NASCAR Next Revisited: Recapping the 2015-16 class
On Tuesday, NASCAR revealed the membership of the 2016-17 class for its annual NASCAR Next program, which highlights the rising young talent in stock car racing.
This meant an end to the reign of the previous class, which was announced last May with 12 members. That class included the eventual K&N Pro Series East champion, four winners in the K&N East and two in the K&N West.
The class also featured four drivers who are competing in the Camping World Truck Series and have won a total of four races in the last two seasons.
Before the door is completely shut on last year’s membership, here’s a look at how each driver fared in 2015 and what they’re up to 12 months after being introduced together at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Rico Abreu - The oldest driver from last year’s class, Abreu is one of four that currently competes in the Camping World Truck Series, driving for ThorSport Racing. While the 4-foot-4 driver hasn’t finished better than 10th (Martinsville) in seven starts, his year has already a notable moment. Abreu started 2016 by winning his second Chili Bowl Nationals in a row and giving us one of the more memorable victory celebrations in recent memory. Abreu, 24, also left his this mark on the K&N East series, winning a race at Columbus Motor Speedway. MORE: Q&A
Nicole Behar - The only female driver in last year’s class, Behar earned two top-five finishes in the K&N West series just prior to the reveal of the class last May. A second-place result tied the mark for highest finish in the series by a female driver. Behar, who was featured in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” last year, finished 2015 10th in the point standings while earning 10 top-10 finishes. The 18-year-old is splitting time this year between the CARS Tour Series for Super Late Models and the Pro All Star Series South (PASS) and will make her ARCA debut on June 19 at Madison International Speedway for Venturini Motorsports. MORE: Q&A
Kyle Benjamin - Until Todd Gilliland came along, Benjamin was the youngest driver to ever win an ARCA race. Three years later, Benjamin is in his second season in the K&N East, driving for Ranier Racing with MDM. He will also compete in select ARCA races for the team. Last season, the 18-year-old from Easley, South Carolina, won the K&N East race at Bristol Motor Speedway and finished ninth in the standings.
James Bickford - A relative of former Sprint Cup driver Jeff Gordon, Bickford spent the last two seasons in the K&N West series, where he earned two wins driving for Bob Bruncati. Both came at State Line Speedway in Post Falls, Idaho. Bickford currently doesn’t have a ride for 2016, but he keeps busy with his own vending machine company. MORE: Q&A
William Byron - You’ve probably seen his name pop up in recent weeks. Byron, 18, is almost two weeks removed from his first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series win at Kansas Speedway. The victory came in just his fifth series start. The rookie earned his first pole last weekend at Dover International Speedway. He signed with Kyle Busch Motorsports this season after winning the K&N East title in 2015, amassing four wins in the process. The scary thing is Byron has only been racing for just over three years. MORE: Q&A
Cole Custer - After two seasons of part-time racing in the Truck series, the 18-year-old Custer is finally racing full-time in the No. 00 for JR Motorsports. The California-native took home one win last season at Gateway Motorsports Park. Through five races in 2016, Custer has one top five (Dover) and two top-10 finishes (Dover, Kansas). Custer is scheduled to compete in five Xfinity Series races for JR Motorsports. MORE: Q&A
Ruben Garcia Jr. - The defending winner of the NASCAR Mexico Series, Garcia now competes in the K&N East series for Rev Racing. Garcia earned his first top-10 finish last month at Virginia International Raceway. The native of Mexico City won four races in four seasons in the Mexico Series, claiming three during his championship campaign. MORE: Q&A
Austin Hill - While he’s not the oldest member of last year’s class, Hill definitely has the most responsibility. At 22, Hill is the only NASCAR Next driver from last year that can put “parent” on their resume after he and his wife welcomed their daughter, Lynnlee Ann Hill, last November. That was after a season in K& N East where Hill won two races, bringing his career total to five. In 2016, Hill has competed in two Truck series races, including making his debut at his home track of Atlanta Motor Speedway with a 12th-place finish. MORE: Q&A
Jesse Little - The son of former Sprint Cup driver Chad Little, Jesse Little only had a part-time ride in the K&N West series in 2015, running in six races and winning one at Iowa Speedway. The 19-year-old driver has two K&N wins in four seasons. He is pursuing a degree in finance at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. After competing in four Truck series races last year, Jesse Little will attempt to qualify for the May 20 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway for Rette Jones Racing. He will also compete in six to eight K&N East races for the team. MORE: Q&A
Dylan Lupton - Lupton spent his 2015 season splitting time between the Xfinity Series and other racing circuits, running in eight Xfinity race with a best finish of ninth at Mid-Ohio. He finished fourth in his lone K&N East race at Watkins Glen. In 2016, he’s competed in two Xfinity races while failing to qualify for a third. He earned a DNF in his one ARCA start at Daytona International Speedway after running out of gas four laps from the race’s conclusion. Lupton is set to graduate from UNC-Charlotte.
John Hunter Nemechek - The son of former Sprint Cup driver Joe Nemechek, the 18-year-old is in his first full-time season on the Truck circuit. Even without a full-time sponsor, John Hunter Nemechek and Nemco Motorsports are keeping the top-tier teams on notice. The No. 8 truck has won twice in the last two seasons and has 10 top-five finishes in John Hunter Nemechek’s last 23 starts. He is currently seventh in the Truck point standings and all but qualified for the season-ending Chase. MORE: Q&A
Dalton Sargeant - The 18-year-old from Boca Raton, Florida, dabbled in a little bit of everything in 2015. He competed in the Truck series (four races), K&N West (four races, one win), while also running in the Snowball Derby and the All-American 400. His only full-time ride was in the K&N East series, where he six top-five finishes and ended the year fourth in points. In 2016, he has competed in two ARCA races, two CARS Super Late Model Tour races and is competing in the Champion Racing Association. MORE: Q&A