award and finished second in his first event – the series' all-star race in Irwindale, Calif. It took over a full year, though, to get to Victory Lane. Now, he’s looking to contend for a championship and show he’s ready to move up.
“I really tore up so much equipment my first year,” Peña said. “You have to race with your head and race smart. You just really need to be mature and patient in this series.”
The 19-year-old from Winchester, Va., isn’t afraid of tackling new challenges. After two years with Rev Racing, Peña is with a new team (Hattori Racing) under old coaches (Andy Santerre and crew chief Matt Goslant). And he’s juggling his racing career with his freshman year at Radford (Va.) University.
“College and racing, it’s really tough,” said Peña. “It just takes a lot of time management. It’s definitely worth it. It teaches you so much about the real world. I’m majoring in communications, and it’s helped me in so many different aspects – just the way you think about things.
“Plus, I'll have a backup plan: To have a college degree to fall back on was really important to me.”
While Peña got off to a rough start in his first two races of 2012, he’s rolled off a pair of top 10 finishes and heads to a summer stretch that includes a trip to Langley, where’s he’s the defending race winner.
“We just need to find some luck,” said Peña. “We've been right there. We just need to pull the whole deal together and get a good finish. We're getting there, I think the win will be coming soon.”
There’s that perspective and patience again.
GET TO KNOW SERGIO PEÑA:
Daniel Suárez is running full-time the NASCAR K&N Pro Series and NASCAR Toyota Series, and finding success in both. (Jennifer Coleman/NASCAR)
There’s very little slowing Daniel Suárez down – on the track or off.
The 20-year-old from Monterrey, Mexico, isn’t content with just tackling the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East. With the ultimate goal of being the first NASCAR Toyota Series graduate to race in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Suárez is getting as much seat time as possible.
“When I switched to these big cars, it was really different for me,” said Suárez. “The teams, the drivers, the cars, the tracks in NASCAR, they are all very difficult, but I think it's the best racing in the world.
“I think we are in a good position now, and the team wants to learn and wants to have young drivers, different drivers, to learn about how to drive in America.”
That means, in addition to his full-time ride with X Team Racing, a Charlotte-based team committed to opening doors to NASCAR for Latin American drivers, Suárez is also attempting to run the complete NASCAR Toyota Series in Mexico.
He also opened the season racing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race at Phoenix, where he finished third. He’s second in points in the Toyota Series and picked up his first NASCAR victory earlier in May at the historic night race on the oval in Mexico City.
Suárez has run 10 touring series races in 2012, the most of any driver in NASCAR.
As the Toyota Series rookie of the year in 2009, Suárez initially jumped to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series last year on a limited basis. After starting the season with Troy Williams Racing, he jumped over to X Team the second half of the year and really hit his stride. Suárez picked up top 10 finishes in his final three starts in the East and finished sixth in the West season finale at Phoenix.
Perhaps the defining moment of Suárez’s young NASCAR career came in that race. Battling for second late in the race, contact knocked him sideways and it looked, for a moment, like his night would end in a wreck. Rather than spinning, though, Suárez was able to save it, keep it on the pavement and get back on the gas.
His crew chief, Coleman Pressley, remarked before that event that it’s fun working with a driver that has no fear.
And one that isn’t slowing down for anything.
GET TO KNOW DANIEL SUÁREZ:
Darrell Wallace Jr. made his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut for Joe Gibbs Racing and is chasing the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East title. (Jennifer Coleman/NASCAR)
DARRELL WALLACE JR.
Darrell Wallace Jr. knows the expectations are high for him.
That isn’t anything new. The 18-year-old from Concord, N.C., has had people talking since he dominated in a Bandolero car. And every step of the way, Wallace has met those expectations with results.
Like in his NASCAR K&N Pro Series debut in 2009, when he became the youngest winner in series history. Or later in the season, when he made a daring three-wide pass on eventual series champion Ryan Truex and veteran Eddie MacDonald to steal a win away on the final lap. Or last year, when he rolled off three more wins en route to a second-place finish in points.
So it should come as no surprise that the first time he strapped into a NASCAR Nationwide Series car for Joe Gibbs Racing, Wallace brought home a top-10 finish.
The thing about Wallace, though, is how he takes everything in stride. His first national series start came a day after an early-race accident took him out of contention in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series race. Instead of dwelling on his misfortune this season in the series – his one win has been surrounded by struggles in the other three events – Wallace bounced right back and put on a solid performance in one of the biggest moments of his young career.
“Drivers just have to keep going out there and showcasing their skills,” Wallace told NASCAR.com following the race. “It's all about having patience on and off the track.”
It’s something that Wallace has shown in his first two years driving for NASCAR Drive for Diversity and Rev Racing, and continues to showcase with JGR.
When the opportunity presents itself, Wallace will be ready.
GET TO KNOW DARRELL WALLACE JR.: