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Posted on Sun. Jul. 27, 2014 - 12:01 am EDT

Young drivers give circuit energy

Newcomers, 1st-time winner offer hope for promising future

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FORT WAYNE — The future of NASCAR is 17 years old and hails from Louisville, Kentucky, where he grew up racing go-karts in the city that gave the world Darrell and Michael Waltrip.

His name is Ben Rhodes, and, no, you’ve never heard of him. But a couple of weeks back, he was sharing a news conference with Ricky Craven, of whom a whole lot of NASCAR Nation has heard.

That’s because Rhodes had won four consecutive races in K&N Pro Series East, a NASCAR feeder series. If he won again, he’d tie the record of five straight wins that Craven set in the series back in 1991.

Rhodes fell short, as it turns out, on Craven’s home track at Loudon, New Hampshire. But he’s coming.

“He has all the tools, the ingredients,” Craven said. “People (say) he races like a 17-year-old but he has the sense of a 37-year-old, and I think that’s a magical combination.”

If so, not just Rhodes has it. There is, for instance, Bill Elliott’s boy, Chase, who’s 18 and standing the Nationwide series on its head with a series-high three wins. There’s Sprint Cup rookie Kyle Larson, who has three top fives and stands 16th in points, and fellow rookie Austin Dillon, who’s one spot in front of Larson in 15th.

Then there’s Aric Almirola, who’s no kid at 30 but who just put Richard Petty’s iconic No. 43 in the winner’s circle again at Daytona on the 30th anniversary of Petty’s last victory. It was his first career win.

“Obviously, we’re not Jimmie Johnson,” said Almirola, a Cuban-American who was one of the first drivers in NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity initiative. “We don’t win every week and run up front every week. But I think that what we are accomplishing and what we are doing is extremely respectable, and so I feel really good about myself as a driver.

“I feel like I’m the best race car driver I’ve ever been today, and I feel like I continue to get better every week.”

That’s good news for NASCAR, which continues to be plagued by shrinking crowds and a flat economy that gouges hardest at its largely blue-collar fan base. The Jimmie Johnson/Jeff Gordon/Dale Earnhardt Jr. generation remains the sport’s most reliable drawing card, but it’s graying at the temples. Time for Generation Next.

“If I were in Ben Rhodes’ situation today, I would be a tremendous fan of Kyle Larson, and I’d be campaigning for him every week,” Craven said this month. “The more success Kyle Larson has, and if a Chase Elliott does come to the series sooner rather than later, and Austin Dillon … the more success these drivers have in the short term will create that trend where the owners shift back to young talent and getting that next prize racehorse.”

That’s already happened for Brad Keselowski, at 30 already a Sprint Cup champion, and Penske Racing teammate Joey Logano, 24, who together have won five of 19 Cup races so far. And it’s beginning to happen for Elliott and Larson and Dillon, for whom every week is a continuing education.

“Each week you learn a little bit here and there and what it takes to compete at this level,” Dillon said this month. “It’s the hardest level of racing in the world in my opinion, because I’ve never done anything past this. Just progressing each and every week and being smart throughout runs and trying to make our cars better throughout a race instead of maintaining, that’s one tough spot. You’ve got to be able to gain through a race. You can’t just maintain.”

Nor can NASCAR – which is why it instituted the NASCAR Next program, which yearly identifies 12 up-and-coming drivers to spotlight. Which is why what a 17-year-old is doing right now in the depths of the minors carries so much relevance – because, yes, Ben Rhodes is one of those NASCAR Next drivers for the second consecutive year.

“I don’t even look back,” Rhodes said this month. “You come in every day, and you see the trophy is there in the entranceway, but you look at them, admire them for a second, good job, pat on the back, and we’re right back to work.”

The future demands it.

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