Big September for Former NASCAR Next Drivers
Iowa Speedway has been a super star factory since it began hosting prominent national motorsports events in 2007. Winning here has catapulted some of NASCAR’s young stars into household names and standouts in the sport, leading the track to adopt the tagline – Stars Are Made Here.
If there was any doubt, simply look at the winning drivers in NASCAR’s national series at the end of September. Two are former winners at Iowa Speedway and all three are NASCAR Next alumni. NASCAR Next is an overarching industry initiative to help spotlight NASCAR’s rising stars – and bolster fan recognition around talent that will hopefully grow into NASCAR mainstays.
In the past several weeks, drivers like Harrison Burton, Ryan Blaney and Ben Rhodes have answered loud and clear with on track performances that demand attention.
Harrison Burton, 2017-2018 NASCAR Next class member, captured the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship with a victory in the season finale at Dover International Speedway on Sept. 29., marking his first career NASCAR title, and becoming the youngest champion in series history.
“It was a hard battle and I’m kind of speechless,” said Burton. “I remember being at the banquet last year after a pretty bad season and saying, ‘I want to win this championship,’ and that’s why I made the decision to come back and run again was for this moment right here. It’s totally worth it – I can tell you that much.”
The 16-year-old, Huntersville, North Carolina-native captured the title following a close, season-long battle with two-time Iowa Speedway winner and fellow NASCAR Next member, Todd Gilliland. The son of former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver Jeff Burton, Harrison won the title in his second full-time NASCAR K&N Pro Series season, while also competing part-time for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
NASCAR Next alumnus Ryan Blaney, winner of the 2015 U.S. Cellular 250 presented by New Holland at Iowa Speedway, was victorious in the NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Dover International Speedway on Sept. 30.
NASCAR imposed limits this season on how many times Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers can race in the XFINITY Series. But no rule could stop Blaney from reaching victory lane at Dover. Blaney obliterated the field leading 136 of 200 laps and taking the checkered flag with nearly a five second lead over second place Justin Allgaier.
“Yeah, it’s really hard to get a car like that and to be honest we didn’t have it in the first run,” Blaney said of his dominating performance. “We were a little bit off on the first run. We made some great changes after the first Stage to get it better to where it needs to be. We actually got it better for the last run.”
Blaney has Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship aspirations after making The Playoffs with a win at Pocono in June. No matter what happens in The Playoffs, Blaney will drive a third entry for Team Penske in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series next year. Blaney will drive the No. 12 Ford and join other former Iowa Speedway winners Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski at Team Penske. Blaney was signed to Team Penske in 2012 and farmed out to race for Wood Brothers Racing.
The first career victory for 20-year-old, Louisville, Kentucky-native Ben Rhodes kept his championship chances intact in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. In 2014, Rhodes raced to victory in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series Casey’s General Store 150 at Iowa Speedway en route to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East championship that year, before joining ThorSport Racing in 2016.
Rhodes, a member of the 2013 NASCAR Next class, earned the first national series victory of his NASCAR career by holding off Christopher Bell in the closing laps at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Oct. 1. The win earned Rhodes an automatic berth into the second round of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Playoffs.
The win came in Rhodes’ 45th series start and continued a run of consistency he’s shown of late. He’s finished in the top-10 a career-best five straight races and has finished an average of sixth in the last seven NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races.
“This is the biggest high of my life,” he said. “I never thought it would come.”
But look around at all professional sports, or even college and high school. Stars come and go and new ones emerge over time, almost always because their performance captures our attention.
The same is true in NASCAR.
There’s an abundance of young talent in NASCAR today that is waiting to blossom at the next level. Blaney, Burton and Rhodes are proving why they are bona fide stars of the future.