Motor sports: Who is NEXT?
Corey LaJoieLaJoie races for a small team put together by his dad, two-time Nationwide Series champ Randy LaJoie. Not having the big-budget ride that many second-generation drivers enjoy has given Corey a better understanding of how the cars work. It also makes him race with a sense of desperation. After winning the penultimate race of the season at Greenville-Pickens, LaJoie drew criticism for roughing up fellow K&N Pro Series East racer Brett Moffitt. LaJoie knows that if he doesn't make something happen now, he could wind up making racing seats for his competitors' cars (something he does part time). Without a major sponsor for 2013, LaJoie plans to "cherry pick" and try to win some of the higher-profile ARCA series races until something more solid presents itself. He believes his talent will see him through. "When you're in the car, the winner isn't the guy with the biggest budget," says LaJoie. "It's the guy with the biggest balls to hold the gas pedal down the longest." -- Eric Morse
Ryan BlaneyDirt-track racing has defined the Blaney family for generations, but when former World of Outlaws champ Dave Blaney switched to NASCAR in 1998, he changed the path for this racing dynasty. Now Dave's son, Ryan, is poised for superspeedway superstardom. After turning heads in a few Nationwide Series starts with Tommy Baldwin Racing, Blaney got the call of a lifetime from car owner Roger Penske. The offer was to split time with Brad Keselowski in the No. 22 Dodge -- one of the most sought-after rides in the series. It also meant regular work driving for Brad's team in the Camping World Truck Series. Blaney made the most of the opportunity with an upset victory at Iowa Speedway, becoming the youngest Truck Series winner ever. Even more impressive was his second-place finish in the Nationwide race in Texas. In a field full of established Sprint Cup stars, Blaney beat them all, save for Kevin Harvick. Even notoriously sore loser Kyle Busch heaped on the praise. "He's really shown what he can do, and he's done a good job being clean while doing it," Busch said of Blaney. "He can finish near the top week in and week out." -- Eric Morse
Khalid alBalooshiAlready an established winner in the Middle East, alBalooshi wasted little time proving what he could do in America. He clinched the NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series championship in 2011, his first season racing stateside. Having earned a promotion to Top Fuel, the fastest tier of drag racing cars, the rookie continued to impress in 2012. AlBalooshi failed to take a round in his first 12 outings, but his first win in a Top Fuel round was worth the wait -- coming at the expense of seven-time champ Tony Schumacher in the opening round of the Mile-High Nationals. And alBalooshi wasn't done turning heads. In Reading, Pa., he earned his first Top Fuel race win, defeating eventual 2012 Top Fuel champion Antron Brown in the final round. -- Eric Morse
Ty DillonNASCAR insiders have known about the Dillon boys, Austin and Ty, for a while. The grandsons of Richard Childress have been collecting trophies on local dirt tracks and the lower NASCAR divisions for years. Sure, 22-year-old Austin has rocketed from Truck champion to Nationwide winner and soon the Sprint Cup Series, but many of those insiders say younger brother Ty is even better. He shredded the ARCA series competition for nine wins in 22 starts and the 2011 series championship. An even more telling sign of his potential is how quickly he adapts to each of the NASCAR series he races. Dillon finished third last year in just his second career truck race, and he has three top-10s in three Nationwide starts, including an astonishing third-place finish at the tricky Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His lone truck victory came in Atlanta, and he had to pass the best in the business, Kyle Busch, to do it. "He's got the drive and spirit of a winner," said Childress from Victory Lane. "I couldn't be more proud. The way he searched for the groove to race on until he found it, he looked like a pro who's been doing it for a while." -- Eric Morse
Conor DalyAmericans typically have a rough go of it when they head to Europe on the path to Formula 1. Conor Daly, a freckled 20-year-old who wears a helmet featuring the Lucky Charms mascot draped in an American flag, plans to change all that. "There are lots of Formula 1 fans in America," he says. "I get so many tweets saying that we need an American in F1. That's what drives me." Daly, the son of a retired Irish F1 driver, may be America's best hope to return to Formula 1 glory. After two successful seasons in GP3, a feeder series to F1, Daly hopes to move to the more powerful Formula Renault 3.5 series for 2013. "Conor clearly has talent in abundance," says racing analyst Will Buxton. "He also has the personality, likability and marketability to mark him as a driver you simply cannot ignore or forget." That's rare for an American who's racing in Europe, especially after a string of Champ Car stars turned into F1 busts. "Ask any of the guys in the F1 paddock and they will tell you that they don't really care what happens in American racing," says Daly. "You have to prove yourself in Europe." So far so good. Daly has proved to be heady and consistent -- and a winner, taking his first GP3 victory at Catalunya, Spain, in front of an F1 audience. "It's good to have an American flag flying on the podium again," says Daly. -- Eric Morse
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Every year since 1998, ESPN The Magazine has recognized an elite group of emerging athletes to watch in the year ahead -- athletes we call NEXT. They are competitors not only on the cusp of stardom, but on the verge of transcending their sports. NEXT is what happens when the hype is real.