Race Weekend Central

Truckin’ Thursdays: How’s the Rookie Class Looking?

For much of the 2015 Camping World Truck Series season, the spotlight has been on rookie Erik Jones, who has been burning up the track and currently leads Matt Crafton and Tyler Reddick in the championship standings.

But Jones isn’t the only rookie out there on the track; he just happens to be outshining the rest of his competition by leaps and bounds.

As the season works its way down the slope toward the finale, we’re left looking at which of these rookies deserve to be back on track for a sophomore effort. So many times, we’ve seen drivers come out, compete for a rookie season, however good or bad it may be, only to see them fall off of the NASCAR radar, mostly due to sponsorship or performance woes.

Jones is pretty much a no-brainer here. With two victories and several more races that he could or should have won, the driver of the No. 4 Toyota clearly deserves another season. But in this situation, he’ll be headed off to the Xfinity Series next season with Joe Gibbs Racing and will likely be in the Sprint Cup Series by 2017.

The amount of talent shown by Jones not only in the Truck Series but also in his limited time the Xfinity and Cup series this year is proof he will be a household name for many years to come, though JGR would be wise to cautiously move him forward and ensure he has enough experience to keep his head in the tough situations. The biggest hurdle for the 19-year-old to overcome will be his own mind. With his somewhat limited experience, Jones has been plagued with emotions as he faces adversity on the track. Don’t get me wrong, we need that kind of passion in NASCAR; it just needs to be a passion that fuels the on-track performance rather than hindering it, a lesson Jones will learn with age.

Apart from Jones, one driver that has really impressed lately is Daniel Hemric. After starting off the year with a crash at Daytona and following it up with a lackluster 19th-place result, I wondered if the 24-year-old would simply be another side story who would pop up every now and then, never really threatening on race day.

Boy, how wrong I was.

Instead, Hemric has climbed from 20th in points to the top five, improving steadily each and every week. A fourth-place finish at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park marked his ninth top-10 result in the last 10 races, something that’s pretty impressive for any rookie to accomplish. While he’s led just four laps all year (all at Michigan), Hemric and his team have managed to take their truck each weekend and make adjustments to run competitively. There’s still an extra step needed to take the No. 14 Chevrolet from top-five contender to Victory Lane contender, but I have no doubt NTS Motorsports and Hemric can do so. And with results like the ones he’s posted this year, I’m excited to see what he can do next year when he has experience at every track he races at.

Meanwhile, another rookie just hit the age where he can now compete at every track on the circuit. John Hunter Nemechek made 10 starts last season and garnered praise from fans and media alike, posting six top-10 finishes in his limited schedule. The 18-year-old is now full-time in his family-owned No. 8 Chevrolet, constantly guided and coached by his father, Joe. The results haven’t quite been what they were last year (four top 10s in 10 starts), but he has already doubled the number of top fives he notched last year with a fourth at Gateway and a third at Bristol.

Nemechek is definitely a driver that I want to see more of next season. While he’s made some rookie mistakes (of course!), the driver of the No. 8 has made some impressive moves on track, besting the Cup drivers that slide in and even two-time champion Crafton, even if the results don’t show it when the checkered flag flies. Beyond the Truck Series, if Nemechek is to move his career forward in NASCAR, he’ll be forced to leave the family team for another organization in Xfinity and eventually Cup, which is certainly the plan for the young driver.

The key for Nemechek, though, will be to remain in the Truck Series for another year so he can gain experience on as many tracks on the circuit before moving on to next year. Sponsors should take notice of the untapped talent here and sign on with NEMCO Motorsports because it would sure be a shame to see Nemechek sidelined before his career ever really gets off the ground just because the money isn’t there.

Another driver piloting a family-owned truck is Spencer Gallagher. His GMS Racing team moved forward this season with a full-time effort after making nine starts last season, posting just one top-10 finish. Earlier this year, Gallagher posted a career-best finish of second at Gateway, and the sheer joy on his face told the story of a kid whose dreams have started to come true. With four top 10s already, the improvement in performance is there, even if he’s still working on just consistently competing to finish inside the top 10 rather than the win.

Throughout much of the season, I’ve had a friend that sends me a message saying Gallagher has spun/wrecked, so the race is complete. And while it’s worth a chuckle given the on-track incidents he’s been involved in, it’s important to note that there is a learning curve a rookie is expected to go through. Aside from that, not all of the incidents Gallagher has been involved with have been his fault; sometimes that’s how racing luck works.

With that said, it’s likely GMS will once again field the truck for him next season, and that’s not a surprise, but if Gallagher expects to move forward in NASCAR and eventually get to the Xfinity and Cup series, he’ll need to move away from those rookie mistakes and show more patience and better judgment on the track.

Then there’s Cameron Hayley with backing from family-owned Cabinets by Hayley, among other longtime ThorSport Racing sponsors. While the 19-year-old’s numbers this season are very similar to those Hemric has posted, he and teammate Johnny Sauter have played second and third fiddle to Crafton, something that should be happening since the latter has been atop the standings for much of the season.

Hayley, though, has been much more up and down in his season. 23rd, 14th, 11th, fifth, 14th, 21st. Those are the results he posted in the first six races this season, and if you were to draw a line graph of the finishes through 15 races, it would resemble that of a roller coaster. But one thing working against the driver of the No. 13 Toyota is that ThorSport has never really found much success fielding a third team, often barely piecing together a pit stall for that ride in recent seasons (see: Dakoda Armstrong, Todd Bodine).

But with more financial backing – even with family money – it looks like that third team is beginning to go places this year. With ThorSport, the business model has always been that of slow growth, and it’s a big part of why the team has the tenure it does in the sport. Owners Duke and Rhonda Thorson have taken baby steps in expanding the team, ensuring they don’t get in over their heads.

Much of next years plans are barely an afterthought at this point for all teams; however, the biggest thing Hayley needs to be focused on the rest of the year is more consistency. There’s no doubt he can have the financial backing he wants and needs to move forward in NASCAR, but with a tendency to overdrive in tough situations, Hayley needs to take a deep breath and lean on his veteran teammates to work with any adversity he faces, even if it’s not caused by something he or his team did.

Toward the back of the rookie field, you’ll find Ray Black Jr. and Korbin Forrister, both severely lacking speed many weeks (Forrister more than Black). Black has shown some speed this season and has definitely improved in recent weeks. In the case of both drivers, it’s a matter of smaller teams with limited resources to really improve the on-track product. Without notes on prior starts at each track and no veterans to lean on in the team, both drivers start at square one each week.

For both drivers, it’s going to take an ability to gather more money to move forward since neither one has posted results that will make sponsors step up and say they want that driver representing their company. That’s not a knock at either driver or their talent levels, just the results both have posted this year, thanks to the financial aspect of the sport. The old adage you have to spend money to make money is one that’s in play here. Sadly, the smaller dollar amounts they’re competing with won’t post the numbers that make a sponsor step up and take notice.

The bottom line here is that there is so much incredible talent in the Truck Series right now. And while the spotlight doesn’t always shine on them, several of these drivers are the future of the sport. Sponsorship hurdles aside, the future of NASCAR and the Truck Series, for that matter, is bright, and that’s certainly something to be excited about.

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Some people watch boxing. Generally they do not watch the sparring sessions boxers use to ready themselves for the real fight. What the truck series rookies look like are expendable sparring partners that nobody notices as the Cupholes ready themselves for the real race.

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