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Up to Speed: Differing Paths Fuel Josh Berry, Carson Hocevar Rookie Battle

So far during the 2024 NASCAR Cup Series season, the battle for Rookie of the Year has been pretty quiet.

Josh Berry, who took over the No. 4 from Kevin Harvick, did not score a top-10 finish until a few weeks ago at Darlington Raceway. Berry’s third-place result allowed him to pass Carson Hocevar for highest rookie in overall points.

Hocevar only has one top 10 of his own, a 10th-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway. However, he is ahead of both of his Spire Motorsports teammates in points, including fellow rookie Zane Smith and the more experienced Corey LaJoie. Following the Coca-Cola 600, Berry is 36 points ahead of Hocevar.

It seems hard to believe that Berry and Hocevar are battling each other for Rookie of the Year honors when you consider how different their paths to the Cup Series were. Berry drove late models under the tutelage of Dale Earnhardt Jr. for years, making only sporadic starts in the NASCAR Xfinity Series during the 2010s. When he finally got the opportunity to race for JR Motorsports with more regularity, Berry proved his mettle and started winning races at the national level.

Last season, he filled in as a substitute Cup driver at Hendrick Motorsports for both Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman. Yet it was an open seat with Ford at Stewart-Haas Racing that finally got Berry to NASCAR’s highest level. Beginning his full-time Cup career at age 33, he’s a bit older than most Cup rookies.

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Hocevar, on the other hand, has had a much quicker rise through NASCAR’s ranks. He was 18 years old in 2021 when he began racing for Niece Motorsports in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. Although inexperienced, he got faster with every passing race. The floodgates opened in 2023 when he scored four wins and made it to the Championship 4.

Hocevar’s speed made him a hot commodity in the NASCAR world, and he accepted a deal with Spire to skip over the Xfinity Series and go straight to Cup. At age 21, he is one of the youngest drivers in the field.

Now, after Berry’s long climb and Hocevar’s rapid ascent to the top level of NASCAR, the two drivers find themselves reaching for the same goals. Not only are they battling for Rookie of the Year, they are also trying to secure a place for themselves in the Cup Series for the long term.

That’s a big challenge for any up-and-coming driver, but it could be especially tricky for Berry and Hocevar. Neither was part of a driver development program, groomed to take over a ride with one of the sport’s premier teams. In fact, if Berry and Hocevar are still in the Cup Series five years from now, they will probably be racing for different organizations.

The length of Berry’s contract with SHR is uncertain, but right now, the health of the team itself is a bigger concern. The past few weeks have seen all kinds of rumors flying about the future of SHR. These have included the organization potentially merging with another team, selling off some of its charters and downsizing, or even selling all four charters and shutting down completely. It must be unbelievably frustrating for Berry to finally get his big break in the Cup Series and then, not even halfway through the season, find himself wondering if he will have a ride in 2025.       

As of this writing, there has been no official word about what will happen with SHR. If the team returns in some form next season, it is possible that Berry could still be one of its drivers.

Yet if SHR must choose from its current lineup, the decision will not be easy. Chase Briscoe won a race for the organization in 2022 and has the best chance at reaching the playoffs on points this season. Noah Gragson has been a positive surprise after a rough partial rookie campaign in 2023. Ryan Preece, who is the lowest of the four SHR drivers in points, feels like the most probable odd man out.

But if the team sells multiple charters, there is no telling what combination of drivers it might keep. Until a decision is made, all four should prepare for the possibility of needing a new ride in 2025.

Meanwhile, Hocevar should not have to make such an urgent decision about his future. His contract with Spire is a multi-year deal and should cover him at least through next season. But what happens after that? Spire has never been a competitive team at the Cup level, and it is only this year that the No. 77 car has been anything more than a placeholder for one of the organization’s charters. Hocevar could choose to stay with Spire for the long term, but doing so would not be the best move for his growth as a driver. Racing for Spire was a good opportunity for Hocevar to get his foot in the Cup door, but being a competitive driver in the series will require him to look elsewhere.

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Even then, it is not clear where Hocevar might land if he wants to race for a faster team. Within the Chevrolet camp, there is no more room at HMS for the foreseeable future. Trackhouse Racing already has a backlog of drivers it is trying to secure, including Smith. Other Chevy teams like Richard Childress Racing and Kaulig Racing have room to expand, but both organizations have mostly struggled this year.

Of course, Hocevar could try to make his way to a Ford or Toyota team. But both those manufacturers, especially Toyota, have development drivers who would likely get the nod for any open seats before someone like Hocevar. It simply is not clear how he fits into the Cup puzzle unless he stays with Spire.

Suffice it to say that Berry and Hocevar both face a lot of unknowns beyond 2024. However, the uncertainty of their futures is exactly why fans should pay attention to this season’s Rookie of the Year battle. Although neither driver is up front and contending for wins, both are racing to prove they belong in the Cup Series and can be fixtures in NASCAR for years to come.

Having a strong season — and even being able to claim that Rookie of the Year title — would make either driver’s unclear future a little less cloudy.   

About the author

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Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past seven years. A lifelong student of auto racing, Bryan is a published author and automotive historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southern Kentucky.

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Charlie

They both are very talented and seem to represent sponsors well. They worked hard to get to Cup. Let’s hope it works out. I am not a big fan of the “driver development” program.
Dale Earnhardt or David Pearson along with the real drivers of the past would have never made it based on the criteria they use.

DoninAjax

Don’t forget Harry Gant who got his best ride in his late FORTIES!

BTW what happened with the comment section? Was it just my computer? It is OK now.

Echo

I don’t see anything wrong with the comment section. Berry better win rookie of the year cause it’s his last year in Cup. Preece is most likely done in cup too. I still would love to know what ty Dillons salary is lmao I see Austin Dillon is 31st in points and I know he has a big salary from Grandpa. Busch is showing RCR cars are crap. Maybe paying Austin so much money is the reason Grandpa had to sell his beautiful home and ranch outside of Gardner Mt and northern entrance of Yellowstone. Id rather have the ranch than Austin. But Austin doesn’t feel bad about taking the money.

DoninAjax

It must have been mine. I’ve noticed the computer acting up when it is waiting for a reboot for upgrades.

Red Green

Don’t forget Dick Trickle ROY in 1989 at age 48.

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