Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Carson Hocevar Stands Tall in Phoenix

Top Dog: Carson Hocevar

As NASCAR Raceday was rolling prior to the Shriners Children’s 500 at Phoenix Raceway (March 10), several drivers were leaving the drivers’ meeting and merged onto the red carpet.

If you watched this segment, which featured the broadcast trio of Chris Myers, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer, you may have seen one driver easily hover above all other people standing there.

That was none other than Carson Hocevar, who stands at nearly 6 feet 4 inches, a staggering height for a NASCAR driver. Figuratively, that could be used to describe his positioning among the underdogs in Phoenix, as he topped all others in 15th.

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Christopher Bell Dominant in the Desert, Wins at Phoenix

For the second week in a row, Hocevar landed a top-10 starting spot. In his pre-race interview, Hocevar gleamed with enthusiasm, describing the No. 77 team’s early season speed as “ahead of schedule,” and he put that on full display off the bat.

The momentum quickly carried into the race, as Hocevar stood firm inside the top 10 for much of stage one before sliding back to 15th by stage end.

However, his race was nearly doomed during the stage break, as he was forced to make a second stop with a loose wheel. The hiccup caused him to fall as many as two laps down, and he finished the stage in 32nd.

Fortunately for the rookie, a relatively calm race saw several cautions to open the final frame, allowing Hocevar to get back on the lead lap. He stormed back through the field from there to match his season-high finish of 15th through four races.

The Portage, Mich. native’s speed and raw talent has been evident through the first four races. His three consecutive top-20 finishes have all come in the face of adversity. A late crash at Atlanta Motor Speedway pushed him back to 19th. At Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he overcame a flat tire to finish 15th, leading into another recovery at Phoenix.

When issues avoid him in races going forward, keep a close eye on the No. 77.

And while we’re only four races into 2024, don’t look now, but Hocevar leads the Rookie of the Year Standings by 11 points.

How Does it Compare?

Matched up against recent runs by underdogs, Hocevar’s top 15 wasn’t the best finish in recent history, but it was comparable.

Michael McDowell finished ninth in the season finale this past November. McDowell also topped the underdogs in the 2023 spring race in 13th. In 2022, AJ Allmendinger landed a 12th-place result in the fall race, while Ross Chastain took the world by storm in his then-new ride with Trackhouse Racing by finishing second.

See also
Only Yesterday: Jeff Gordon Reaches a Milestone in the Desert

Notable Underdog Runs

Outside of Hocevar, the results were pretty dry in the desert for the underdogs. Todd Gilliland was a positive from the race, earning a season-high finish of 17th. Notably, Gilliland was the only non-Toyota driver to lead laps during the event, tallying 14 after staying out long during green flag pit stops in stage two. The 23-year-old also stayed out following a caution on lap 218 to restart inside the top five, and he spent several laps inside the top 10 before fading on older tires.

Hocevar and Gilliland were the only underdogs inside the top 20, and with the exception of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 21st and Justin Haley in 24th, most of the others incurred issues during the event.

Derek Kraus‘ second Cup start was the polar opposite of his relatively smooth debut at Las Vegas. He brought out the first caution on lap 7 after spinning on the exit of turn 2, leading to both Austin Cindric and Austin Dillon making contact and significantly damaging their cars (not a good day to be named Austin in NASCAR).

That was only the beginning of Kraus’ issues, as he was swallowed up in the largest crash of the day on lap 206. Shortly after a restart, John Hunter Nemechek ran into the back of Joey Logano in turn 1, causing Logano to spin up the track. He landed right in the lap of both Kraus and Corey LaJoie, ending both of their days. LaJoie was scored in 33rd while Kraus was credited with 35th.

Erik Jones was among the drivers to be the most disappointed after a hot start. Earning his best starting spot in two years with a fourth-place qualifying effort, Jones challenged for the lead at one point in the early going. He ran inside the top five the entire first stage and scored seven points in fourth.

During the stage break, a slow decline over the course of the race commenced with a slow pit stop that lost him six spots on pit road. The Byron, Mich. native was unable to capture his early-race magic from there. After finishing stage two in 13th, his day took a turn for the worse with 92 laps remaining.

See also
Erik Jones Frustrated with Chase Briscoe After Late-Race Phoenix Tangle

On a restart, Jones was put on the outside of a four-wide battle, causing him to slap the wall. The contact bent the toe link, causing Jones to lose pace and finish 31st, seven laps down. After the race, he expressed frustration with Chase Briscoe, who was a part of the four-wide battle that ended with Jones’ downfall.

What They’re Saying

Daniel Hemric (28th): “Not the best day for us in Phoenix. We couldn’t quite get the balance right on our No. 31 Poppy Bank Chevy, and then we put ourselves into a little bit of a hole with a loose wheel that we couldn’t bounce back from. We will learn from today and hopefully come back stronger in the fall.” (via Kaulig Racing’s race recap)

LaJoie (33rd):

Kraus (35th):

Underdog Bracket Challenge

While the medal count will continue to be tracked, things will look a little different the next couple of weeks. Inspired by the upcoming NCAA Tournament, as well as Denny Hamlin‘s summer bracket challenge a year ago, I bring you the inaugural Underdog Bracket Challenge!

Beginning next weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, there will be a race-by-race bracket challenge to determine the ultimate champion. Seeding will be based on 2023 owner points, with new entries earning the lowest seeds. The top four seeds will receive byes to begin the first round. Here’s how the match-ups will look at Bristol:

Byes: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kaulig Racing’s No. 16, Kaulig’s No. 31, Corey LaJoie

(5) Erik Jones vs. (12) Zane Smith

(6) Todd Gilliland vs. (11) Justin Haley

(7) Harrison Burton vs. (10) Rick Ware Racing’s No. 15

(8) John Hunter Nemechek vs. (9) Carson Hocevar

This will be a single-elimination bracket, concluding at Martinsville Speedway.

Small Team Scheme of the Week

The familiar orange and black colors of Poppy Bank returned to Hemric’s No. 31 in Phoenix. It was also at Phoenix where Poppy Bank sponsored Hemric as he brought home the Xfinity Series championship in 2021 (as well as his only career NASCAR win).

While it was a simple look, the color scheme blended well, making for a hot scheme in the desert. Unfortunately, a loose wheel derailed Hemric’s day, relegating him to 28th and snapping his three-race top 20 streak.

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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John

Hocevar has been spectacular since stepping foot in a Cup car. After getting a lap down during pit stops, He rebounded to take another top 20 spot after qualifying in the top 10. With all of his mistakes and unforced errors in Truck, who’d have thought he would have incredible composure in Cup? A great personality on an up and coming team, just the tonic the series needs

Brian

Dear author you know the Gilliland’s teammate the 34 car finished inside the top 10 right.
This would make him the underdog due to being the same team as the 38.

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