This would’ve been easier before 2020.
Back in the days of qualifying before every NASCAR race (remember those?), anyone approved by NASCAR could show up to a track on the national series schedule and try to put their car in the show. Whether they should’ve been there was of little importance; as long as they had the funding and a license from NASCAR that said, “Hey, we don’t think you’ll be a hazard at this track,” they were good to go.
That still happens here and there. But in a COVID-19-affected NASCAR world, teams don’t have the luxury of bringing out extra cars or trucks — or simply choosing to show up for the first time — most of the time. With fields set by owner’s points pre-race for the majority of the season, anyone not on the grid should the entry list exceed the allotted maximum field size simply has to pack up and go home.
Want to run in the NASCAR Cup Series? You’ve got a chance; 37 teams show up each week. Best to not make it one of the superspeedways, though; generally, 40 cars are the norm, so an upstart probably won’t make it in. NASCAR Xfinity Series? You’re out of luck as a new team, as 41 teams are on the entry list each week for 40 positions. The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series is sometimes the best shot, but even then, some of the shorter tracks of the schedule bring out enough part-timers that it’s a toss-up for a newcomer making the field.
Still, there are opportunities, such as during the season-closing weekend at Phoenix Raceway or at tracks with shorter fields on the Cup and Truck level. And often, certainly pre-pandemic, the end of the NASCAR season was not just a time for the best of the best to battle it out in the playoffs — it’d also be a chance for drivers to get a shot at a higher level of the sport, either as a tryout or as a precursor to a full-time run the following year.
This could especially be the case at Phoenix before it was the season finale. In the Truck Series in particular, racers like William Byron, Noah Gragson and Derek Kraus got their first taste of national NASCAR competition and have since parlayed that to full-time bouts that continue in 2021.
So, who could be next? Again, hard to say given the uncertainties provided by a still-qualifying-less NASCAR, but here are some possibilities.
Tyler Ankrum (Xfinity)
Now in his third full-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season, Tyler Ankrum has shown flashes of greatness, capped by a win in 2019. He’s also generally lagged behind some of his GMS Racing compatriots in Sheldon Creed and Zane Smith. But that isn’t to say Ankrum is damaged goods despite missing the playoffs this year. Some drivers fare better in stock cars than in trucks; take Harrison Burton, who went winless in the Truck Series and is now riding a formidable Xfinity career into a Cup ride in 2022. Ankrum could use at least a shot in decent Xfinity equipment to see if he’s got what it takes; perhaps one of his backers sponsorship-wise the last few seasons can get him there.
Rajah Caruth (Xfinity or Truck)
It’d be nice to see what Rajah Caruth can do on a national level before the current ARCA Menards Series West full-timer can do in an already-announced part-time stint with Alpha Prime Racing in the Xfinity Series next year. With the stress of finding a ride for the year already out of the way, scheduling a warm-up attempt might not be a bad idea, perhaps if DGM Racing’s No. 90 has an opening before season’s end; Alpha Prime co-owner Caesar Bacarella has an in there as one of its part-timers.
Hailie Deegan (Xfinity)
Despite not necessarily setting the world on fire in her maiden Truck season this year, a future where Hailie Deegan doesn’t make it to the Xfinity Series in some capacity seems unlikely. In 2020, she raced a one-off Truck event with David Gilliland Racing at the end of the season. With no playoff pressure, 2021 could be more of the same to get her acclimated to an upper series, though she’d have to find a team. BJ McLeod Motorsports could be the place in a Stewart-Haas Racing partnership, much like the two have done in 2021 with Kevin Harvick and Chase Briscoe.
Daniel Dye (Truck)
Might as well get Daniel Dye a look in the Truck Series, because it seems like he’s heading there soon. After all, he’s already in with GMS, who’s got quite the roster in the series (though it remains to be seen how many trucks it’ll run in 2022 once it makes a move to the Cup Series); after starting 2021 with Ben Kennedy Racing, Dye has since moved to GMS on the ARCA Menards Series and ARCA Menards Series East side, earning a main series win at Berlin Raceway. He doesn’t turn 18 until December, so his options are limited until then, but a Martinsville Speedway look doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility if the entry list isn’t too full.
Ty Gibbs (Cup)
Let’s just get this over with. Ty Gibbs is a future Cup star. He’s already got three Xfinity wins to his credit in 12 starts, and that’s while completely leapfrogging the Truck Series. At this point, it’s more a matter of curiosity than anything to see what he could do as an 18- or 19-year-old in Cup (he turns 19 next month) before he’s even run a full season in one of the national series. The Cup Series is generally the least likely of the three national series to have a full field, so Joe Gibbs Racing wouldn’t have too much of a hurdle to clear in getting a fifth car into the show. Maybe the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL’s the place to do it?
Todd Gilliland (Xfinity)
Front Row Motorsports is in a reportedly precarious position, with rumors having the team moving away from the Cup Series due to its charters being fairly in demand. Some have posited that if FRM were to leave Cup, a move into Xfinity is on the table. Todd Gilliland would be a great pick for that seat given his strong showings with the team (in its DGR partnership) in the Truck Series, with a win, six top fives and 12 top 10s this year alone. As with Deegan, the main issue is finding an opening since showing up with an extra car on the entry list isn’t exactly an option in Xfinity right now. But if the FRM rumors are true, Gilliland certainly deserves a shot to move up if he can make it happen this year.
Carson Hocevar (Xfinity)
Like Ross Chastain before him, Carson Hocevar routinely overachieves in Niece Motorsports equipment in the Truck Series. It’s time to reward that raw talent with a step up, even though Hocevar’s already announced as a full-timer in the Truck Series again next year. There’s something about JR Motorsports that seems like a solid fit, even if there’s no room at the inn both this year and potentially next (depending on whether or not any of the team’s five cars use any non-full-time drivers). But wherever he can fit, it’d be intriguing to see what he can do.
Brandon Jones (Cup)
It’s a little surprising that Brandon Jones debuted in the Truck Series in 2013 and the Xfinity Series in 2015 but still doesn’t have a Cup start. As someone with sponsorship dollars to help him get prime Xfinity rides at JGR, Jones could likely parlay that into a one-off Cup ride if he wanted. Gaunt Brothers Racing gave JGR teammate Burton his first Cup look earlier this year; the pathway seems to be there if he and his team so choose.
Alex Labbe (Cup)
As the Cup Series adds more and more road courses to its schedule, the need for someone with a strong road course background grows. Alex Labbe fits the bill as someone who could help out a smaller team overachieve when turning right, something he’s been able to do with DGM in Xfinity the last few years. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him get a look on the Cup level eventually, and a place like the Charlotte ROVAL this year would certainly be an opportune time.
Jesse Love (Truck)
Even before McAnally-Hilgemann Racing announced its expansion to two Truck teams this week, MHR had tentatively planned a second entry in the season-ending race at Phoenix, with the driver coming from the BMR Drivers Academy, selected randomly from the 14-racer field. Based on Jesse Love‘s runaway success in ARCA West for the team the last two years, he’d probably get the ride on merit. And even if he doesn’t, considering MHR’s announced 2021 expansion, one wonders if it’ll field a second truck for Love or someone else in the organization before Phoenix after all. It’s difficult to argue with five wins, 12 top fives and 14 top 10s in 16 ARCA West starts.
Preston Pardus (Cup)
Like Labbe, Preston Pardus is a DGM Xfinity driver with heightened road course racing capabilities who could use a Cup look as well at one of the tracks, in this case the Charlotte ROVAL since it’s the only road course left on the schedule this year. He’d be following in the footsteps of father Dan, who ran a Cup race at Daytona International Speedway in 1998.
Chandler Smith (Xfinity)
Chandler Smith‘s someone else who might benefit from a Burton-esque move from the Trucks to Xfinity; hell, he’s run the same truck, the No. 18 for Kyle Busch Motorsports, as Burton did. Nine ARCA wins seems like it should translate to more success, and perhaps the Truck Series simply isn’t the place for him to show off his talent. In theory, JGR’s No. 54 has some races to fill before the end of the year; why not give Smith a chance?
Sammy Smith (Truck)
KBM’s No. 51 is spoken for through the end of 2021 at the moment, but that shouldn’t stop the team from giving a nod to Sammy Smith, one of JGR’s newest prospects. The 17-year-old has three ARCA East wins under his belt in 2021 with JGR and currently leads the points entering the final race of the season. Whether he wins the title or not, he could be rewarded with a late-season Truck start at, say, Martinsville; maybe KBM brings out its No. 46 for the first time in a few years.
Carson Ware (Cup)
Cody Ware isn’t the only Ware running for Rick Ware Racing in NASCAR; for the last two seasons, the team has also fielded Cody’s younger brother Carson Ware in a part-time Xfinity effort. He’s done just fine, with a 23.3 average finish in three starts in 2020 and two top 30s this year. With RWR only sporting full-time drivers in two of its four Cup cars (Josh Bilicki in the No. 52 and Cody Ware, at least most of the time, in the No. 51), and assuming Carson Ware’s been approved to run Cup, it seems like there are ample opportunities to get him a shot before season’s end.
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