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May 17, 2017

Hailie Deegan follows path to NASCAR blazed by Jimmie Johnson

Hailie Deegan
NEW SMYRNA BEACH, FL - OCTOBER 18: Hailie Deegan at the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Developmental Program at New Smyrna Speedway on October 18, 2016 in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. (Photo by Brian Cleary/NASCAR via Getty Images)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — At 15, Hailie Deegan is the youngest member of the 2017-18 NASCAR Next driver class.

She’s also the only female in the group of nine.

No pressure, right?

“On the track, no one really knows I’m I girl,” Deegan said on Wednesday during a luncheon for this latest NASCAR Next class at 204 North Tryon in Uptown Charlotte. “No one really knows you’re a girl until you come out (of the car). I think I’ve proven myself as another driver who is fast.”

Deegan certainly has the bloodlines. Her father is action sports pioneer Brian Deegan, a Monster Energy athlete and the most successful X Games competitor in the history of that event. Hailie followed her father’s career path into Freestyle Motocross (FMX) and off-road trucks, an arc that also resembles Jimmie Johnson’s early days in motorsports.

“Jimmie Johnson came from the same sort of racing I did,” Hailie said. “The only difference is that I’m a girl.”

But the aspirations are the same for the Temecula, California, native, who last year became the first female driver to post a podium finish in the Lucas Oil Off Road Series.

“I’d love to be a seven-time champion,” she said.

To prepare for her transition to NASCAR racing on oval tracks, Hailie ran Legends Cars last year at venues as far-flung as Irwindale, California, and Charlotte Motor Speedway. In 2016 she raced in the full Summer Shootout schedule at Charlotte.

“Coming in, I started racing oval last year in a Legends Car, and if you can drive a Legends Car, you can drive just about anything there is,” Deegan said. “Driving Legends Cars, I was about mid-front pack, but the ability it gave me to drive stock cars and late models was a whole different scenario.”

Hailie is a new addition to a talented NASCAR Next class that also features some familiar faces. Harrison Burton, son of former Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver and NBC Sports analyst Jeff Burton, returns for another season in the K&N Pro Series East.

RELATED: Meet the NASCAR Next Class of 2017-18

Fellow 16-year-old Todd Gilliland, son of former Cup driver and current team owner David Gilliland, already has accumulated 12 K&N Pro Series victories in 30 starts and last year became the youngest NASCAR national or touring series champion when he claimed the K&N Pro Series West title.

Riley Herbst, 18, accumulated seven top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 14 starts during his rookie season in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West last year. NASCAR Drive for Diversity product Chase Cabre won poles in the twin K&N events at South Boston and finished fourth at the Virginia short track while driving for Rev Racing.

Ty Majeski, 22, one of the top Super Late Model drivers in the United States, finished third in the national standings in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series. Majeski will make his NASCAR XFINITY Series debut at Iowa Speedway on June 24.

Zane Smith, 17, of Huntington Beach, California, turned heads when he ran second to Cup driver Chase Elliott in the 2015 Snowball Derby – much as NASCAR Next alumnus and current Cup Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Erik Jones did when he beat Kyle Busch in the 2012 running of that same event.

WATCH: Blaney introduces this NASCAR Next class

Chase Purdy, Gilliland’s teammate in the NASCAR K&N ranks, won both the rookie of the year title and track championship in the weekly racing series at Greenville Pickens Speedway. Though the 2016 NASCAR Whelen All-American rookie of the year is a Meridian, Mississippi, native, he’s an ardent Alabama football fan.

Purdy, who is running for rookie of the year in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East this year, has had his eye on the NASCAR Next program for several years.

“To finally be in it is really cool,” Purdy said. “It’s a real honor.”

Cayden Lapcevich, from Grimsby, Ontario, is the third Canadian driver to gain entry into the NASCAR Next program. And like Hailie Deegan, he comes from a family of racers. Cayden’s father, Jeff Lapcevich, has 63 starts to his credit in the NASCAR Pinty’s Series and serves as his son’s crew chief.

Cayden, 17, followed in his father’s footsteps, winning three times and becoming the youngest NASCAR Pinty’s Series champion in 2016.

“I think NASCAR Next is really going to help open up some doors,” Cayden said. “I think it will lead us down to the states here in the next couple of years, hopefully. NASCAR’s always been the path I wanted to take and the path I’m willing to take to try to make it to the finish.”

All Lapcevich and the rest of the NASCAR Next class have to do is scan an entry list in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series – and see the names of Next alums Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez – to know that reaching that finish line is well within the realm of possibility.