Race Weekend Central

The Underdog House: Carson Hocevar Powers Up for Top 10 in ‘The Lou’

Top Dog: Carson Hocevar

As a St. Louis Cardinals fan, NASCAR’s weekend brought my favorite mix of racing and baseball.

With former Cardinals star pitcher Adam Wainwright on hand (for a concert of all things), NASCAR’s season rounded the bases to World Wide Technology Raceway, which is just minutes away from “The Lou,” for the Enjoy Illinois 300 on Sunday (June 2).

For Carson Hocevar, WWTR has presented two feelings on opposite ends of the spectrum in his career.

Just two years ago, Hocevar was competing in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race at WWTR when he was involved in a crash that saw him get nailed in the driver’s side door. The result was a broken tibia in his right ankle, leaving him on crutches for several weeks.

Flash forward a year and Hocevar was in a complete 180-degree situation, as he made his first career Cup start in the No. 7 for Spire Motorsports. Hocevar impressed that day before his brake rotor exploded, performing better than Corey LaJoie, the normal occupant of the No. 7, who was substituting for a suspended Chase Elliott.

Now, Hocevar is basking in the glory of his second top 10 of his Cup career, as the rookie scored an eighth-place finish at the 1.25-mile track.

See also
Austin Cindric Wins at Gateway

The Portage, Mich. native shot par in stage one, starting 20th and completing the first 45 laps in 20th.

As the theme of the race was disclosed, strategy became the name of the game. The No. 77 team took a shot at it in stage two by staying out long during green flag pit stops. They got their wish on lap 113 when Josh Berry brought out the caution, trapping several cars a lap down while Hocevar ran sixth. He cashed in on the moment, earning three stage points in eighth.

That strategy continued to pay dividends in the final 100 laps, as track position played into the 21-year-old’s hands. Hocevar drove the car up into the top five, flexing his muscles to best some of the sport’s top drivers.

After another green flag pit stop cycle, Hocevar settled into the latter half of the top 10 to score his career-best result. And with Berry’s misfortunes, Hocevar is just five points shy of cracking the top 20 in points and surpassing Berry for the Rookie of the Year points lead.

In a nutshell, WWTR has summed up the young career of Hocevar up to this point. There is no denying his talent, but the ebb and flow of the sport has brought some low points on occasion. However, that is turned into a more mature Hocevar, and he continues to put the garage on notice.

How Does It Compare?

In the voice of Larry McReynolds, the notebook is still thin for us at the track many still call Gateway. This was just the third Cup race at the track, as it was added to a refreshed schedule in 2022.

Hocevar’s result is right on pace with the other two top dogs, sandwiched between a ninth-place finish by Michael McDowell last year and a seventh-place showing by Erik Jones in the inaugural event.

Notable Underdog Runs

What is fun about covering the underdogs is that you will usually find a driver who has been one of the headlining performers of the year given their equipment. This year, two have made a legitimate case for whose star is rising highest in 2024. Those drivers would be Hocevar and Justin Haley.

Haley’s surge continued with a ninth-place result, his best finish at WWTR. After finishing outside the top 20 in both stages, strategy gained Haley some track position in the final stage. He drove into the top 10 and consistently ran in the top five of those on the same strategy. And as drivers on the differing strategy pitted, it gave Haley the chance to spend several laps inside the top five.

The Winamac, Ind. native made his final stop of the day and climbed back inside the top 10 to score his second such result in the past three races.

Haley has been firing on all cylinders the past month, and as silly season begins to wind up, he is a heavily underrated driver that deserves a lot of focus.

While Front Row Motorsports teammate McDowell set a new track record en route to the pole, Todd Gilliland continues to quietly rack up solid finishes. Gilliland finished 16th after starting 35th, another race where he has vastly improved his starting position.

Gilliland was on the strategy of running a run as deep as possible in the final stage before pitting for two tires. The call worked to set him up for a 16th-place finish, his fourth consecutive finish of 17th or better and fifth in the past six races. He sits just six points shy of 20th in the standings.

Fresh off a solid showing in the Coca-Cola 600, Daniel Hemric put the finishing touches on a solid weekend for Kaulig Racing with an 18th-place finish. At one point, Hemric was mired back in the last position, but he steadily worked his way forward. After also being a beneficiary of the lap 113 caution during green flag stops, Hemric was able to hold steady inside the top 15 for a solid 12th-place stage result.

As he has done nearly all season, Hemric had a quiet but clean day, improved his car throughout the race and came home with a top 20, his fifth in the last seven races. The 33-year-old is beginning to show what made him a promising prospect in the lower series, as he is taking care of the car and bringing home results that match expectations.

However, his finish wasn’t the highest in the family this week.

Just like his Spire Motorsports teammate Hocevar, Zane Smith returned to the site of his Cup debut. Things finally broke his way as the No. 71 driver was able to secure a 19th-place showing. Smith was on the same strategy as the leaders to begin the final stage, staying on the track to run inside the top 15. A couple of close calls on the restart were bullets dodged by the rookie, and he was able to close the deal to earn his first top 20 in over two months.

Rounding out the top 20 was Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who ran inside the top 10 during stage two after staying out following the stage one conclusion. Stenhouse’s running position was like a blood pressure reading, as strategy constantly changed his status throughout the day. When the checkered flag flew, he scored his fifth top 20 of the year.

What They’re Saying

Hocevar (eighth):

Haley (ninth): “It was a really good race for the MotoRad [No.] 51 team. I’m really proud of the strategy that the Rick Ware Racing team brought. It was a fast competitive car, and we were able to stay with it all day and make positive adjustments. When the final stage started, we really started picking up speed and had a lot of pace in the car. We had some good strategy and ran out of fuel right there at the line, but still got a top-10 and now we’ve got solid momentum going to Sonoma.”

Hemric (18th): “I think we learned a lot collectively as a team today. Our Poppy Bank Chevy struggled early on, but Trent [Owens, crew chief] kept plugging away and made great changes. We caught a lucky break during stage two, which gave us great track position to start the final stage. I’m proud of how much we improved throughout the day.”

See also
Stewart-Haas Racing Pressing On Amid Looming Closure

Who’s Really the Top Dog?

Hocevar joins Jones as drivers to stand tall above the rest for a third time in 2024. Joining him on the podium are Haley and Gilliland.

Gold: Jones (3x), Hocevar (3x), Stenhouse Jr. (2x), John Hunter Nemechek (2x), LaJoie, AJ Allmendinger, Hemric, Haley, Gilliland

Silver: Gilliland (4x), Haley (2x), Allmendinger (2x), Harrison Burton, Hocevar, Smith, Ty DillonAnthony Alfredo, Nemechek, Hemric

Bronze: Nemechek (3x), Stenhouse (3x), Gilliland (2x), LaJoie (2x), Jones (2x), Kaz GralaShane van Gisbergen, Hocevar

Small Team Scheme of the Week

What makes a top 10 day better? Doing it in style. Haley had MotoRad join his No. 51 Ford for the weekend. With a fire engine red and white base, the car looked smooth from front to back.

Maybe the Cardinal red had something to do with it too.

About the author

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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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TiminPayson

Wasn’t Berry a rookie last year?

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