Keep an eye on these five rising stars
Once the smoke cleared at Gateway International Raceway following the Carl Edwards/Brad Keselowski melee, a handful of non-household names emerged with stellar finishes in the Missouri-Illinois Dodge Dealers 250.
Case in point, Reed Sorenson’s second-place finish matched his season-best with Braun Racing at Nashville in April. Since joining the team in March, Sorenson has an average finish of 9.7 — a strong redemption run in NASCAR’s Nationwide Series after a mediocre four-year stint on the Sprint Cup tour with Chip Ganassi and Richard Petty Motorsports.
Although the spotlight — four days later — remains on the last-lap crash, many drivers like Sorenson will have another opportunity to build their reputations this weekend at O’Reilly Raceway Park. Here are five up-and-comers to keep an eye on.
Bayne won his second career Nationwide pole at Gateway last weekend and posted a career-high finish of third with extremely competitive equipment and well-executed pit stops from his Diamond-Waltrip team. Despite his youth, Bayne, 19, was spent after the race.
“It was just a really (tough) race,” Bayne said. “It was hard for the drivers, it was hard for the team, but (crew chief) Jerry Baxter did a great job with the call there to not pit and got us our track position back.
“We had a strong enough car to be up there and that was the way it was for us in our Out! Pet Car Toyota all weekend. We unloaded fast, in the top three, qualified on the pole and then finished top three, so it’s a great weekend for us.”
Now he returns to ORP, where he earned his first pole in just his seventh start and posted his first top-10 (seventh) finish.
Bayne has been a bright light in his first full season on the N'wide tour and helps fill the void with the under-25 crowd. Bayne should be poised to win this season if he can avoid the regular weekly riff-raff on the tour. And as a young gun surrounded by the veterans from Michael Waltrip Racing, Bayne will be properly groomed to take the next step.
Unlike other drivers, Scott, 22, has come through the traditional NASCAR ranks. He made tremendous strides in the Camping World Truck Series prior to getting a shot with Braun Racing.
Since the addition of crew chief Jeff Stankiewicz two races ago, Scott finished a career-high third at Chicagoland and backed up the performance with a sixth-place run at Gateway, where he was guided by Jeff Dickerson from the spotter stand.
“Just really fortunate to have very experienced people around me and people around me that know what they’re doing and can help guide me through situations when it’s time to tighten the belts and go for it at the end,” Scott said. “We were able to pick up four spots in two laps and bring home our AccuDoc Solutions (car) with a little better finish than where we really were there at the end.
“That’s just a tribute to a little bit of good luck and I think a little bit more experience being up there.”
Scott leads the rookie field and is currently 12th in the standings. He was as high as eighth in points following a 10th-place finish at Talladega. Certainly, having experienced teammates at Braun Racing, such as Jason Leffler and Sorenson, can help Scott navigate the Nationwide waters. But Scott appears to be a quick study.
Rookie Braun started last weekend with a season-high second-place qualifying effort and salvaged a seventh-place -- but not unscathed -- finish when the Gateway race ended.
Following Braun’s best performance of the season, the tour returns to ORP, where he won the 2008 pole and finished a career-high second while running a partial schedule in the series.
“ORP is a really good track for me and I’m excited to get back there and get this Con-way Freight Ford on track,” Braun said. “Not only do we have the truck experience to lean on, but I had that great race last year in the Nationwide Series as well. We have been able to continually get better week in and week out, which is really all you can ask for.”
After a successful stint in the Truck series, where he won a race at Michigan and finished fifth in points last season, Braun continues to battle for a full-time position on the Roush Fenway Racing roster. After cutting back Braun’s races in April, Roush brought on veteran crew chief Ricky Viers to allay the 21-year-old racer's growing pains. Braun’s average race finish since Viers came on board is 11.7.
“Rick has done a great job leading these guys and helping me to develop as a driver,” Braun said. “I think we are getting closer and closer to a win and I’d love to do it this weekend at ORP.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Stenhouse is the second Roush rookie auditioning for a full-time position with the NASCAR powerhouse. Stenhouse ran a full ARCA season in 2008 and limited his NASCAR participation to seven races last season in order to preserve his rookie status. Over those seven races, Stenhouse posted two top-10 finishes and had an impressive qualifying average of 7.3, bolstered by a pole at Iowa in just his sixth career Nationwide start.
Stenhouse has struggled to get up to speed this season and Jack Roush replaced crew chief Ben Leslie with Mike Kelley at Texas in April. Stenhouse failed to qualify for Nashville in May and was sidelined in favor of Brian Ickler the following week at Kentucky. Since then, Stenhouse has improved in qualifying and finished a career-high third at Daytona and earned his second top-10 (ninth) at Gateway.
Although Stenhouse has never raced in the Nationwide Series at ORP, he shook down a car for Matt Kenseth on the 0.686-miler last year. But Stenhouse cut his teeth on the track through racing USAC Sprint, Midgets and Silver Crown cars. No wonder that Stenhouse is “looking forward” to returning to ORP this weekend.
“This CitiFinancial team has been on a roll as of late and I feel like we will continue it on Saturday,” Stenhouse said. “The racetrack is tight and things can happen pretty fast so we will have to be on top of our game from the time we unload until race time.
“I have experience at the track in various forms of racing so I feel like I will be ahead of the curve from a competition standpoint.”
Stenhouse, who is currently 20th in the point standings, makes his 25th Nationwide start on Saturday. If he plans on retaining his position with RFR, he’ll have to step up his performance in the final 15 events.
At 27, Wise is the oldest prospect in the group. After driving for Tony Stewart in the USAC ranks, Wise was originally drafted to race for Michael Waltrip Racing. However, his program never ignited due to a lack of funding.
Wise will enjoy his fourth start with JR Motorsports — perhaps the best stock car opportunity he’s had to date. Last weekend, crew chief Tony Eury Jr. was excited to have the opportunity for Wise to return to the No. 7 Chevrolet — and his instincts proved correct. Wise qualified 34th and raced to an eighth-place finish.
“It means a lot to have great organizations like JR Motorsports and Go Daddy behind me,” Wise said. “It’s been a great experience working with both of them, and I’m excited for the next two races. Last week, my goal was to take everything one step at a time and go for a top-10 finish. We were successful with that at Gateway. Now it’s time to step it up a notch.”
Wise carries great confidence into ORP, where he’s run both USAC and Nationwide cars. In his two NASCAR starts at the venue, Wise’s best finish was fifth in 2008.
“ORP is a track that I’m very familiar with and a top-five finish is a realistic goal for this week,” Wise said. “I’ve logged a ton of laps there, especially in a Sprint car. It’s a track I’ve always felt comfortable at and enjoyed. I’m really optimistic for a top-five finish there.
“I know we can do it, it’s just a matter of putting together a solid qualifying effort and keeping our fenders clean and taking advantage of track position.”
On Tuesday, Wise tested with the team at North Wilkesboro. He will be joined this weekend by Aric Almirola, who is racing the No. 88 Chevrolet for JRM. Given Eury’s expectations for Wise, don’t be surprised if more races are added to his schedule before the season ends.