Finding the next Chase Elliott or Kyle Larson among a pool of young driving talent isn't the easiest task, but the selection of members for the NASCAR Next initiative attempts to find future stars before they become household names.
The only issue is, some of them have made strides in gaining recognition even before the latest list was revealed on Friday at Richmond International Raceway. Seven of the 12 drivers on this year's NASCAR Next class are newcomers to the list, designed to identify up-and-coming talent. But two of those names may already be familiar to fans and industry followers.
Erik Jones may be just a month shy of his 18th birthday, but he already has some degree of fame for becoming the youngest winner in NASCAR Camping World Truck Series history last fall at Phoenix International Raceway. He's also a two-time defending champ of the prestigious Snowball Derby late model race.
Despite those huge resume-building wins, one of which he's still trying to process, Jones is eager to continue moving forward under the NASCAR Next umbrella.
"The two Derby wins were great and those have sunk in. The Phoenix truck win is still kind of out there," Jones said. "That was the one that's still kind of surreal to me, and man, I couldn't believe we did it in those five truck starts. Getting to go back this year for 12 more truck races, the racing community forgets really quickly what happens, so you have to go out and prove yourself week in, week out in every opportunity you get. Going out and trying to make a statement and present yourself more in the community and show off what you can do is really important to me."
Brandon McReynolds has made an imprint in part-time competition in the last four years while trying to gain a foothold in NASCAR, and he jumped at the opportunity for his first full schedule in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West in the offseason. He also shares a familiar name with his father, Larry McReynolds, former champion crew chief and now NASCAR on FOX TV analyst.
"It's kind of funny because the thing about the Next program -- a couple of weeks ago, I was talking to somebody about it, and I said I know mostly it's younger guys," McReynolds said. "With me being 22, I'm kind of the wily old vet of it, so it's kind of cool."
Both Jones and McReynolds have a tie-in with a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series veteran in their corner. Jones drives part-time for Kyle BuschMotorsports' truck team and enjoys the tutelage of the team's namesake, who holds 130 victories in NASCAR national series competition.
"He's still a student of the sport, even as long as he's been doing it," Jones said of Busch. "Getting to learn from a guy who is so fast and has been so successful has been a big help to me, especially in the trucks where he's just completely dominant. Picking a notebook like that is really an invaluable resource. Getting his thoughts on some of the tracks we get to go to, especially because I haven't been to so many of these different places, really gives me an insight for what I'm going to have to look for and what I'll be able to expect."
McReynolds has benefited from full-time employment from Jeff Burton, who tasked McReynolds with building late model cars out of his shop and helping groom his son, Harrison, for a racing career. Their partnership emerged from a chance meeting and conversation at the gym, and even though he's shifted his focus to driving a full-time schedule for car owner Bill McAnally this season, the relationship continues to shape his career.
"The biggest things he taught me over there was just honesty and loyalty to people, on and off the track," McReynolds said. "So working for a guy like Jeff Burton, who everybody knows in the garage as a stand-up guy and real level-headed, that went a long way for me, especially going through that age where you're starting to mature and become the person that you're going to be for the next 25 years. I definitely owe a lot of that to Jeff."
Though McReynolds also possesses ties to deep crew chief family roots with his famous father, he makes the point clear that his racing career is an independent operation.
"Dad has always helped me growing up, but one of the things he made really clear to me at a young age is that he wasn't able to come with a briefcase full of money to make an icon out of him," the younger McReynolds said. "I had to pay my dues on my own. ... He's not paying for it or doing this out of his shop. It's me on my own. It definitely gets me a good playground to sort of set my feet and build my career instead of resting on that name, which it obviously helps and there's nothing but really good benefits being that my dad is Larry McReynolds, but it definitely establishes me on my own with someone hiring me because of my ability and not because of my last name."
The NASCAR Next program has been a launching pad for up-and-coming stars such as Ryan Blaney, Elliott, Ben Kennedy, Dylan Kwasniewski, Larson and Darrell Wallace Jr. -- all alums who currently have full-time rides in NASCAR national series. The impact of the youth infusion sweeping the stock-car ranks isn't lost on either Jones or McReynolds.
"Definitely you see a lot of young guys coming up through the series," Jones said. "To be a part of that movement is something that I think's pretty neat. Obviously to be a part of the Next program and move forward with that youth movement is something that's really cool. Hopefully, I can be a part of some of those guys moving up, too."
The NASCAR Next members for 2014-15 are:
• Cole Custer (16 years old, Ladera Ranch, Calif., Twitter: @colecuster00) – A two-time winner in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East in 2013, he opened the K&N Pro Series West season this year with a victory from the pole in Phoenix.
• Rubén García Jr. (18, Naucalpan, Mexico, @rubengarcia4) – The 2012 NASCAR Mexico Toyota Series Rookie of the Year continues to improve and finished fourth in the standings last season. Earlier this season, he made his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut.
• Gray Gaulding (16, Colonial Heights, Va., @graygaulding) – Holds the mark for youngest pole winner in both the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and West, and recorded his first series win at Phoenix last fall.
• Ryan Gifford (25, Winchester, Tenn., @ryangifford2) – The NASCAR Drive For Diversity driverscored the 2013 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East win at Richmond and posted an impressive top-10 finish in his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut last August in Iowa.
• Austin Hill (20, Winston, Ga., @hillbroracing) – The winner at last year’s K&N East race at Dover, he has two top-five finishes in this season’s four races.
• Erik Jones (17, Byron, Mich., @erik_jones) – Made his mark on the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series last November in Phoenix by becoming the youngest winner in series history.
• Jesse Little (17, Sherrills Ford, N.C., @jesselittle97) – The 2013 Sunoco Rookie of the Year in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East. He made his first series start just 11 days after turning 15 in 2012.
• Dylan Lupton (20, Wilton, Calif., @LuptonDylan) – The 2013 NASCAR K&N Pro Series West Sunoco Rookie of the Year picked up his first series victory at Evergreen Speedway in August.
• Brandon McReynolds (23, Mooresville, N.C., @Bmcreynolds28) – With starts in four different NASCAR series, he is chasing the championship in the K&N Pro Series West, where he is second in points.
• Ryan Preece (23, Berlin, Conn., @RyanPreece16) – He became the youngest champion in the history of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour last season while balancing a 43-race schedule in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series (finished fourth in the national standings) and making his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut.
• Ben Rhodes (17, Louisville, Ky., @benrhodes) – The current points leader in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East with three poles in four races, and a win at Greenville (S.C.) Pickens Speedway. He scored an impressive top-10 finish in his NASCAR Camping World Truck series debut at Martinsville.
• Kenzie Ruston (22, El Reno, Okla., @KenzieRuston) – She finished sixth in last season’s K&N Pro Series East season standings and has top 10 finishes this season at New Smyrna and Daytona. She has the highest finish – both in a race and in the championship standings – for a female driver in K&N Pro Series East history.