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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Rico Abreu, the reigning USAC national champion and winner of this year's Chili Bowl, was among the 12 drivers named to NASCAR's latest "Next" class on Tuesday.
The Next program, which is designed to spotlight NASCAR's emerging stars, has included in its previous four classes 2014 Sprint Cup rookie of the year Kyle Larson and reigning Xfinity Series champion Chase Elliott. The class also includes for a second year Cole Custer, who became NASCAR's youngest national winner last season at age 16 with his Truck Series victory at New Hampshire.
Of the 28 drivers who have previously been part of the Next program, 21 have competed in one of NASCAR's three national series and 11 are currently full-time NASCAR drivers. The class is selected through an evaluation process that includes input from industry executives and veteran racers.
Drivers must be between the ages of 15 and 25 and have demonstrated potential and desire to reach the Sprint Cup Series. They must also be actively competing in a NASCAR touring or weekly series.
Joining Abreu in the class this year:
— Nicole Behar, a 17-year-old from Washington who tied the series record for highest finish by a female driver in the K&N West Series with a second-place mark at Irwindale Event Center.
— Kyle Benjamin, a 17-year-old from South Carolina who is a development driver for Roush Fenway Racing. He won his first K&N Pro Series race at Bristol and is the youngest race winner in ARCA history.
— James Bickford, a 17-year-old from California who was the K&N West rookie of the year last season.
— William Byron, a 17-year-old from Charlotte who leads the K&N Pro East season championship standings.
— Custer, a 17-year-old from California who holds the records for youngest pole award and race winner in both the Truck Series and NASCAR's touring series.
— Ruben Garcia Jr., a 19-year-old from Mexico City who was the runner-up in last season's NASCAR Mexico Series season championship.
— Austin Hill, a 21-year-old from Georgia who won three consecutive K&N East races and led every lap in the opener this year at New Smyrna Speedway.
— Jesse Little, an 18-year-old from North Carolina who won the pole at Bristol in his 2015 K&N East debut.
— Dylan Lupton, a 21-year-old from California who as the 2014 K&N West championship runner-up. Made his Xfinity Series debut at Phoenix in March.
— John Hunter Nemechek, a 17-year-old from North Carolina who earned six top-10 finishes in 10 Truck Series starts last year. Won the prestigious Snowball Derby Late Model race at Five Flags Speedway in December.
— Dalton Sargeant, a 17-year-old from Florida who has four top-five finishes in five combined East and West races.
Abreu, meanwhile, this year signed a development deal to drive stock cars in the K&N East Series for HScott Motorsports with Justin Marks. The deal was announced days after his January win in the Chili Bowl, one of the most prestigious midget races in the country.
Although many of his 2015 plans had been in the works before the Chili Bowl victory, he said that win has helped his name recognition grow.
"The Chili Bowl has been a big part of it because of the background that race has, anyone who wins it gets a lot of recognition and a lot of attention, and everything has just increased since then," he said. "Everything has been happening really fast since then, and this K&N stuff is brand new. But the biggest thing is I am just really comfortable where I am right now."
Abreu, who has two top-10 finishes in stock cars the K&N Series, is on schedule to race more than 100 events this year. He's close friends with Larson, and the Sprint Cup star has tried to help Abreu transition into the stock cars.
He's also enjoyed watching the racing world learn more about his friend, who stands just 4-foot-4 and had never driven on asphalt before January.
"I think it's just been great for the world to get introduced to Rico and see what a cool person he is," Larson said.
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