NASCAR Race Weekend Central

NASCAR 101: 3 Up-and-Coming Drivers Making NASCAR Debuts in 2016

On Wednesday, Richard Childress Racing revealed more of its stable for the 2016 NASCAR XFINITY Series season, particularly its drivers for the standalone races that are not contested at the same track on the same weekend as the Sprint Cup Series.

Let’s see… AJ Allmendinger, check. Michael McDowell, check. Sam Hornish, Jr., check, and good to see him back.

Ben Kennedy? Yep, check.

When the series travels to Iowa Speedway next week, Kennedy, 24, will become the newest driver to make his or her debut in the second-tier series of NASCAR, piloting RCR’s No. 2.

He’s not the only one that’ll do so this season, of course. Already in 2016, multiple drivers have made their debuts in a given series this season, including Cole Custer in the XFINITY Series for JR Motorsports, Kaz Grala for GMS Racing in the Camping World Truck Series, and others. It’s something to be expected in the series by now, especially on weekends where the XFINITY and Truck events are held at tracks where teams need to snag a replacement for their rides that usually house a Cup regular, such as the No. 2, which has been driven this season by Austin Dillon and Paul Menard.

Undoubtedly, even more will pop up by season’s end, what with driver changes and the like, but also with organizations adding extra cars or trucks for budding talents that may not have signed yet (think William Byron for Kyle Busch Motorsports late last season). But for now, Kennedy included, there are three higher-profile drivers planning to make their first notch in a series’ record book before the end of the year.

Ben Kennedy

(Photo: russell LaBounty / NKP)
Ben Kennedy left Red Horse Racing earlier this year, and now he’s poised to make his XFINITY Series debut for Richard Childress Racing. (Photo: russell LaBounty / NKP)

As mentioned, Kennedy will drive RCR’s No. 2 at Iowa next weekend, currently his only scheduled start for the team. It’s a step up for the great-grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France; after all, just a few weeks ago it was unclear what Kennedy’s plans would be for the remainder of the season. He’s driven the last two years full-time in the Truck Series, first in 2014 for Turner Scott Motorsports and then last year with Red Horse Racing, accumulating five top 5s and 15 top 10s. But three races into 2016, he and Red Horse Racing parted ways. He’s since found a home at GMS Racing, where he’s jumped back and forth between the team’s full-time No. 33 and part-time No. 24, meaning he still has a shot at the series championship or at least its Chase — though he’ll have to pick it up, with a current spot of 12th in the standings to go with one top 10.

Gray Gaulding

Speaking of Camping World Truck Series drivers moving up in the world, Gray Gaulding plans his XFINITY debut for 2016 after two seasons running part-time in a truck, plus multiple seasons in the K&N Pro Series East and West. The newly 18-year-old Gaulding will drive Roush Fenway Racing’s back-from-the-dead No. 60 in two races: Bristol Motor Speedway in August and Richmond International Raceway in September. Hard to tell how things will go since at least his contemporary Kennedy has some full-time experience in the series directly below, but Gaulding did qualify fifth in the Bristol Truck Series event in 2014, so at least there’s that.

Harrison Burton

You already know Ward Burton’s son Jeb Burton, now meet Jeb’s cousin. Harrison Burton, son of former NASCAR winner Jeff Burton, will make his Camping World Truck Series debut toward the end of the season, the newest in a fairly formidable line of debuting drivers in the series for Kyle Busch Motorsports (see: Byron, Christopher Bell, Erik Jones). He’ll make his first appearance at Martinsville Speedway in October, racing the team’s part-time No. 18. Will he fare better than his cousin, who recently lost his full-time XFINITY Series ride and has had quite the up-and-down career since winning a race and finishing fifth in the Truck Series standings in 2013? Your guess is as good as anyone else’s, but KBM is no slouch, and his results so far in other series are not bad for not even having a driver’s license yet and being newly 16 in October.

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