The big boys took this weekend off to prepare for the second half of the summer, but for a handful of drivers looking to fill their shoes someday, downtime is simply not an option. They’re all fighting to hold a job in this shrinking market, with one bad move sending them to the sidelines: just ask Jacques Villeneuve, fighting to make a Sprint Cup comeback this week, who was canned in Cup after just one race.
But hidden amongst the intense competition – and the Cup interlopers taking 80% of their spots – are a few immensely talented drivers showing their worth. Let’s take a moment to honor their accomplishments, plotting out their future strategy in the latest edition of Who’s Hot/Who’s Not.
Austin Dillon: Three poles in the last four races have this Truck Series rookie coming up to speed on qualifying day rather quickly. But it’s during the race where he’s come so far, a long way from starting an accident at Daytona this February without even completing a single lap. Four straight top-10 finishes are highlighted by an Iowa victory, leaving him seventh in points and a darkhorse championship candidate. Perhaps the best-looking prospect in any of NASCAR’s top-three divisions right now.
Aric Almirola: Long gone are the days where this youngster was reduced to just a trivia question. Now, that one questionable Nationwide win back in the day has been replaced by two in just the last six races on the Truck side. Within striking distance of Todd Bodine, Almirola is second in the standings and becoming a darkhorse threat for the championship. Rumor has it that leaves Cup owners calling him, too, although all the man’s got to show for it is a nice certificate framed by Chad Knaus showing he finished “Jimmie Johnson Camp” and would be certified to cover for a baby in a time of crisis.
Matt Crafton: It took a while, but back-to-back top-fives for the first time all season has Crafton showing some signs of life. Only problem is at eighth in the standings, there’s likely too many people and points to overcome in order to make a title run.
Brian Scott: Another rookie who’s starting to “get it,” with top-10 finishes the last two weeks. Considering the strength of Braun equipment, he’s on the short list of Nationwide-only drivers to win a race before the year is out.
Jason Leffler: On a new crew chief and armed with just two top-five finishes, it’s safe to say it’s not going to be Leffler’s year in Nationwide. The bigger question is whether he’ll wind up top-5 in the standings – and whether that’ll be enough for a car owner like Braun who expects a top-level performance from his people.
Ron Hornaday Jr.: Hard to believe last year’s Truck champion remains winless through 11 races this season. With six top-10 results, it hasn’t been all bad but four runs of 25th or worse will ultimately be the culprit in leaving him out of the title discussion.
Justin Lofton: The rookie hasn’t had a top-15 finish since Dover in mid-May. Not exactly the way to impress your dad to pay to move you up a series.
Matt DiBenedetto: Struggling to justify the selection as Joe Gibbs’s future talent when he can’t bring it home in one piece. Still has yet to score a top-five performance this year in three starts.