Speed 51’s 2009 Short Track Draft: The Underclassmen
Our Panel Picks The Top-25 Short Track Racing Prospects Under 18
A Speed51.com Original
NASCAR says you cannot compete in any of its “Big Three” series’ unless you are at least 18-years-old.  So, to be cool to the rule, we followed that guideline for the 2009 Short Track Draft.

But how can you forget about the young kids?  You can’t and we didn’t.  That’s why we have the fourth annual Underclassmen Draft for kids 17 and under on Speed51.com.  24 panelists from across the short track industry put in their votes and we tallied them up!  We have kids from ages 12 to 17 and from all forms of the oval motorsports genre.  Agree or disagree, this is what they are.

So without further adieu, the first pick in the 2009 Underclassmen Draft is…

1. Johanna Long - Late Models
This may be the girl to that can break the gender barrier.  We’ve seen them come and go, but there is no doubt Johanna Long can wheel a racecar and get the job done. 

She was the 2008 Pro Late Model champ at Five Flags Speedway; she qualified for the Snowball Derby in her first attempt and was running well until a late-race crash and she won race #1 on the Blizzard Series in Pensacola this month.  The 16-year-old is also taking her game outside the panhandle area and has run top-five at SpeedFest at Lanier in GA, as well at “Florida Speedweeks” at New Smyrna Speedway.  She also ventured to North Carolina recently to race with the PASS tour and was top-five until getting wrecked by a lapped car.

Every single one of the scouts who voted for her had Johanna in their top-10.

Often times when women come into racing, they are either too burly or too pretty; Johanna has the right look.  She’s a sweet girl who will attract sponsors and she has a great tradition of racing in her family.

Pros: Family has enough money to get her into the right positions to go along with her talent behind the wheel.  She’s got veteran racer Freddie Query on her side and that will help her along the way.  She knows how to use her bumper if need be.

Cons: She is sweet, but that doesn’t mean she speaks well in front of the mic or recorder.  She must improve on her outgoingness with people she doesn’t know.  On track, she can be too aggressive at times.  She has to be able to overcome the pressure of being a lady in the racing world as she advances.

2. Matt DiBenedetto - CW East
Matt DiBenedetto’s stock seems to rise with each year.  “Guido” may have a hard name to spell or pronounce, but it’s not hard to see the talent he has behind the wheel. After graduating from entry-level racing, DiBenedetto won the Limited Late Model track championship during his rookie year at historic Hickory Motor Speedway (NC). In 2007, he took top-rookie honors in the UARA-Stars Late Model Series. In 2008 he won three-times in a Late Model including a big UARA win at Bristol Motor Speedway (TN). He then started off 2009 with his Super Late Model debut driving David Stremme’s Super Late Model, finishing 11th in SpeedFest at Lanier (GA).  The progression continued with his debut in Joe Gibbs Racing’s Development program in April. In just his second career NASCAR Camping World Series start, the 17-year old grabbed the checkers at Tri-County Speedway (NC).

Pros: Adapts quickly to new cars, tracks and challenges. He is a patiently aggressive driver who knows when to ride and when to be rough. DiBenedetto is a well mannered young man who’s a pretty good interview.

Cons: Pressure to continue his perform under the JGR banner, arguably the best development program from the big leagues of racing. His name has troubled journalists covering the Short Track ranks for years and will likely do so in the future. The personable youngster is very approachable but needs to be assertive in approaching others and engaging conversations.   

3. Drew Brannon - Late Models
Brannon is only 16, but he’s been at the Late Model racing game for a few years already.  He’s been winning races in the ASA Late Model ranks, but it wasn’t until early in 2009, when he signed with veteran racer and crew chief Butch Miller and the SS Racing team that Brannon’s stock really rose.  Brannon rode that momentum of being in a high-profile ride to a Speedweeks Crate Late Model championship at New Smyrna (FL) in his family’s ride.

Pros: He’s got a winner’s instinct and undoubtedly the tutilage of Miller will land him in even more victory lanes this year.

Cons: While 16, Brannon’s still somewhat immature even for his age outside the car.  As the year under Miller goes on, that should change.

4. Ryan Blaney - Super Late Models
14-year-old Ryan Blaney, son of NASCAR driver Dave Blaney, made a name for himself in the Quarter-Midget ranks before moving up to Legends Cars.  Now, after a limited schedule in 2008, he is racing Super Late Models this whole season.  The small-statured kid has made big noise already in 2009 with three-top-five finishes and sits second in PASS South points, higher than many veterans of the series and SLM racing in general.

Pros: He has been able to adapt well to every type of racing vehicle he gets in.  He also has no fear when it comes to mixing it up on the track with those older than him.  Despite being small-framed, he has been able to muscle the big cars through an entire event without notice of fatigue.

Cons: His cute-kid appearance could have racers and sponsors not take him serious at times.  Also, he needs to be more outgoing with the fans.  His father has been known to let his driving do the talking, but in today's racing world, being a recluse doesn't cut it.

5. Corey LaJoie - UARA
You want bloodlines?  How about drafting a kid that’s the son of a two-time NASCAR Busch Series champion?  Corey LaJoie has crept out from his dad’s shadow in recent years to become a heck of a racer in his own right.  Nicknamed “SuperShoe,” 17-year-old LaJoie has big wins at big tracks, including Bristol in a Pro Challenge car and Rockingham for his first-ever UARA win in April.  A lack of funding keeps him out of the seat more, but LaJoie made the most of his Rockingham start and plans to run as much as the pocketbook allows.  He will turn some more heads it he gets to race.

Pros: Extremely well-spoken, LaJoie is very much like his dad – talented behind the wheel and in front of the microphone.

Cons: His shaggy look, plus he’s so good with his words that he can sometimes say the wrong thing at the wrong time.

6. Casey Roderick - Late Models
Bill Elliott Driver Development racer Casey Roderick made the move to full-sized racing vehicles in 2008 after winning multiple races and championships in Legends Cars.  The 16-year-old Georgia driver quickly showed he had the skills to race up front in the ASA Southeast Asphalt Tour and other Late Model events across the South.  In 2009, he will continue to showcase his talents and should hit victory lane a few times, despite the shoestring budget he races on.

Pros: Roderick is very smooth from behind the wheel of a car.  He has shed the "push to pass" mentality of Legends Car racing and now races for position instead.  He is well spoken and a very polite kid, and his clean-cut appearance doesn't hurt either.

Cons: He might be too nice on the track.  Multiple times in 2008 he was gun-shy on using the bumper when he probably should have because he didn't want the Legends Car driver label to be attached to him.  He could also get lost in the shuffle at BEDD since Elliott's own son Chase is in the spotlight now with the team.

7. Logan Ruffin - Late Models
At the age of 13, Logan Ruffin nearly captured the number-one pick in the 2008 version of the 51 Short Track Draft, going in the runner-up spot.  This year, he has slipped a few spots mostly due to lack of racing.  This talented 14-year-old from Brentwood, Tennessee was featured in Sports Illustrated last year after winning the Crate Late Model Speedweeks championship at New Smyrna Speedway (FL).  Ruffin is a well-spoken kid who has really adapted to the racing world well.  This year he’s working with Venturini Motorsports to run selected USARacing Pro Cup events as he is still too young to meet the ARCA minimum age requirements of 16 for short tracks.

Pros: He’s still young.  To have the attention that he’s got at such an early age has people looking in his direction already.  This could be a breakout year for Ruffin. 

Cons: Hasn’t won since last February at Speedweeks, although he’s kept his nose clean.  But, wins are bigger selling tools to having the complete package. 

8. Hunter Robbins - Pro Cup / Late Models
He might only be 17 years old, but Hunter Robbins has already built up a winning resume in short track racing. If he can continue that progress and momentum, it only seems a matter of time before Robbins is noticed by a big-league scout.

Pros: A proven record already. Robbins has shown that he can get the job done. At 13, Robbins won his first big Late Model race – the Alabama 250 at Montgomery. At age 15, he won the Snowflake Derby. At 16, he won his first Pro Cup event.

Cons: For some reason, Robbins is still under the radar a little bit. Maybe he’s not flashy enough or maybe he is too shy. If he breaks out of that shell though, watch out. He appears capable of big things.

9. Max Gresham - Late Models
Georgia has a knack for producing young talent in the Late Model world, as Max Gresham is the second pick from the Peach State in the top 10.  Gresham scored his first two wins a year ago, one with the Georgia Asphalt Series and another in Lanier’s Super Six Series. That caught the attention of Joe Gibbs Racing who has signed the 15-year-old to a driver development contract.  Gresham already has two ASA Southeast wins in 2009 as he prepares for his first NASCAR Camping World East Series event at South Boston on May 30th.   

Pros: He has the funding and backing to climb high in the racing world.  His family recently purchased Peach State Speedway, now Gresham Motorsports Park and they are renovating it for racing this fall.  Gresham will basically have his own test track once that’s complete.

Cons: He’s very aggressive on the race track which led to some finger pointing at Lanier’s ASA SAT race earlier this month.

10. Stephen Nasse - Late Models
It looks as if Nasse could be considered “take-two” of the underage “Speedweeks success” program.  After Logan Ruffin won at Speedweeks in 2008 at 13, Nasse came back the following February and matched that feat.  The Florida driver has moved up from Go-Karts and Trucks to Late Models.  Nasse will run the balance of the ASA Late Model South schedule, where he already set a track record at the South Georgia Motorsports Park, as well as some selected ASA SAT events in 2009 as he continues to build experience in Late Models. 

Pros: He’s a bright kid who has things rolling in the right direction for his racing future.  Running different series will only advance him further along in a shorter amount of time.

Cons: Being as young as he is, racing against older drivers could get him in some hot water.  There was an incident at Speedweeks where he stirred up some controversy when he banged wheels with a veteran.  Some racers may not be too forgiving of a young teenager roughing them

11. Chase Elliott - Late Models
Just a few months back, many would not even consider this second generation-driver for this list.  Since the beginning of the year, however, everyone has been chasing Chase Elliott.  A Legends Car championship in the Winter Flurry series at Atlanta Motor Speedway was followed up top-10 finishes in his first ever Late Model starts.  He had a career-best second-place finish at the Montgomery Motor Speedway (AL) a few weeks back. 

Pros: His ties to NASCAR with his father, NASCAR Champion Bill Elliott, are going to be his biggest aid as he moves up the ranks.  He also is backing it up with his early success in Late Models.

Cons: He could get a big head too early.  With the attention surrounding him it could be real easy to be overconfident.  Also he’s racing for a team that has multiple drivers that could get jealous with the attention that Chase gets as he progresses.  

12. Dakoda Armstrong - USAC
Several of our scouts that have had an eye on this kid have been calling him “the next big thing” to come out of sprints and midgets for a good two or three years now.  Now at 17, even more scouts are seeing exactly why.  He won a bunch of big Midget races in 2007, like the PRI Invitational in Orlando and a 400-lapper at Anderson (IN).  Last year, he even branched into the “big car” world, finishing 10th in his Pro Cup debut.  With a couple top-12 finishes in Camping World East already this year, Armstong appears to be making good on the hype that’s surrounded him for the last little bit.

Pros: Friendly and personable and not afraid to jump into heavy stock cars and succeed.

Cons: Will have to keep energized and winning while balancing a hectic Sprint and Midget schedule with stock car starts throughout the year.

13. Darrell Wallace, Jr. - Late Model Stock Cars
Proving he could get it done in Bandoleros and Legends Cars, Darrell Wallace, Jr. moved up to Late Models in 2007.  He ran strong in multiple events that year and moved to the UARA-Stars Late Model Stock Car Series in 2008, picking up his first win at Franklin County Speedway (VA) as well as the Rookie of the Year title.  This season, the 15-year-old racer is driving under the Joe Gibbs Racing development camp in UARA and might be a title contender.

Pros: Being attached to Joe Gibbs Racing is always a plus.  He has been passionate about racing to win his whole driving career, not being happy with second best.  He has the drive and the determination to go places in the sport.  The good thing for Wallace is that he is learning at a steady pace, not rushing himself along too fast.

Cons: The "diversity driver" label can steer the focus away from a driver's talent and put it on their skin color, which could hurt Wallace's driving credibility.  He needs to make sure he is performing on the track and directing people to his performance.  His father has been known to be a hot head at the track, so he needs to make sure he remains in check as well.

14. Ross Kenseth - Late Models
In racing, the old adage of “like father, like son” is definitely true. We’ve seen this with the Earnhardts, the
Bensons, the Truexes, the Keselowskis and the Andrettis. The next family to prove that could be the Kenseths. Still only 15 years old, Ross Kenseth has been winning in karts, Legends cars and is now successfully carving out his own place in the Late Model world of the Midwest.

Pros: Having a name like Kenseth helps open some doors…and a strong bloodline doesn’t hurt either. Even still, Ross Kenseth has been turning enough heads by doing his talking on the track that he’d be on the fast track to success even if his name was Jones or Smith.

Cons: With a big name comes big expectations. Not only is Matt Kenseth a former NASCAR Cup champion, but he is a short track God in the Midwest. When his son hits those same tracks and races in front of some of the same fans, expectations will be high…so will be the pressure.

15. Erik Rudolph - Asphalt Modified / DIRT
Eric Rudolph is starting to prove that he has a lot more than just a winning racing bloodline. He turned heads in the Modified world with a sixth-place finish in his first North-South Shootout Tour-Type Mod race at Concord Speedway (NC) in 2007. Rudolph was the 2008 SST and Full Modified Champion at Pennsylvania’s Lancaster Speedway. In 52 total races (various cars) last year, Rudolph racked up 18 feature wins and 37 top-five finishes. He’s won on the ROC Modified Tour, and now has his sights set on success on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour and various other Mod stops along the way. The 17-year old will have plenty of chances in 2009 to raise his stock. Showing his versatility, the second generation driver will run on the dirt at Dunn Tire Raceway Park (NY) and in a 358 DIRT Modified with the H&H Motorsports Troyer Chassis #98 team at Ransomville Speedway (NY).

Pros: Patience behind the wheel. Adaptability… Rudolph dominated the Sportsman division at Super DIRT Week at “The Moody Mile” in Syracuse, NY even though it was his first time in a full-size ride on dirt.  Seat-time will be this kid’s best friend in 2009.

Cons: Nobody outside the Northeast even knows about this kid. He needs to be more assertive when he’s outside of the seat and needs to get his name out there in more than just the local/regional scene. He needs to get some fendered racecar experience. 

16. Ty Dillon - Dirt Late Models & Modifieds/East Series/Late Model Stock Cars
Last year his older brother Austin was the #1 selection in the Short Track Draft.  This year, Ty is the hot kid in the RCR stables.  He really doesn’t need to be drafted since his grandfather is Richard Childress and his dad is former NASCAR Busch Series competitor Mike Dillon.

Despite his family credentials, Ty has been selected because of what he has done on the racetrack.  He had 9 wins in 2008 and he’s already added a couple this season.  The 17-year muscles his Dirt Late Model and/or Modified with the best in the business, whether it’s Dirt Late Model stud Chris Madden or his brother in a Dirt Modified.

This year he is coming back to asphalt.  The former Legends Car driver will continue to run his Late Model Stock Car in selected events, but will also venture out to compete in several NASCAR Camping World East Series races.

Pros: He is a “wheel-man.”  Go to DirtOnDirt.com and watch some of the races where he’s gone wheel-to-wheel with the best in Dirt Late Models.  The family connections basically guarantee him a least a chance at some point in the big leagues.  Most of all, he and his brother are nice, polite and personable kids.

Cons: He’s got some pressure on him.  He is, after all, the grandson of RC.  People will expect him to succeed because he’s got the best equipment.  If he doesn’t, the media will be making a point of that.  How would he handle that pressure is the question.

17. Chad Boat - Open Wheel
17-year old Chad Boat is following in the footsteps of his father, Indy Car driver Billy Boat. He hopes to become the best of the Boat family and is on the right path to do so.  Cutting his teeth in Midget racing at places like Arizona’s Manzanita Speedway, Boat showed he is a consistent and winning driver. Since moving to Indiana, Boat has seen success in various Sprint and Midget car races and even driven in the ASA Speedtrucks division. In 2008, Boat finished 11th in USAC National Midget points and 13th in National Sprint points. He became the youngest driver in the 65 year history of USAC to win a national dirt sprint car race. More importantly, the youngster was selected Rookie-of-the-Year in both the USAC National Sprint Car and National Midget Divisions, becoming only the third driver to win both titles. 

Pros: Father’s experience and guidance. Young drivers need seat time to develop and Boat is currently scheduled to run in approximately 70-races in 2009.

Cons: Needs a breakthrough year with more wins to continue his progression in the Sprint/Midget ranks. Billy Boat may be well-known in the open-wheel ranks but his son Chad needs more publicity to get his name out there.

18. Chris Buescher - Legends / ARCA
Being on the "in" with 600 Racing General Manager Ken Ragan and his son, NASCAR driver David Ragan, is definitely not a bad thing.  Sixteen-year-old Chris Buescher has had that association for years of Legends Car racing, even driving David Ragan's #6 car to a few victories in the Summer Shootout Series.  Even though it appeared his career started to stall, he has made an ARCA start and plans to do more racing with the endorsement and assistance of the Ragan family in Legends and ARCA.

Pros: Has a winning record and has friends in high places in the sport.  He is a nice kid, although a bit shy, but doesn't act cocky because of his affiliations.  He might be a bit behind other drivers in his age group in the development career phase, but so far he has the right people in the right places to not just be a flash in the pan.

Cons: As much as his association with the Ragan family can help, it has hurt it a bit within some racing circles because some believe he hasn't quite earned his accolades, rather it was handed to him because of who he knows.  He needs to get out and perform on the track to prove he can win, and he needs to do it now before he gets too old and forgotten about.

19. Brett Moffitt - CW East
When he won the pole position for the season-opening NASCAR Camping World East Series race at Greenville-Pickens, Brett Moffitt had a lot of people standing up and asking “Who is that?”. The new driver for Andy Santerre Motorsports is a 16-year-old hailing from Iowa. Moffitt moved from dirt onto the asphalt tracks that make up the ASA Late Model North Series.

Pros: Having Andy Santerre as a coach is a big plus for this up and comer. Moffitt appears to be a very quick learner as well.

Cons: Moffitt still only has one season of asphalt racing under his belt. He didn’t win in ASA Late Models, which is hard to expect in a rookie season, but should be done before moving up to the next level. As the new kid on the block in CW East, it might still be too early to see if he is more sizzle or substance.

20. Chad Finchum - Legends / Pro Challenge
There are not many drivers on the Underclassmen draft that are still in the scale car world full time, but Chad Finchum's accomplishments has caught the eyes of the expert panelists.  Finchum won just about everything you could win in the Bandolero Young Guns division, including championships and nearly 40 victories.  In 2009, the 14-year-old driver from Tennessee moved to Legends Cars and Pro Challenge, and has already shown he is just as dominant there.

Pros: All this kid wants to do is race, no matter when, where or what.  Shades of the late Dale Earnhardt, Finchum has also raced while hurt, just because he didn't want to give up the wheel for something like a fractured wrist.  In the scale-car world, he continues to impress everyone with his drive, determination and ability to adapt to what is thrown his direction.  He is also a polite kid with solid family backing.

Cons: With the super success he has had, Finchum has been the target of badmouthing by some of his competitors.  This jealousy can disrupt a young driver's focus easily if he doesn't keep his mind focused on his goals.  He also has a real bad acne problem that he has been trying to rectify.  At his age, it is to be expected and it hasn't affected sponsorships, but it may become an issue later in his teen years when he tries to move up in the sport.

21. John Stancill - Super Late Models / Late Model Stock Cars
Stancill was “the man” in Legends Cars for a couple of years.  That success took him to quick laps in a Super Late Model, where he darn near won the PASS National Championship last year – his first year out of a Legends Car.  He’s shown adaptability to the big cars and he’s a super-polite and handsome kid, making him a marketing guy’s dream.  Finances have kept him out of the seat more than he’d like to be thus far in 2009, but he’s staying fresh by running some UARA races and hoping to catch the right eyes.

Pros: Personable and good looking.  Doesn’t have the “Legends Car Kid” stigma because he’s very patient in the Late Models. 

Cons: Needs to be in the seat more and shake some of his shyness.  Once he opens up, he’s a great talker, but he has to get to that point first.

22. Dillon Bassett - Bandoleros / Legends
The youngest driver that made it on the Underclassmen draft is just 12 years old, but Dillon "Sparkplug" Bassett is not new to the racing scene.  He has been tearing up the tracks in Bandolero competition since he was eight years old, winning more races at more tracks than anyone can count.  Championships? He has won a ton of them across two different age group divisions of Bandoleros.  After turning 12 at the beginning of April, Bassett is now racing in Legends Cars and it is expected he will be one of the top young drivers on the circuit this year.

Pros: The youngest driver that made it on the Underclassmen draft is just 12 years old, but Dillon "Sparkplug" Bassett is not new to the racing scene.  He has been tearing up the tracks in Bandolero competition since he was eight years old, winning more races at more tracks than anyone can count.  Championships? He has won a ton of them across two different age group divisions of Bandoleros.  After turning 12 at the beginning of April, Bassett is now racing in Legends Cars and it is expected he will be one of the top young drivers on the circuit this year.

Cons: While it makes people laugh when he tells people his favorite driver is himself, he needs to make sure he doesn't let his win record get to his head and become too cocky at an early age.  Also, he has two other brothers racing in the same scale-car scene, which either could cause not enough focus to be on his career or too much, causing his brothers to become jealous and spiteful.

23. Kyle Fowler - Late Models / CW East
Fowler’s the hard-luck Quarterback that can’t break into the “W” column, no matter how hard he tries.  He’s finished second just about every way a driver can, but just by being in contention, he’s proven that he’s ready for a shot at more than Late Models.  The 16-year-old has run well in the GAS and ASA Southeast tours of late.  He also got a shot in the Camping World Series East at Tri-County with Schrader Racing, where he scored a top-15 finish in his debut. 

Pros: Great kid from a great family.  Very grounded and humble.

Cons: Needs the “killer instinct.”  Also, he needs to win a Late Model race of any kind before he can truly be noticed by the scouts for the top levels.

24. Bryce Walker - Legends / Late Models
2009 is going to be an interesting year for Bryce Walker.  The 2008 Legends Car National Champion has made the move to Late Models after tons of success in the Legends world.  The 15-year-old won multiple championships and over 30 races in 2008.  Now he’s got multi-time NASCAR Southeast Champion Jeff Fultz in his corner as he tackles the “big car” world.  Walker can get up on the wheel and drive. He’s already gotten more laps in this season than most others his age.

Pros: Has chosen the right people to work with as he moves up the ranks.  His talent has taken him far, but chemistry is hard find and he has done that so far with Fultz.

Cons: He’s a little shy around the press, he’s been getting better, but there is always room for improvement.  His physical demeanor at the track is poor.  He walks around like he owns the joint, sometimes dressed like a goofball, not like a up-and-coming driver looking to open some eyes.

25. Alex Kennedy - CW East
Alex has slowly been working up the racing stepladder for several years now.  The 17-year-old who was originally from New Mexico ran Late Models in 2007, paving the way for his shot in the NASCAR Camping World East Series.  Kennedy has shown promise after he scored a top-10 finish last season on the road course at Lime Rock Park (CT).  He backed that up with an 11th-place finish at the All-Star Showdown in Irwindale, California.    

Pros: He’s getting us much seat time when he’s not running Camping World East.  He had over 20 starts in 2008 between Camping World cars, Late Model Stocks and Legends cars.

Cons: Results in Camping World East need to be better.  To do it the way that he is doing it is going to take a big solid finish for someone to take notice.