Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Playoff Eliminations, Rising Star Headline Bristol

Top Dog: Carson Hocevar

OK, yes, based on the tradition of this column, Michael McDowell and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were the highest finishing underdogs in the Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway (Sept. 16). Don’t worry, we will get to them later.

However, if you do not know the name Carson Hocevar, now is a good time to get familiar with him.

As recently as four to five months ago, Hocevar’s on-track persona was being compared to the over-aggression of Ross Chastain at times. Head-scratching incidents, questions of discipline and fresh rivalries surrounded him.

Now, Hocevar looks like one of the most promising young prospects in the garage, and possibly at the very top of the list.

In May, the 20-year-old started out by grabbing consecutive top 10s in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in just his second and third starts. As a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series regular, he’s scored three wins this season and has established himself as one of the title favorites. And in Cup, he followed up an impressive debut with Spire Motorsports at Gateway by going three-for-three in top 20s for Legacy Motor Club’s No. 42 car, a car with just three such results in the first 26 races.

Hocevar continued to put the garage on notice with an 11th-place finish at Bristol. What made that overly impressive was the fact that it was a 500-lap race on one of NASCAR’s most physical tracks, not to mention that there were few cautions and just 10 cars finished on the lead lap.

With so much attention narrowed on the playoff battle, Hocevar inserted himself into the story. Perhaps the most notable moment came in stage two when the teal No. 42 cracked the top five and finished stage two in fifth.

If you were waiting for Hocevar to fade out of the picture, you are still waiting. He kept the car inside the top 10 for most of the final stage before finally relinquishing 10th to Stenhouse.

To make things even more impressive, it was discovered that Hocevar had a loose wheel after the race. That’s no small feat at any track, let alone Bristol.

Not only was the result Hocevar’s best in four attempts, but it was also the highest finish for the No. 42 this season; it also marked the best finish for the car since Ty Dillon finished 10th in the 2022 Bristol Dirt Race.

Hocevar’s plans for 2024 have not yet been revealed, with the Portage, Mich., native saying that he knows his plans for next season. Wherever he lands, it continues to look like it will be a victory for that team.

Underdog Playoff Update

Both Stenhouse and McDowell were good at Bristol. Unfortunately, good was not good enough.

Stenhouse finished 10th at his favorite racetrack, giving him eight top 10s on the year, two away from a career high. But with Stenhouse entering Bristol 22 points below the cut, he needed a win to advance after failing to score points in the first two stages. That didn’t happen.

“We executed in the race really well, but just didn’t execute on Saturday good enough to put us starting up front and get some stage points early,” Stenhouse said. “That’s kind of where we’ve been lacking, I would say most of the year — just with qualifying and being able to set ourselves up for the beginning stages of the race.

“I’m proud of the effort and another top-10 finish. Our No. 47 Scott Brand Camaro was really fast and really good there at the end when I needed it to be. We went as far forward as we could, but it just wasn’t enough. We’ll keep learning and trying coming back better next year.”

See also
No Repeat for Joey Logano, No Happy Ending for Kevin Harvick

Like most short track races in 2023, track position was the name of the game. A 25th-place qualifying effort immediately put him behind, and he was never able to challenge for the lead. Still, there is plenty for the 35-year-old to be proud of in making the postseason for the first time in six years.

Afterward, despite being eliminated, he still made some people happy.

McDowell’s race could symbolize his growth as a driver. In 23 prior Bristol starts, McDowell had just one top 10. This time, we saw a different McDowell.

Sitting 40 points below the cut line, it was practically a win or go home for McDowell’s hopes of advancing in the playoffs. He kicked it off by qualifying fourth, backing it up in stage one by staying within striking distance of leaders Christopher Bell and Denny Hamlin.

That set the tone for his best performance in Thunder Valley, as the No. 34 hovered around the top five for a majority of the event. Had a few more cautions waved or more playoff drivers suffered issues, there was a legitimate shot McDowell could point his way through.

Unfortunately, those breaks never came, and McDowell joined Stenhouse in playoff elimination by finishing sixth. Yet, just like Stenhouse, there is so much more to relish for the little team that could.

McDowell’s second playoff appearance was a factor of execution and grit, rightfully getting him into the postseason. In 2022 and 2023 together, the Phoenix, Ariz. native has accrued 19 top 10s, more than in his prior 14 seasons (part-time and full-time) combined.

Who Impressed

More than a handful of drivers wavered up and down the scoring pylon throughout the night. For Todd Gilliland, his quiet night was one of consistency. The sophomore driver ran inside the top 20 for nearly the entire race, cracking the top 15 on various occasions. The only blip in the night was slight contact with Martin Truex Jr. after Ryan Blaney tagged the wall during the final stage. No harm, no foul occurred, and Gilliland drove on to finish 16th, his 13th top 20 of the season.

See also
Bubba Wallace, Martin Truex Jr. Escape Chaotic Bristol, Advance in Playoffs

The scorecard might show that Corey LaJoie finished 25th, but it doesn’t do his night justice. LaJoie spent the first stage inside the top 10 after a stellar qualifying run. When several of the leaders pitted following a lap 69 caution, the Spire Motorsports driver stayed out and assumed the lead. LaJoie was no pushover, either. He beat Bubba Wallace on the restart and held the lead for 48 laps, a career high and more than half of the laps he had led in his career. He finished the stage in second after Bell was able to get by.

Unfortunately, what was crystallizing to be a strong night went awry on lap 262 when the No. 7 got loose, spun into the inside wall, and slid back into traffic, collecting four cars. LaJoie would continue and finish three laps down.

What They’re Saying

McDowell (sixth):

Hocevar (11th):

AJ Allmendinger (30th): “It was a long night for our No. 16 team. We struggled early with handling and definitely hurt the speed of the car after we hit the wall. I’m proud of my guys for their effort all night but we’re disappointed with the result.”

Small Team Scheme of the Week

“Do the Dew” is back! That’s right, the iconic Mountain Dew colors were back on a Cup car for the first time since 2020 thanks to Kaulig Racing and Food City. The soda brand was featured on Justin Haley‘s No. 31, and it did not disappoint. This was one of my favorite Mountain Dew schemes of all time and one of the best of the year. Hopefully, we will see more of them in the near future.

About the author

Luken Glover joined the Frontstretch team in 2020 as a contributor, furthering a love for racing that traces back to his earliest memories. Glover inherited his passion for racing from his grandfather, who used to help former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey in his Richmond, Va. garage. A 2023 graduate from the University of the Cumberlands, Glover is the author of "The Underdog House," contributes to commentary pieces, and does occasional at-track reporting. Additionally, Glover enjoys working in ministry, coaching basketball, playing sports, and karting.

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Kevin in SoCal

Go Carson! I think I found my new favorite driver after Kevin Harvick retires.

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