If you were a NASCAR Sprint Cup team owner, which up-and-coming young short tracker would you want to add to your development roster?
That was the question asked and answered late last month when Speed51.com released its annual Short Track Draft results to the motorsports community — selecting Midwestern Super Late Model ace Ty Majeski as the No. 1 overall pick.
A panel of 37 industry insiders of NASCAR drivers, crew chiefs, team managers, spotters and media members from both dirt and asphalt, myself included, submitted ballots and narrowly selected Majeski over Todd Gilliland.
Majeski earned votes from 32 of the 37 voters. Gilliland recorded the same number of votes but lost out on the top spot by receiving two less first place selections than his counterpart. Majeski earned 17 first-place votes while Gilliland picked-up 10.
In comparison, Christopher Bell received 28 such selections en route to his ascension to the top spot in the 2015 Short Track Draft.
For the sake of argument and discussion, I’ve included my top-25 below. My rationale has been included with each selection. But first, here were the guidelines provided to us by Speed51.com founder and motorsports television personality, Bob Dillner.
1.) Driver must be 25 years-old or younger as of May 1. The old rule prior to 2015 used to be 29 and younger, but this has now changed.
2.) Driver must not have a full-time ride in any of NASCAR’s big three national divisions.
3.) Driver must be rookie eligible for any of NASCAR’s big three national divisions.
Without further ado, here is my personal Speed51.com Short Track Ballot:
1.) Todd Gilliland (Overall: 2 | First Place Votes: 10)
Despite coming in at No.2 overall, Gilliland was my top pick in the 2016 Short Track Draft. While he and Majeski match-up equally on accomplishments and poise, the 15-year-old earns top honors in my book because he has so much more time to grow and mature compared to the 21-year-old Majeski.
At this point, the stats have been repeated ad nauseam. Gilliland successfully won his first start in the CARS Late Model Stock Car Tour, ARCA Racing Series, K&N West and K&N East over the past calendar season.
He is the current K&N West championship leader and opened the season with consecutive victories at New Smyrna, Irwindale and Tuscon. But it’s not just his on-track accomplishments that make him so impressive. At nearly 6-feet-tall, Gilliland has already started to mature physically but that’s matched only by an emotional stature that has made him one of the easiest young men to talk to in the sport.
He was raised right by parents David and Michelle and has stayed humble despite the flood of success.
At just 15, don’t expect him to chase down championships at the national touring level just yet but he’s going to get there as soon as he’s old enough. Gilliland is the prototype for what a young driver should be.
2.) Ty Majeski (Overall: 1 | First Place Votes: 17)
From a Super Late Model perspective, the past year has pretty much belonged to Ty Majeski. During that span, he’s earned 19 victories all over the east coast, including five in the ARCA Midwest Tour where he’s the reigning two-time champion of that series.
He’s also won in the Deep South, defeating a deep field in the Florida Governor’s Cup in November and the Rattler 250 in March. He’s the defending pole winner and track record holder for the Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway and finished third in short track’s greatest spectacle.
Majeski is also the defending World Series of Asphalt Champion at New Smyrna Speedway having won three of the six races during Speedweeks and finishing no worse than second. Like Gilliland, Majeski carries himself well in the public spotlight and is easy-going and humble.
He expects to make his ARCA debut later this summer and the sky is the limit for the 21-year-old from Wisconsin.
3.) Chase Briscoe (Overall: 24 | First Place Votes: 0)
This was the first selection where I seemed to differ from the other 36 voters. I’m a big believer in Briscoe, a 21-year-old sprint car driver turned full-time ARCA contender for Cunningham Motorsports.
Several NASCAR notables have compared him to Jeff Gordon and Kyle Larson and he hasn’t done anything to prove them wrong. While he has yet to win in a stock cars through his first seven starts, he’s already scored two poles and nearly went to Victory Lane at Daytona in February.
He was the PEAK Dream Challenge runner-up in 2013 and has great instincts according to those in the ARCA garage that know him best. One of them, crew chief Brian Keselowski has even predicted him to win the championship. He’s the youngest driver from Indiana to win a 410 sprint car event and he’s got a super marketable personality.
I’m buying low on this pick but I expect to sell high come the 2017 draft.
4.) Kyle Benjamin (Overall: 1 | First Place Votes: 0)
Benjamin has been my number one pick for each of the past two seasons and I’m still very high on the ARCA and K&N East standout. Despite winning in K&N competition at Bristol, Benjamin suffered through a tough season last year.
Joining Ranier Racing with MDM, Benjamin has again become one of the top contenders in K&N. His improved consistency actually has him leading the standings despite no intention to run for that championship.
As a Gulf Coast native, Benjamin first caught my eye running what is now the Southern Super Series in Pensacola, Mobile and Opp. My first impression of the then baby-faced 14-year-old was that he was probably too young for Super Late Models, a notion that he negated at every turn, winning the Rattler 250 back in 2013. That’s the same race Christopher Bell and Ty Majeski have won the past two seasons en route to their No. 1 selections.
Now 18-years-old, Benjamin has a tremendous amount of talent and upside with the potential to grow into something greater moving forward.
5.) Harrison Burton (Overall: 4 | First Place Votes: 0)
Just over two years into his full-bodied stock car career and Harrison Burton remains one of the most polished teenagers to land on the ballot. What else would you expect of the 15-year-old mentored by the likes of father Jeff Burton and crew chiefs Freddy Query and Chris Wimmer.
Even without winning a great deal during that span, he’s always in the mix and rarely turns a wheel wrong inside the car. This is a big year for him in that he’s full-time in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East division. This is the time for Burton to turn that consistency into wins and there’s no reason those won’t come with crew chief Rich Lushes.
He’s endured a great deal of bad luck this season but how he’s handled it is part of the reason he’s so highly touted. His laugh is infectious and he always stays positive and hopeful even in the face of adversity. The results will come as will higher rankings in future drafts.
6.) Dalton Sargeant (Overall: 6 | First Place Votes: 0)
Even with a frustrating 2015 season in K&N competition behind him, Sargeant remains an easy top-10 selection just due to his success in limited opportunities in a stock car.
It’s easy to forget that he was still in Europe over two years ago chasing Formula 1. Even with the struggles in the East division, he won in the West at Irwindale and posted two top-10s in four Truck Series starts.
Expect more of the same in 2016 as he’s driving for Billy Venturini in a partial ARCA Racing Series schedule and Bond Suss in select Super Late Model majors. He’s still relatively raw in a stock car and gets more comfortable with every start. There’s a ton of upside in the 18-year-old.
7.) Mason Mitchell (Overall: NR | First Place Votes: 0)
Mason Mitchell hasn’t seen a lot of track action since winning the 2014 ARCA Racing Series championship and that’s a damn shame. He’s the perfect blend of talent and charisma, and needs to be in a car at the highest level.
A lack of funding has prevented that from happening thus far and he’s transitioned into a team manager role for Mason Mitchell Motorsports. And yet, he’s excelled in what few opportunities he’s been given over the past year.
He won twice in ARCA one-offs last season at Iowa and Kansas, posting a 5.3 average finish in those appearances. He also finished eighth in his K&N East debut at Bowman Gray Stadium. What more does this guy have to do to get a shot at NASCAR?
8.) Brayton Haws (Overall: 6 | First Place Votes: 0)
I respect former NASCAR All-American Challenge Series champion Mike Garvey a ton. So when Garvey told me last year that Brayton Haws was one of the best drivers he’s ever tutored, I started to take notice.
The 16-year-old raced pretty much exclusively in the CARS Late Model Stock tour last season and made the most of it. He posted three wins for Lee McCall en route to the series championship.
He’s got tremendous poise, is a little on the shy side, but has a lot going for him. This is a big year to see how he can follow up his championship performance.
9.) Myatt Snider (Overall: 47 | First Place Votes: 0)
This pick was also optimistic compared to other voters but I REALLY like the driver that the son of NBC broadcaster Marty has become over the past year. The knock on the 21-year-old used to be an overaggressive style that once burned the tires off his Late Model Stock Car or caused tempers to flare amongst his rivals.
Now Snider has actually a complete driver based on his 2015 season alone. He finished second in the CARS Tour championship last season to Brayton Haws, a testament to his newfound consistency and patience. He also scoed the biggest win of his career in the Myrtle Beach 400.
He’s about to make his ARCA Racing debut and that’s going to be a great platform for him to showcase his talents. As the son of a television personality, Snider also has the gift of gab and should be an easy sell to potential markets.
10.) Spencer Davis (Overall: 47 | First Place Votes: 0)
At 17-years-old, it feels like Spencer Davis has been around forever — and he kind of has. He was a raw but promising 13-year-old when he made his Pro Late Model debut in the Deep South and sometimes he was too raw.
Between Super Late Models and NASCAR Modifieds, Davis wasn’t delivering on that promise until a mid-season change to the NASCAR K&N East last summer.
In four K&N East starts Davis finished no worse than sixth. He’s been even better this season with two runner-ups and thrid in the championship standings with Ranier Racing with MDM. Expect Davis to win a few times this season and contend for the championship that could finally make him a household name amongst stock car diehards.
The talent has always been there but now Davis is putting it all together.
11.) Justin Haley (Overall: 11 | First Place Votes: 0)
Having placed him 19th in last year’s Short Track Draft, a season in which he didn’t even crack the overall top-51, I’ve always been a believer in Justin Haley.
He’s just a pure racer, spending each weekend in a different kind of car. He’s full-time in the NASCAR K&N East division, where he is the current co-championship leader alongside Kyle Benjamin following his first career victory at Greenville-Pickens Speedway. He’s also made appearances in the NASCAR Truck Series and the Trans-Am Series.
That versatility is extremely valuable, especially considering he JUST turned 17-years-old.
12.) Zane Smith (Overall: 3)
The Legend Car turned Super Late contender seemingly came out of nowhere with his 2015 season. He won the World Series of Asphalt at New Smyrna Speedway and posted three PASS South victories for good measure.
He has a good, clean-cut look and contends every time he enters an event. The 2016 season will be an important one for the 16-year-old.
13.) Tyler Dippel (Overall: 9)
Speaking of versatility, Tyler Dippel has driven pretty much every kind of car a 16-year-old is allowed to drive and has found success in them too. He started in big block Modified in the North before moving to Super Late Models and now the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East.
He won at Mobile in just his second K&N start and he’s adapting to asphalt at an incredible rate.
14.) Tanner Thorson (Overall: 20)
Like most drivers for Keith Kunz Motorsports, Tanner Thorson is a contender every time he unloads. Team manager Pete Willoughby says he’s got similar attributes to a raw Kyle Larson and he’s starting to prove it with two top-10s in the Chili Bowl.
15.) Ross Kenseth (Overall: 21)
Much like Mason Mitchell in the top-10, Ross Kenseth deserves more opportunities than what he’s had over the past 12 months. He seemed on the verge of a major breakthrough after winning his first ARCA race at Michigan and finishing sixth in his NASCAR Xfinity Seires debut at Chicagoland.
But the phone hasn’t rang. Kenseth has been keeping himself busy by spotting but he needs to be in a race car. He’s well-spoken and it’s hard to understand why an owner hasn’t taken a shot on him yet.
16.) Chad Finchum (Overall: 12)
Long considered one of the most underrated drivers in Late Model Stock racing, Finchum delivers every time he gets behind the wheel.
At 21-years-old, it’s time for Finchum to throw everything he’s got at making waves on a national level. So far so good as he won the Bristol K&N East race and two Late Model races at star-studded tracks like Motor Mile and Kingsport.
17.) Josh Berry (Overall: 13)
The JR Motorsports development driver continues to rack up the accolades and could be on the verge of a major breakthrough. He won thrice in CARS Tour Late Model Stock competition, four NASCAR weekly All-American victories at Hickory and two more at Motor Mile.
He gained most of his notoriety with a seventh-place finish in the Xfinity Series at Richmond in which he spent most of the race in the top-5.
18.) Cole Timm (Overall: 42)
Its baffling to me that Cole Timm fell all the way to No. 42 on the overall Short Track Draft board. He’s the defending CARS Tour Super Late Model champion and bested some of the best on the country over 10 races to earn that honor.
He’s previously won Pro and Super Late Model races at the PASS level and finished 18th in the 2014 Snowball Derby. His DNQ in the 2015 running might have scared some voters off and Timm expects to make a start or two at Pensacola before December to gear up for a run at the Tom Dawson Trophy. He’s got an infectious love for stock car racing that doesn’t get enough attention.
19.) Noah Gragson (Overall: 23)
At 17-years-old, Gragson is somewhat silent given how much success he’s enjoyed. He’s won twice in K&N West competition and recently won his first Super Late Model race. He’s also added two top-10s in K&N East and West this season. He’s going to continue to get better and should be a top-10 pick in the 2017 Draft.
20.) Gracin Raz (Overall: 16)
Gracin Raz was a tough selection for me. As a west coast driver I haven’t seen much of him but those I trust say he’s got all the tools both on and off the track. As a 16-year-old rookie in K&N West, he won a race and finished fourth in the standings. There’s a lot to like about the overall package here.
21.) Raphael Lessard (Overall: 50)
Raphael Lessard is really freaking talented. That’s a story that I’ve been touting since his near victory at Orange County last month but he backed it up with his first career victory on Saturday night at Hickory in the CARS Tour 250. David and Michelle Gilliland both told me at Talladega last month that the 14-year-old was a special talent and we’ve seen it over the first three CARS tour events.
Even ARCA Racing Series team owner Billy Venturini, who joined me in the television booth, had nothing but compliments for the youngster. He added that Toyota has high hopes for him if he continues to develop at this current pace.
22.) Christian Eckes (Overall: NR)
Upon realizing that he just turned 16, you gain an even greater appreciation for how much potential Christian Eckes has. He first gained notoriety on the Legends circuit and now has started running both Late Model Stocks and Super Late Models.
While the success in full-bodied stock cars haven’t fully arrived yet, he’s fast on the track, carries himself well in front of the media and was highly complimented by Billy Venturini, who liked what he saw in their first start together in ARCA at Nashville.
He also finished 22nd in his first Snowball Derby despite having to repair his car in a practice crash.
23.) Bret Holmes (Overall: NR)
The dirt standout turned asphalt racer is starting to enjoy a lot of success on asphalt, especially in the Show Me the Money Series in Montgomery. He’s working with driver turned crew chief Grant Enfinger who says he wouldn’t work with his fellow Alabamian if he didn’t believe in him. There’s a lot of untouched potential waiting to come out of Holmes this season.
24.) Jeremy Doss (Overall: 14)
The 2012 Pacific Challenge Series champion is viewed by many West Coast racing enthusiasts as one of the best short trackers that doesn’t get the credit he deserves.
He won four times in PCS competition last season and has 16 overall wins. He also has four SRL Tour victories and always competes for top-10s when he travels East for some of the bigger events on this side of the country.
25.) Casey Roderick (Overall: NR)
The defending Pensacola track champion continues to make the most of his equipment and limited funding. He’s won in the Southern Super Series and former Legends rival Chase Elliott has called him one of the better drivers he’s ever competed against.
26.) Austin Theriault (Overall: 33)
Theriault has admitted that he should have done more with his limited Truck Series opportunity with Brad Keselowski Racing and the violent crash at Las Vegas derailed some of his momentum. Now he’s back in KN and Super Late Models and needs to start winning again to regain some of that lost momentum.
27.) Travis Braden (Overall: NR)
Underrated talent with a super likable personality. Won back-to-back CRA championships in 2013 and 2014 before winning in his ARCA debut last summer. He wanted to go full-time ARCA this season but couldn’t find the funding. He will return to the Late Model ranks this year but deserves more shots at a national tour level.