If you were a Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 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 over the weekend when Speed51.com released its annual Short Track Draft results to the motorsports community — selecting young Georgia Late Model stud Chandler Smith as the overall No. 1 pick.
A panel of 80 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 Smith over Bobby Pierce.
Twenty-seven different drivers received first-place votes in the 2019 draft, the largest such number in draft history and nearly doubling the typical number of competitors who are acknowledged by the panel with that distinction.
Smith earned 14 first-place votes, 37 top-five votes and 50 top-10 votes.
For the sake of argument and discussion, I’ve included my top-25 below. My rationale has been included with each selection. I’ll concede there is a degree of east coast bias within my selections because I so rarely make it out west. And while I’ve spent more time on dirt this season, I’m still a pavement late model guy at heart.
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.
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.
4.) Reigning No. 1 pick is not eligible
Without further ado, here is my personal Speed51.com Short Track Ballot:
1.) Travis Braden (Overall: 20 | First Place Votes: 1)
Just one first-place vote for the two-time CRA Super Series champion, 2016 Winchester 400 winner and the ARCA Menard’s championship leader up until Friday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway. That was me. I’m partial to under-heralded veterans. After all, I also voted Casey Roderick No. 1 overall last season in his final year of eligibility. What’s most impressive about Braden has always been his ability to work on cars in addition to driving them well. And those cars always tend to be in the same speed bracket as the much-hyped driver development programs that the 25-year-old routinely runs side-by-side with. Braden is so good and has enjoyed much of his modest success with a fraction of the budget of his rivals. Even this year, Braden has his four-employee RFMS No. 27 second in the ARCA standings against the multi-car Venturini Motorsports behemoth. By definition of the purpose of the Short Track Draft, Braden is the closest thing to a turn-key prospect that could play in NASCAR RIGHT NOW as anyone.
2.) Chandler Smith (Overall: 1 | First-place votes: 14)
Smith was the obvious No. 1 pick and I knew that going in. Smith is the real deal. Yes, the results are there with two victories in the ARCA Menards Series or even his Super Late Model triumph at CRA Speedfest in 2018. But what sets his apart from other similarly-aged contenders (he’s 16) is the perfect mix of intensity and exuberance. You can tell Chandler takes this seriously but he’s also having a lot of fun too. I think that balance is important. Toyota holds Smith in high regards and it’s obvious they hold him in a similar esteem to Erik Jones and Christopher Bell’s tenure as TRD development drivers. It will be a lot of fun to watch Smith develop as he gets old enough to tackle intermediates and superspeedways in the coming years. Enjoy him on short tracks while you can.
3.) Jeremy Doss (Overall: 7 | First place votes: 6)
When I spoke about my admitted east coast bias in the introduction to this post, I did so with Jeremy Doss in mind. I really wanted to make sure I included the 22-year-old as up the list as possible. In addition to winning the 2018 Southwest Tour championship, he has also already won once this season at Roseville. To avoid the west coast bias, he has made the trip to the Snowball Derby with NASCAR crew chief Rich Lushes in recent years with finishes of 11th and 13th, impressive given how little track time he has there compared to the usual contenders. This prospect makes the most of his equipment and really should be the target of more sponsors because he’s a good spokesman and a gritty racer.
4. Bobby Pierce (Overall: 2 | First place votes: ?)
I have only watched the Smooth Operator race five times, and four of those starts came in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, so I really haven’t seen Bobby Pierce at his best. So, on what basis did I include him so high? I’m reading about his success and exploits all over the place. The racing community loves his body of work. His peers say he should be a superstar under different financial circumstances. That sort of praise could not go ignored and I listened to my friends and voted the Operator No. 4.
5. Corey Heim (Overall No. 15 | First place votes: 0)
Voting Corey Heim at No. 5 is my way of trying to correct the ledger as it were. The Third Turn Database shows that he has just one win in CARS Tour competition and a runner-up in the Martinsville 300, but a deeper look shows there is much more to it. Many believe Heim should have been declared the winner at Martinsville last fall due to when a race-ending caution came out. He also was flagged the winner at a pair of South Boston Late Model Stock races but was later disqualified under dubious circumstances that still has many industry experts crying foul. He was also disqualified from a win at the PASS Commonwealth Classic at Richmond. Sure, the rules are the rules, and I’m not here to debate the merits of his disqualifications, but I am saying that pound-for-pound, th 16-year-old from Marietta, Georgia races like a veteran and is much better than his overall No. 15 selection makes it look like.
6. Hailie Deegan (Overall No. 4 | First place votes: 0)
I feared that by picking The Dirt Princess at No. 6, I would have to do a lot of explaining, and yet I still picked lower than the overall consensus. After all, what has Deegan done in pavement racing to warrant such a result? Sure, she has the two K&N West victories, but that is the extent of her stock car success right now following a lot of time in off-road racing. So why the high pick? Deegan has the potential to be a transcendent superstar. Sure, gender is part of the discussion but Deegan has the right moxie to be a superstar regardless. She has proven she can win, is very personable and equally teachable. And while some people criticized her taking a social media shot at Ricky Brooks during New Smyrna Speedway, I personally loved the intensity. It’s clear she takes success very seriously. She very well could win the K&N West championship this year and her stock will only rise from there.
7. Layne Riggs (Overall No. 33 | First place votes: 0)
I love watching Layne Riggs race. He’s one of the drivers that, when it comes to deciding whether or not I want to make a trip to cover a Late Model Stock race, his participating will push me closer to making the drive. His past two seasons likely caused some to lose faith in his potential. He suffered an injury in 2017 that caused him to miss seat time and then was involved in a messy incident with Bubba Pollard at Martinsville in 2018 that made him the target of criticism. But he won the $15,000-to-win race at Carteret last season and a CARS Tour race at Kingsport last summer. He routinely races up front against the likes of JR Motorsports and Nelson Motorsports, a testament to his team’s resolve and the driver’s talent. He is intense. He is fun. And Riggs is way better than the stats currently show. He wins a championship racing for Pulliam, JRM or Nelson. Period.
8. Connor Okrzesik (Overall No. 8 | First place votes: 2)
The past six months have been very good for Connor Okrzesik. He finished fourth in the 2018 Snowball Derby and then outdueled Kyle Busch to win CRA Speedfest at Watermelon Capital Speedway. He’s done so in a family team crew chiefed by the great Mike Garvey. So, the kid can drive and he’s got a good social media presence too. His in-person shyness will work against him. He’s coming out of his shell a little bit and winning with greater regularity, and the resulting media attention, will likely play a greater role in unlocking that side of his personality. Don’t forget that we’re talking about a 16-year-old too so there is so much room for improvement.
9. Sam Mayer (Overall: 12 | First place votes: 0)
Sam Mayer is case study in liking what you see even if the record book doesn’t quite justify it yet. Mayer arguably earned his first marquee victory with his K&N East win at Bristol Motor Speedway last month. He’s also the series championship leader for GMS Racing. His Late Model consistency is impressive but should have resulted in more wins. Here’s to hoping he travels to some big SLM and LMSC races this season. He’s got breakout potential and GMS’ K&N program is likely the vehicle to get him there. For a 15-year-old, he’s also got a marketable personality and has much that sponsors can work with as he starts to mature. Like I said, there’s a lot to like already and at 15-years-old, there’s time to cultivate his best traits.
10. Derek Kraus (Overall: 9 | First place votes: 1)
Kraus has enjoyed an interesting pathway to the top-10 in two consecutive short track drafts. Here’s the Reader’s Digest analysis: His Super Late Model tenure has been pretty disappointing, failing to pick up wins and top-10s like a driver in a Toby Nuttleman car should. On the bright side, he has taken well to heavier K&N cars with five overall victories across both coasts. And that bodes well for continued success as he makes more Truck Series starts. Kraus will get more opportunities to prove himself in a Late Model, but if he keeps winning in K&N, and could race for both championships this season, there won’t be a reason to use it against him. Derek is a lot of fun to cover too. Once you crack the 17-year-old’s shell, he is very personable and marketable. He doesn’t tweet a ton but most of the ones he sends out are pretty dang funny too.
11. Derek Griffith
12. Ty Gibbs
13. Christian Eckes
14. Sheldon Haudenschild
15. Tate Fogleman
16. Jesse Love
17. Spencer Davis
18. Raphael Lessard
19. Spencer Bayston
20. Logan Seavey
21. Stephen Nasse
22. Justin Carroll (NC)
23. Matthew Craig
24. Kyle Plott
25. Carson Hocevar