MOORESVILLE, N.C. — On last night’s Stock Car Steel/SRI Motorsports Show (Thursdays, 7 p.m. ET, PMN), those of us at the studio roundtable were talking about some of the recent driver announcements for NASCAR’s 2017 season.
Among those discussions, the subject of who will end up in what should be a highly coveted seat in Team Penske’s recently-announced second XFINITY Series car came up.
The other guys were focused on John-Hunter Nemechek. I’m not.
While I believe JHN would surely would be capable of taking the next step from a talent standpoint, I don’t think it’s going to happen. I believe if that’s really who Roger and the team wanted, they’d just sign him and get it over with before he goes elsewhere.
Something tells me that there are several candidates being evaluated, and not all of them may be obvious. Roger is keen for spotting talent, and I think that there is some talent in both the Truck and the XFINITY Series currently that may not be winning races, but are showing the necessary performance and marketability to be worthy of review.
Here are five drivers who I believe should be on The Captain’s shortlist, if in fact they are available, in no particular order.
I know he’s in the Toyota family, but nothing has yet been announced about Tifft for 2017 as far as I know. He could go to Joe Gibbs Racing’s XFINITY program to replace the departing Erik Jones (if he runs up front at Kentucky in the No. 18 car this weekend, I’m sure the odds of this go way up) but if JGR doesn’t have plans for him, he’d be the perfect personality and have the perfect skill set to fill the seat. I’d say he ought to be at the top of the list.
If Roger were making a choice based on heart, Jordan would already be signed, sealed and delivered. He puts more man hours in on the Trucks he’s racing in a week than most of his competitors probably do all year, and he consistently outperforms many who have much deeper resources than he does. He’s also probably the most humble, appreciative driver I know.
Jordan has proven his mettle on both pavement and dirt, and he’s gained a bit of a cult-following these last two seasons as he basically gives his entire life to preparing the Trucks and getting himself to the track each week. What else does he have to show or do to earn a shot?
Smithley has shown consistent top 15 to 20 performances for JD Motorsports in the No. 0 car that is basically the red-headed stepchild of the team. He doesn’t always get new tires and rarely has the best equipment. He just drives his ass off every week, finishes in the teens much of the time and even finished without a scratch in the low 20s at Mid-Ohio in a driving rainstorm with minimal road course experience.
He’s already won my award for coolest hashtag (#NumberNuthin) and with all the laps he’s put in running the correct lines at NASCAR tracks as a Richard Petty Driving Experience instructor, he knows a lot of the tracks far better than many would realize or give him credit for.
Here again, Chastain is another JD Motorsports driver who regularly gets the most out of what he has. I don’t mean to suggest that Roger should go and raid Johnny Davis’s camp here, because I have a ton of respect for him and what he’s inspired his people to build together, but I would believe JD would be the first to wish either of these two racers well if they could get a shot in top equipment.
Chastain is personable, easily has the coolest backstory in the series (who doesn’t like a watermelon farmer-turned-racer who has the National Watermelon Association as his main sponsor?) and he can flat wheel a race car. He just needs someone to give him first-rate equipment and he’d run for a championship.
If you’re wondering why I didn’t add Ryan Preece’s name to the list while I’m discussing JD Motorsports drivers, it’s because I think he could do well with one more year in the series before making a move to a more high-pressure situation. It’s a big jump from a NASCAR Modified to a full-time XFINITY opportunity, and Ryan has done well, but I believe he’d do even better with one more year to learn.
So who’s my fifth driver?
I know Cameron hasn’t won in the Truck Series yet, but he surely has done about everything else. He’s proven fast on all types of tracks, including road courses, and the only reason he missed the Chase is because Kyle Busch was running a truck at Chicagoland.
He’s highly intelligent, he’s well-spoken and he’s a Canadian who displays the flag proudly on the Truck, which makes his accomplishments to-date all the more enjoyable in my book. Whether he’s quite developed enough for a shot at a ride of this caliber is open for discussion, but I think he would surprise a lot of people if he were given the shot.