NASCAR: Is Ben Kennedy the next young driver headed for Victory Lane?

jutter@charlotteobserver.comApril 24, 2014 

In recent seasons, Victory Lane in NASCAR’s Nationwide and Truck series has seen a growing number of younger visitors.

Ty Dillon, then 20, and Ryan Blaney, then 18, earned their first Truck wins in 2012. Last season, 17-year-old Erik Jones became the youngest winner in Truck series history, and Kyle Larson and Jeb Burton, both 20, and Darrell Wallace Jr., then 19, also earned their first Truck wins.

Already this season, 18-year-old Chase Elliott has won two Nationwide races.

So, who’s next?

Ben Kennedy seems a perfect candidate, even though his family has been more involved in building Victory Lanes than driving winning cars into them.

Kennedy, the 22-year old great-grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., is in his first full season in the Truck series. In this year’s two races, he led 52 of 100 laps in the opener at Daytona and finished 15th and was third last month at Martinsville, Va.

The series’ next race will be May 9 at Kansas Speedway.

“Having Daytona and then Martinsville really spread out was a little bit different, and then we have a couple more weeks here until Kansas,” said Kennedy, who will graduate from the University of Florida this year with a degree in sports management. “After we pass Kansas we’ll get into a rhythm, and I know we have testing coming up, too.

“I’m just trying to stay as fresh as possible so when we hit Kansas and hit Charlotte the week after that we’re ready to go for the season.”

Kennedy began his racing career on the short tracks of central Florida, winning championships in Super Late Models at Orlando Speedworld and in Pro Truck racing at Orlando Speedworld and New Smyrna Speedway. He made his debut in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East in 2010 and began racing the series full time in 2011.

While running full time in K&N East last season, he also made five Truck starts in preparation for a full-time move to that series this season with Turner Scott Motorsports.

One thing Kennedy said he noticed right away in a move up to a national series was a change in the level of competition.

“You have tough drivers that have been out there in tough cars, Nationwide cars, they’ve been in Trucks at all these race tracks before, and they’ve seen it in the past years and seen it resurfaced,” Kennedy said.

“You’re coming to a lot of these tracks that you may not have been to or never seen before. You’ve seen it on TV and everything, but I feel you can only get so much out of watching races. Until you actually get out there and drive hard in the corner, you can’t feel the bumps and everything.”

Kennedy, whose mother Lesa France Kennedy is the CEO of International Speedway Corp. and a member of NASCAR’s board of directors, said he feels pressure to prove he’s a talented driver and not just in a car because he’s from a famous family.

“It’s definitely there, and my family has been supportive throughout the whole process coming up through the ranks and everything,” he said. “To be honest, when we get in these cars and everything, it’s game time.

“We all want to be Cup drivers eventually. There is definitely that pressure that everyone’s watching you. If anything, it’s a little more motivation for me.”

There also is a realistic side for Kennedy, which is why he is working hard to complete college this season as well.

“I’m getting my degree in a couple of weeks here so sort of having that in my back pocket gives me a little confidence, too, that if this racing thing doesn’t necessarily work out, that I’ll have something to go to,” he said.

“It will be something to sort of be able to rely on to keep those doors open.”

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter

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