There’s a very real possibility that this weekend will be the last time we’ll see a few familiar drivers in NASCAR this season.
Again, key word: possibility. With eight weeks left in the season following this weekend’s events at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Kentucky Speedway, there’s still plenty of time for schedules to change, lineups to flip, last-minute deals to fall into place.
But on the other hand, this weekend’s XFINITY Series race in particular may represent the final chance for multiple drivers to make their presences known in NASCAR’s upper echelon.
In the cases of these drivers, Kentucky’s the final announced date on their schedule in the Sprint Cup, XFINITY or Camping World Truck series in 2016. Saturday night (Sept. 24), 40 drivers will take to the track for the final standalone XFINITY race of 2016, meaning that from here on out, each event will be contested with the presence of the Cup Series in the garage next door, bringing with them a glut of Cup regulars dipping down to the series below them.
That’s part of the reason why this weekend’s entry list is so diverse. With the exception of Ryan Blaney, who will attempt double duty by running Sunday’s Cup race at New Hampshire in addition to a start in Team Penske’s No. 22 on Saturday, the other 40 currently entered have just one, maybe two major races on their radars, the latter in the case of anyone also driving in the ARCA Racing Series event at the track on Friday.
Whose race Saturday night could very well be their last for NASCAR viewers this season?
Well, Sam Hornish, Jr. certainly comes to mind. Hornish, a former Indianapolis 500 champion and full-time Cup driver in the past, has seen limited action in 2016, driving three races so far for Richard Childress Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing. This weekend, he tackles RCR’s No. 2 for what’s his final scheduled start of the year.
Bear in mind that this is likely Hornish’s last chance to make an impression on the sport’s top teams for 2017, if he’s still interested in NASCAR in a full-time capacity. In 2016, he’s certainly shown he still has the drive to compete; after all, his first start of the year, coming for Gibbs in the No. 18 at Iowa Speedway, resulted in a win. Yeah, sure, it’s the No. 18, one of the series’ more unstoppable teams right now. But being out of a car for that long and then coming back with a team for which he didn’t even expect to drive — Hornish was a replacement driver for that race — has to count for something.
Then there’s Josh Berry. Berry, who’s cut his teeth in late model racing and has driven that type of racecar for JR Motorsports, drives the team’s No. 88 in the second of two scheduled races for him in the series this year. It’s an important shot for Berry, who has two starts in 2016 with a ninth-place showing at Iowa but only drives one of the series’ top rides once or twice a year — and if he wants more, scoring even better results are a must.
This might not be Berry’s last chance, though. In addition to his two scheduled races with JR Motorsports, he’s driven a bonus race for Obaika Racing (Darlington Raceway, 27th) and even ran for Contreras Motorsports in the Truck Series earlier this month, finishing 13th in his series debut. Don’t be surprised if he pops up unexpectedly before (or at!) Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Hornish and Berry are certainly the two drivers with the most to gain — and, arguably, lose — this weekend. After all, they’re driving among the best cars in the series and have the most expected of them Saturday night, especially Hornish as a past series winner, former full-time Cup driver and multi-time winner in other elite racing series.
Of course, for other similar stories, keep an eye on drivers like Mark Thompson or Blake Jones. They’re on opposite sides of the spectrum age-wise — Thompson is 65, Jones 19 — but both are rare competitors in the series, especially Jones, who looks to make his XFINITY debut with BJ McLeod Motorsports’ No. 15 after winning in ARCA with Cunningham Motorsports.
Thompson, meanwhile, makes an uncommon appearance on a track that isn’t a superspeedway; both of his XFINITY starts to date have come at Daytona International Speedway or Talladega Superspeedway, also a common theme in his ARCA starts.
At a race weekend without (as many) Cup drivers to focus on, it’s prime time for all four of these drivers to work their way into the limelight — while, just maybe, securing a better future for them in NASCAR in 2017, along with playing spoiler for the drivers competing for the inaugural XFINITY Series Chase. There’s a lot to pay attention to at Kentucky this weekend, and this is just another plot point. Change the channel from the racing at New Hampshire every so often. It’s probably a good call.
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