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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It started when Joey Logano became the youngest winner in NASCAR Nationwide Series history and Joe Gibbs Racing tabbed him to fill the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota vacated by two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Tony Stewart. It continued when Austin Dillon drove the famed black No. 3 to wins in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at Iowa and Las Vegas. And it reached a crescendo when Trevor Bayne returned the Woods Brothers to Victory Lane with an improbable -- and inspirational -- win at the 2011 Daytona 500.
It's led to the inevitable questions: Where are all these talented young drivers coming from? And, who's next?
The answer is the NASCAR K&N Pro Series. Whether it's current NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship points leader, rookie Cole Whitt, or action sports stars looking to transition to stock cars, like Travis Pastrana and Ricky Carmichael, the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and West have become the launching pad for drivers looking to break their way into one of NASCAR's three national series.
|K&N PRO SERIES EAST HOME PAGE|
|K&N PRO SERIES WEST HOME PAGE|
|NASCAR.com's Mark Aumann looks at NASCAR's approval process for new drivers|
|Cole Whitt becomes youngest driver to lead NCWTS championship standings|
|Former K&N Pro Series West champ Kevin Harvick wins Coca Cola 600|
|Bayne Takes Short-Track Path To Stardom: From Thompson to Daytona|
Whether it's learning when to be patient and when to make your move on one of the bullrings the series visits or the seat time at national series tracks like Phoenix, New Hampshire and Dover, the NASCAR K&N Pro Series has become a proving ground for the next generation of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers.
"It’s the patience, the close-quartered racing, and pushing these guys around," said Bayne, after the Daytona 500 win, of his series experience. "I never thought I’d be a superspeedway racer just because short tracks were my niche. But man, it really does relate to everything we were doing here today."
The NASCAR K&N Pro Series is coming off one of its biggest events of the year, the annual combination race between the East and West at Iowa Speedway. They now head their separate ways -- the East will travel to history Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C., on June 4, while the West makes a stop at The Bullring at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on June 11.
Before they return to the track, NASCAR gathered nine of the brightest stars that are 21-and-under in Charlotte, N.C., recently to talk about where they are, where they've been, and where they're going. Alex Bowman, Matt DiBenedetto, Dylan Kwasniewski, Corey LaJoie, Luis Martinez Jr., Brett Moffitt, Sergio Peña, Daniel Suárez, and Darrell Wallace Jr. are just the tip of the iceberg of the next wave of talented young drivers competing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series today, with an eye at becoming a star on the big stage tomorrow.
And when the next "Trevor Bayne moment" happens -- and it will -- and you wonder "who's that kid?' ... chances are it's going to be one of these Next 9:
Alex Bowman hasn't missed a beat in his transition from open-wheel to stock-car racing. (Kate Gardiner Photography/NASCAR)
All you need to know about Alex Bowman -- aside from the fact he can be pretty darn funny -- is his reaction following his run in the Night Before The 500 USAC race in Indianapolis last week.
"We got beat pretty bad," said Bowman. "We just over-adjusted for the feature and got way too loose. It's disappointing."
And that was his analysis after finishing second.
But for the 18-year-old Tucson, Ariz., native, if it isn't first ...
"The biggest thing is I'm a really, really competitive person," said Bowman. "No matter what I'm doing. If I'm not winning, I'm not happy."
Bowman went through a similar post-race self-review following his NASCAR debut, when he ran third at Greenville (S.C.) Pickens Speedway. Bowman said he was happy for about 10 minutes, before he started to roll through the race in his head. He figured if he had gotten a handle on the car and track a little sooner, his late charge through the field may have resulted in contending for a win instead of a podium finish. Still, it was a more-than-impressive debut as he qualified 16th, and went from 24th to third in the final 50 laps.
Bowman stoked his competitive fire starting in open wheel. At 15, he took down the USAC Ford Focus Midget main event on Turkey Night at Toyota Speedway at Irwindale (Calif.) and had the most combined wins in USAC in 2008. He hasn't slowed down in a stock car, keeping pace with more established teammates Matt DiBenedetto and Coleman Pressley with first-year X Team Racing. In addition to Greenville, Bowman picked up a fifth-place finish at Richmond International Raceway.
"They're two completely different feelings," said Bowman of the transition. "Realistically, we were just trying to go out there and get some solid top 10s. Now that I'm used to the car, it's time to go out there and win some races."
GET TO KNOW ALEX BOWMAN:
Matt DiBenedetto is making the most of his return to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series. (Kate Gardiner Photography/NASCAR)
The two biggest things Matt DiBenedetto learned during his time at Joe Gibbs Racing were how to train properly off the track and be more aggressive on it.
In his second stint in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, the 19-year-old Grass Valley, Calif., driver is putting that experience to good use. While a cut tire ended a strong run from the pole position at Iowa Speedway -- and possibly prevented him from taking the points lead -- DiBenedetto has put together a strong return to the series in which he had two wins and three pole awards in just seven starts in 2009.
"I think a lot of things are different this go around -- in a good way -- from all the experience I learned from," said DiBenedetto, now driving for first-year X Team Racing. "I feel like one of those veterans in the East and I'm not even 20 yet."
DiBenedetto didn't have the success he would have like driving for JGR on a limited basis in the NASCAR Nationwide Series in 2010. But the time there was not wasted. For starters, he found a workout partner in teammate Brad Coleman, and direction from JGR motocross trainer Tim Gearhart. Getting on a training and eating program enabled the 6-foot DiBenedetto to bulk up from a scrawny 155 pounds to solid 180.
"I got tired of always being the really small guy in high school," said DiBenedetto, who has discovered his newfound fitness has paid off in the driver's seat. "I feel like it's a big difference because I don't get so tired and wore out. It gives you a little edge. If you pressure them at the end, and they're getting tired, you have the advantage."
He hopes it will pay off down the stretch. Still left on the schedule are three NASCAR Sprint Cup Series companion events -- two at New Hampshire, where he has a win, and one at Dover, where he set the series' track record in qualifying.
GET TO KNOW MATT DIBENEDETTO:
Dylan Kwasniewski made his debut at 15 and is already making a statement in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West. (Kate Gardiner Photography/NASCAR)
While Chase Elliott may be the most well-known beneficiary of NASCAR's decision to lower the minimum age for running in the touring series to 15 years old this year, Dylan Kwasniewski wants to make sure everybody knows that the son of the former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion isn't the only one getting a jump on moving up the ladder. The Las Vegas driver, who just turned 16 on May 31, was fourth in his debut at All American Speedway in Roseville, Calif., and overcame a pit-road speeding penalty to rally for a 10th-place finish at Iowa Speedway.
Even that, though, doesn't cut it for Kwasniewski, who is teammates with West points leader Greg Pursley with car owner Gene Price.
"I have really high expectations for myself in whatever I get into," said Kwasniewski, who is already the leader in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings, despite not competing in the season opener at Phoenix. "I push myself."
After moving up to Late Models and Modifieds out West last year, Kwasniewski already has a pair of wins in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Super Late Model Division at The Bullring at Las Vegas. As the series heads to the 3/8-mile that helped produce Kyle and Kurt Busch, Kwasniewski is hoping home-track advantage will pay off.
"If I can beat Greg, hopefully I can come out with a win at Vegas," Kwasniewski said.
Like many of the drivers making their way up the stock-car ranks at a young age, Kwasniewski started in go karts. It didn't take him long to get the hang of it -- or get hooked on the thrill of speed and competition.
"What else would you love at five -- going that fast?" Kwasniewski said. "I love the aspect of racing with people side-by-side. It's a blast and I love doing it."
GET TO KNOW DYLAN KWASNIEWSKI:
Corey LaJoie puts in the work under the hood and behind the wheel as he forges ahead with his racing career. (Kate Gardiner Photography/NASCAR)
Corey LaJoie knows his last name -- and the connections his father, two-time NASCAR Nationwide Series champion Randy LaJoie, made while racing -- may get his foot in the door or some parts at a discount. But it won't put the pieces together. And for the 19-year-old from Concord, N.C., that's good news, bad news.
"If it wasn't for dad making those connections, it would take way more dollars for me to do what I'm doing," said Corey LaJoie, "but it doesn't mean I get to show up with my helmet bag and go racing. It's the complete opposite of that.
"I think that's what makes me a good race car driver. I know every nut and bolt that goes into that thing."
LaJoie made an impression in a limited run last year, contending for wins at New Hampshire, Iowa and Dover. While he managed to pull down a third-place finish this year at Richmond, mechanical issues and bad lucked have side tracked him elsewhere. Still, it's hard to dent the confidence of LaJoie, who is nearly as quick with his wit as he is on the track.
"We've had a third-place car everwhere we've went this year," said LaJoie. "As our results go, it looks like we've had a 25th-place car.
"It goes both ways: it makes you work even harder just to run better; and then when you run good, you want to run even better. Hopefully the second half of this year, we can catch some breaks and win a couple of these."
When LaJoie isn't behind the wheel or under the car, he's behind the race shop in Concord, N.C., as a budding track promoter. He and Brandon McReynolds, the son of former championship crew chief Larry McReynolds who is also looking for his shot at moving up the NASCAR ranks, operate the Field Fillers Fairgrounds (Facebook Page). The karting track has built a steady cult following in the Charlotte area (it was features on SPEED's Race Hub earlier this year) since they re-opened it in August of last year.
"The things been behind the track for 10 years, now it's grown into about 200 people watching 20 go karts go around," LaJoie said.
GET TO KNOW COREY LAJOIE:
Luis Martinez Jr. made his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut at Iowa and has put together a solid sophomore season in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West. (Kate Gardiner Photography/NASCAR)
LUIS MARTINEZ JR.
Replacing a champion can be a daunting task.
But it's a challenge that 21-year-old Luis Martinez Jr. has met head on. The Long Beach, Calif., native was took over the driving duties for Bob Bruncati's No. 6 in 2010, a year after Jason Bowles won the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West championship in it. And like Bowles' first year in the car three seasons prior, Martinez produced a solid season that earned him the Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors and top-10 finish in points. He picked up a pole award last year at Colorado and earlier this year on the road course at Miller Motorsports Park in Tooele, Utah.
Martinez recently made his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut with a solid run at Iowa.
"That was probably the most incredible experience I've ever done," Martinez said. "It's much, much harder than anybody would ever think. That was just a big eye-opener for me. Very humbling, but it was just a ton, a ton of fun."
Not bad considering how far off the radar a NASCAR career was for Martinez until just a few years ago.
"Honestly, five years ago, I was not even into NASCAR that much at all," Martinez said. "I was really into Formula car racing. I did a lot of Skip Barber and Formula Renault stuff. That's really where I saw myself going. But I went to Irwindale one day and did a school there.
"I did a couple of test laps in a Super Late Model, and I turned to short-track really fast. Just the whole racing and the competition, I loved it. I wouldn't trade this for anything else."
GET TO KNOW LUIS MARTINEZ JR.:
Brett Moffitt has two wins and the early points lead in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East season. (Kate Gardiner Photography/NASCAR)
In each of the last two seasons, Brett Moffitt stood in Victory Lane at Dover International Speedway and hoisted the track's "Monster" trophy after wins in the season finale. Each time, less than 100 yards away, Ryan Truex celebrated series championships with the really big trophy. Now, in his third season in the series, Moffitt has his sights set on ending the 2011 season with both. The 18-year-old from Grimes, Iowa, already has two wins in the first four races and a one-point lead on Darrell Wallace Jr. in the title hunt.
Moffitt made quite a debut with Andy Santerre Motorsports in 2009. Driving for the former four-time NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship driver-turned-car owner, Moffitt broke Logano's record as the youngest pole winner in his debut at Greenville, and picked up a pair of wins. Moving over to Joe Gibbs Racing last year, he added two more wins and moved up one spot in points to second. This season, he has taken over for Truex in the No. 00 for Michael Waltrip Racing and looks to give that organization its third straight title.
"Starting with Andy was really a good step for my career," Moffitt said. "He has really good equipment and he takes the time to teach you. At JGR, it was not exactly the results we wanted but still really good step. And here at MWR, we're putting ourself in position to win a champion and win as many races as possible."
The biggest win of his career came in his last time out, when he took the checkered flag at his home track of Iowa. The win came a year after he was wrecked while leading in the closing laps at the speedway, and allowed him to join Logano, Brian Ickler, Kyle Busch and JGR development driver Max Gresham on the exclusive winner's list in the annual combination race between the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and West.
"That was just an amazing experience," Moffitt said. "It's not only a really cool track, and a track you'll go to down the road (in the NASCAR Campign World Truck Series and NASCAR Nationwide Series), but having it being in front of 17,000 fans is just really awesome."
The affable Moffitt has shown the remarkable ability to remain even-keel, whether he's winning the big race or watching a sure-win disappear in a wreck with a lapped car, as it did two races earlier at South Boston (Va.) Speedway. It's an attribute that he'll need to maximize as he carries the championship-aspirations of MWR forward.
"The biggest pressure I put on myself," Moffitt said. "In all reality, it's how bad do you want it."
GET TO KNOW BRETT MOFFITT:
Sergio Peña has championship aspirations in his second season in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East. (Kate Gardiner Photography/NASCAR)
Sitting in a sunny Victory Lane at South Boston earlier this year, Sergio Peña couldn't stop smiling. His first series win -- which also gave him the points lead at the time -- was a long time coming. It was also an indication that the 18-year-old from Winchester, Va., was beginning to realize the potential he flashed a year prior. With only a limited résumé of Late Model experience, Peña burst onto the scene with a runner-up finish to Logano in the 2010 NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown.
What followed -- three top 10s and a 12th-place finish in the standings -- however, was not what Peña envisioned. The lessons learned during his struggles as a rookie, though, have provided him a solid foundation on which he has built on this year.
"I didn't know what to expect (getting into Late Models). I had no idea what I was getting myself into," Peña said. "I had no idea that one year later, I'd be racing the K&N Pro Series. It's pretty cool.
"Last year was definitely a huge learning year for me, and I think the results showed that. I think this year is a huge turnaround for me.
In addition to his win at South Boston, Peña has a pair of top 10 finishes. Even when tire issues sidetracked him at Iowa and knocked him down to sixth in points, he's shown the mettle to be in the championship hunt all season long.
"This series has really matured me as a person" Peña said. "It's helped me become more like an adult. Not so much just a kid playing around all the time, you've got to take everything seriously on the track and off."
GET TO KNOW SERGIO PEÑA:
Daniel Suárez is driving double-duty this season, competing in both the NASCAR Mexico Series and NASCAR K&N Pro Series. (Kate Gardiner Photography/NASCAR)
One step at a time.
As Daniel Suárez methodically works his way up the racing hierarchy, he understands that each step helps prepare him for the next challenge. And brings him closer to his ultimate goal. The 19-year-old from Monterrey, Mexico, looks to follow the path set before by fellow NASCAR Mexico Series drivers like Rogelio Lopez, Antonio Perez, and Carlos and Ruben Pardo, as they've found success transitioning to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series. Suárez hopes to take it even further.
"My goal is to keep learning and training to get to the highest level -- the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series," Suárez said. "I am very happy to be racing in the NASCAR K&N East Pro Series. I have learned a lot and everyone has welcomed me, which I am grateful."
Like many young drivers in the United States, Suárez got his start in karting. He moved up to Mexico's T4 Series in 2008, and won three times as a rookie en route to the championship. Last season, he collected five top 10s and the rookie of the year honors in the NASCAR Mexico Series.
Suárez balances his racing schedule between the No. 1 Telcel Dodge in the NASCAR Mexico Series and driving for Troy Williams Racing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East. He made an impressive series debut with a solid 12th-place run at the NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown in January. Suárez finished one spot in front of 2010 NASCAR Mexico champion German Quiroga to become the highest finishing driver from Mexico in the history of the event.
"Being a race car driver from Mexico and driving in the NASCAR Mexico Series, I am also very happy to be racing in the United States," Suárez said. "I hope to earn the support of the fans to help me get even further in NASCAR."
GET TO KNOW DANIEL SUÁREZ:
Darrell Wallace Jr. has found immediate success in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East with three wins and is in the championship hunt. (Kate Gardiner Photography/NASCAR)
DARRELL WALLACE JR.
Darrell Wallace Jr. Or "Bubba" to his friends.
Either way, the 17-year-old from Mobile, Ala., is certainly making a name for himself. In his NASCAR K&N Pro Series East debut last year, he became the youngest winner in series history. He's since added another two wins, including a victory on the big stage at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway earlier this season, and the 2010 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Sunoco Rookie of the Year. Just one point behind Moffitt in the championship standings heading to historic Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C., this weekend, Wallace hopes to provide Revolution Racing and the Drive for Diversity initiative with its first touring series title.
While he's found quick success in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series and the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is the ultimate goal, Wallace remains squarely focused on the next rung of the NASCAR ladder.
"Hopefully, I'll be either in the Truck or Nationwide Series (in three years)," Wallace said. "I don't want to say Cup yet, because I don't think I'm ready for it yet. It takes a lot to get that stage. Really, I just want to be anywhere – but I think I could be in a Truck or the Nationwide Series, and that would be pretty cool."
Wallace also realizes there's more to the sport than just going fast all the time.
"It's just being able to get my name out there," Wallace said. "It's not always about being prepared for the next race all the time. Sometimes it's about being able to run up front and then doing a news deal the next day, which is a big thing."
GET TO KNOW DARRELL WALLACE JR.: