Race Weekend Central

Fire on Fridays: NASCAR Prospects Ready to Fill Recently Vacated Seats

NASCAR Silly Season has been a bit messy in the last week or two, and that’s not just referring to 2023.

Amid the news of Noah Gragson moving to Petty GMS Motorsports in the NASCAR Cup Series next year and Kyle Busch‘s contract for 2023 remaining up in the air, two announcements that made less waves but were interesting nonetheless came from the NASCAR Xfinity and Camping World Truck series.

First, after Kris Wright was found to be off the Truck entry list at Richmond Raceway for Niece Motorsports, Niece announced it and Wright had parted ways for the remainder of the season.

Then, BJ McLeod Motorsports and Josh Williams mutually agreed to end Williams’ tenure in its Xfinity cars, starting with next weekend’s event at Watkins Glen International.

Both drivers were initially announced for full seasons and had indeed at least attempted every race on their respective series’ schedules up to this week. Wright, in Niece’s No. 44, had qualified for all 17 contests, earning a best finish of 15th at Circuit of the Americas. Williams, meanwhile, competed in 17 of the 21 Xfinity races, mostly for BJMM’s No. 78 but occasionally in its No. 5, a 17th-place finish at Road America his best result. He failed to qualify for the other four races.

On paper, both drivers’ departures make sense, mostly because of their aforementioned top finishes. Williams has taken a step back in 2022 after eight top 10s in three full-time seasons driving for DGM Racing. Wright hasn’t exactly fared any worse than his now-former Niece teammates not named Carson Hocevar, but an average finish of 25.5 for a driver who’s been in better equipment in the past (he made multiple Xfinity starts last year for Sam Hunt Racing and has also driven for GMS Racing) begs the question of why one should even finish out the season if other opportunities are afoot.

Such as, for example, an open seat in Xfinity at BJMM. Maybe you’ve read about it.

Wright and Williams join Tate Fogleman (On Point Motorsports in Trucks) and Stefan Parsons (BJMM in Xfinity, though he’ll still race for it occasionally) as previously full-time drivers who’ve moved on from their teams semi-recently. Then there are Brandon Brown and Jade Buford, who have gone from full time in Xfinity to either part time (Buford) or at least out of their usual ride full time (Brown), in both cases opening up races in the Nos. 68 and 48 for Brandonbilt Motorsports and Big Machine Racing Team, respectively.

With qualifying back on the table in 2022 and a few teams seeking drivers to fill out the season (while others have shown willingness to bring out an extra car or truck when funding presents itself), here are a few drivers who should get either their first shot or another shot before season’s end in an upper series.

See also
Ty Gibbs Latest ARCA Champion Experiencing NASCAR Success

Sheldon Creed (Cup)

Hell, Austin Hill got his shot, why not Sheldon Creed? With Richard Childress Racing’s future murky given Tyler Reddick‘s impending departure after 2023, the team needs to figure out its next steps, and if it’ll roll out the No. 33 for Hill, Creed might as well be on the table as well. Granted, his rookie Xfinity season has underwhelmed compared to Hill (two top fives and eight top 10s vs. Hill’s two wins, nine top fives and 14 top 10s), but Creed’s first full Truck season was similarly promising-but-not-exceptional, and he followed it up with a title the next year. Basically, if the funding can be found, there’s little hurt in seeing what he can do in a Next Gen car.

Hailie Deegan (Xfinity)

It’s probably time to label Hailie Deegan a Truck bust after nearly two full-time seasons of subpar results for David Gilliland Racing. That doesn’t mean she should be given up on just yet. Remember, for example, that Harrison Burton never won a Truck race, got promoted to Xfinity and ended up with four wins, 25 top fives and 44 top 10s in two full-time seasons. Point is, sometimes driving a car vs. a truck can suit different driving styles and comforts. Deegan may run an Xfinity car and continue to struggle, but since it seems Ford is still high on her, giving her a chance in Stewart-Haas Racing-affiliated equipment (BJMM and SS-Green Light Racing seem to still have some slots to fill before the end of the year), it’s worth the experiment.

Jake Drew (Truck)

He’s yet another Sunrise Ford Racing success story, and since he’s won each of the last three ARCA Menards Series West races, it’s clear there’s something to Jake Drew as he excels in his sophomore season in the series. Not sure where he slots in — maybe fellow Ford team DGR, if it’s willing to bring out the No. 54 at Phoenix while Drew competes for a West championship the same weekend? Unclear, but the ARCA West field has been no slouch this year especially from a car count perspective (compared to its East Coast counterpart), so winning three races indicates there’s something there.

Daniel Dye (Truck)

Why on earth are we still having this conversation? OK, fine, Daniel Dye hasn’t won an ARCA Menards Series race this year, and Nick Sanchez seems to have become the title favorite in recent weeks. But Dye’s still only nine points behind entering next weekend’s doubleheader, and he drives for GMS, a team that at varying points in its existence has fielded double the amount of trucks it’s brought out in 2022, with just the Nos. 23 and 24 of Grant Enfinger and Jack Wood, respectively, taking the track in Trucks this year. Dye should get a look at the remaining short track, Bristol Motor Speedway, or perhaps Phoenix Raceway. Or maybe the during-the-season changes aren’t done yet and Wood, who hasn’t finished better than 13th this year, won’t finish out the year. Having Dye run a truck seems like the biggest no-brainer of the group, though.

Christian Eckes (Xfinity)

No Xfinity start yet for Christian Eckes despite having been in the Truck Series for five full- or part-time seasons. Maybe just one win in 62 starts has something to do with that, though falling somewhat out of favor in the Toyota camp after getting the boot from Kyle Busch Motorsports’ No. 18 for Chandler Smith probably didn’t help matters, either. Speaking of Smith, though — given Sam Hunt Racing’s willingness to field Toyota prospects like him and Connor Mosack, perhaps Eckes could get his own tryout before the end of 2022, just to see what he brings to the table.

Jake Finch (Truck)

A rumor in the last year or so had Phoenix Racing returning to NASCAR’s national series, particularly Trucks. Hasn’t happened yet, but the team has resurfaced in the ARCA Menards Series East and West divisions via owner James Finch’s son Jake Finch. The 17-year-old is off to a good start, nearly winning at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, finishing second after starting on the pole. If Phoenix still has Truck ambitions, does Finch pop up before the end of 2022? No reason to rush him per se, but since it’s a family-owned team and the funding is in theory there, it doesn’t hurt, either.

Tanner Gray (Xfinity)

Similar to Deegan, her DGR teammate Tanner Gray may be ready for an Xfinity look, too. Here’s the thought: in nearly three full-time Truck seasons, Gray’s been unable to reach victory lane and is more of an occasional top five threat than someone who’s probably ever going to challenge for a series title. But there’s clearly talent in the Gray bloodline when it comes to stock car racing, with younger brother Taylor Gray having a strong year in ARCA and its East and West counterparts. Perhaps the Grays are better suited to cars than trucks. It’s time to see what the older Gray can do at the next level, especially lest he gets left in the dust by his brother once he turns 18 and can run a full Truck schedule, if his results so far are any indication.

Carson Hocevar (Xfinity)

Hocevar’s tenure with Niece in the Truck Series has been an eye opener, with his performance not far off Cup title hopeful Ross Chastain when he ran full time for the team. Despite not yet visiting victory lane, being compared to Chastain has to count for something, especially since he’s just 19 years old. He’s been rumored to have bigger-name suitors, but even if he can only snag a mid-tier team’s entry before the end of 2022 in Xfinity, so what? Parker Retzlaff, for example, has been stout in RSS Racing equipment as a newcomer to the series. Slot Hocevar in a car like that and you’d probably see the same result, if not better.

Brandon Jones (Xfinity)

Feels like this comes up every year a column like this runs, but it remains true. Why haven’t we seen Brandon Jones in a Cup car yet? He’s never been too flashy in Xfinity equipment, but he’ll still win from time to time, and he brings the sponsorship dollars necessary to keep racking up starts for Joe Gibbs Racing. There used to be a clearer path for Toyota prospects when Gaunt Brothers Racing was in the fold; nowadays, there isn’t much to speak of outside of Team Hezeberg’s No. 26 it’s fielded for Daniil Kvyat (its other entry, the No. 27, has been a Ford). He reminds you a little of previous Menards-backed driver Paul Menard: good in lower series, probably never going to rattle off a bunch of Cup wins but serviceable. If JGR and Toyota can make it work, though, there’s really no downside in giving Jones a shot.

Landen Lewis (Truck)

When Landen Lewis joined Bill McAnally Racing for the remainder of the ARCA West season, his path to the Truck level became a whole lot clearer. One of ARCA’s hottest prospects, Lewis won at DuQuoin State Fairgrounds on dirt last year in ARCA for Rette Jones Racing and followed it up with an ARCA West victory earlier this year for Cook Racing Technologies. With BMR, he’s got an in with McAnally-Hilgemann Racing, which expanded to two full-time entries in Trucks this year and has even produced a third for Jake Garcia in a limited schedule. Had Lewis’ move to BMR happened prior to the Truck Series’ visit to Knoxville Raceway, it would have been an easy fit to see him in the No. 35. Now, one of the races the 16-year-old Lewis could actually run will also be contested by Garcia (Bristol). But if MHR is filling to bring out a fourth truck at Bristol or the No. 35 at Phoenix, it may be a gamble worth making, given Lewis’ strong start.

Jesse Love (Truck)

Feels like we’ve been talking about Jesse Love as a NASCAR prospect for years, and yet, the two-time ARCA West champion still hasn’t run a national series race. Part of that is due to age; Love turned 17 in January and hasn’t even been able to run the full main-series ARCA schedule, let alone most of the Truck races this year. To boot, he also moved in the offseason from competing for both BMR and Venturini to just Venturini this year, and there isn’t a direct ARCA-to-Truck pipeline there in name like there is between BMR and MHR. Still, with three top fives and five top 10s in seven ARCA starts this year, Love continues to show potential, even if the wins haven’t come like in 2020 and 2021 in West. He’s another driver who there’s no reason to rush, but it’d also be odd to mention certain drivers on this list while omitting him, so here he is.

See also
From NHRA to NASCAR: Tanner Gray Looking to Find Footing in Truck Series

Layne Riggs (Truck)

First off, yes, Layne Riggs already has a Truck start under his belt thanks to his Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park debut this summer. And he’s back in a truck this weekend at Richmond. But if IRP was any indication (and assuming he doesn’t do anything at Richmond to counteract his IRP debut), we need to be seeing much more of Riggs before the end of the year. Riggs finished seventh in a second Halmar Friesen Racing truck — and yeah, it’s HFR, Stewart Friesen‘s won a race this year and is fourth in points, no big, right? Sure, but HFR’s No. 62 best finish came with Riggs; its only other top 10, with Todd Bodine earlier this year, was 10th, and the former series champion’s average finish in the truck was 21.2. He’s past his prime, certainly, but there has to be something to Riggs rattling off a near-top five his first time out. Let’s see what he can do on bigger tracks.

Zane Smith (Cup)

Due to Chris Buescher‘s positive COVID-19 test, Zane Smith got the call for RFK Racing’s No. 17 in early June at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway. It wasn’t a half-bad debut for the Truck regular, who finished 17th. At minimum, it showed that Smith’s worth a look for his main team, Front Row Motorsports, on the Cup level; if he can wheel a Cup car from RFK to a solid run in his first start, see what he can do with FRM alongside Michael McDowell and Todd Gilliland (especially if either departs the team after this year). It hasn’t appeared in 2022, but FRM’s fielded an extra car before, most recently the No. 36 in the 2021 Daytona 500 for David Ragan.

Kyle Weatherman (Cup)

Kyle Weatherman has been turning heads in his limited Xfinity schedule this year, first via DGM and more recently as a fill-in for Jesse Iwuji in the No. 34, nabbing two top 10s and an average finish of 22.8. Word is the Jesse Iwuji Motorsports equipment is better than it sometimes lets on, so perhaps Weatherman is just wheeling it to its expected results each week. Or maybe there’s more to it, and Weatherman’s putting in a herculean effort by punching above his weight to rattle off semi-regular top 20s. Either way, the NASCAR world has taken notice, with McDowell most recently tweeting congratulatory and encouraging words. Weatherman’s only Cup look came via 11 starts between 2017 and 2019 for underfunded organizations. It’d be nice to see what he can do in the present day (even if it’s still for a have-not team) with more experience under his belt.

About the author

Rutherford is the managing editor of Frontstretch, a position he gained in 2015 after serving on the editing staff for two years. At his day job, he's a journalist covering music and rock charts at Billboard. He lives in New York City, but his heart is in Ohio -- you know, like that Hawthorne Heights song.

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