Zane Smith, Austin Hill chase Ty Gibbs on midseason NASCAR prospect list
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Writer
With the NASCAR truck playoffs kicking off last weekend and many short-track seasons having a couple of months left, it's time to revisit my prospect rankings.
Ty Gibbs still tops the list as his four wins in the Xfinity Series this year put him at eight total in 38 starts. The 19-year-old grandson of Joe Gibbs has finished 16th and 17th in his two Cup starts as a substitute for 23XI Racing's Kurt Busch (concussion).
Gibbs said he tries not to think about when he will race in Cup, whether it is next year or the following one. He is the obvious backup plan for Joe Gibbs Racing if it doesn't get a deal done to retain Kyle Busch.
"Hypotheticals will never win races," Gibbs said. "I don't want to be wasting my time on those thoughts. It's not going to help my race car go faster."
The top regular-season truck champion, Zane Smith, moves up to second on my list as his three wins this year have been impressive. And then he stepped in as a substitute for Chris Buescher (COVID) at Gateway and finished 17th.
"That was just a huge opportunity," Smith said. "Getting that call is showing that they're paying attention and my stock is up. That just is huge for any driver. Just that one race, I feel like I'm a way better driver with what I learned."
A few parameters: This list consists of drivers age 28 or younger who don't have more than a handful of Cup races (so drivers such as Noah Gragson, John Hunter Nemechek, Daniel Hemric and Josh Berry are not included) and don't have a full-time Cup ride. It's all subjective and based primarily on talent, but the ability to land sponsorship is also considered, using my research and some input from a few driver scouts.
1. Ty Gibbs (age: 19, previous ranking: 1st): Everyone knows he will be in Cup full-time either next year or 2024. No driver who wins eight races in the Xfinity Series doesn't get a chance at Cup, and obviously Gibbs has a path through his grandfather's team. The only thing lacking is NASCAR playoff experience, and he'll get that later this season.
2. Zane Smith (age: 22, previous ranking: 5th): His three truck wins and regular-season championship would put the Front Row Motorsports driver among the top prospects. His 17th-place finish in place of Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing's Chris Buescher at Gateway likely silenced any doubters. If Brad Keselowski thinks you're good, you're probably good.
3. Sam Mayer (age: 19, previous ranking: 2nd): Mayer is eighth in the Xfinity standings and a lot of people will think this ranking is too high. But he didn't have much truck experience (he did win a truck race at Bristol) and is learning many of these tracks for the first time. This rest of the season will prove whether the JR Motorsports driver is making gains.
4. Austin Hill (age: 28, previous ranking: 17th): He has two Xfinity wins this year driving for Richard Childress Racing, and he will make his Cup debut this weekend at Michigan. People like his maturity, but he will need to move quickly to get to Cup.
5. Corey Heim (age: 20, previous ranking: 7th): In a part-time truck schedule at Kyle Busch Motorsports, Heim has two wins and four top-5s in 10 starts. Assuming he runs full-time in trucks next year, 2023 will be pivotal for him.
6. Chandler Smith (age: 20, previous ranking: 6th): Smith has two truck wins this year and an average finish of 9.3, a huge improvement over his average finish of 16.8 a year ago at Kyle Busch Motorsports.
7. Carson Hocevar (age: 19, previous ranking: 9th): He has run well in trucks, making the playoffs this year. He has great speed in the Niece Motorsports truck, but he's making the mistakes that young drivers make and needs to win.
8. Sammy Smith (age: 18, previous ranking: 14th): Smith has two wins and six top-5s in seven ARCA national series starts this year for KBM, plus he leads the ARCA East standings with three wins in five races.
9. Sheldon Creed (age: 24, previous ranking: 3rd): He was great in the trucks but sitting 13th in the Xfinity standings is a big disappointment. Those results, however, could be more about the RCR cars than his talent.
10. Taylor Gray (age: 17, previous ranking: 15th): He has three wins in seven ARCA national series starts for David Gilliland Racing with an average finish of 4.6. And he's second in the ARCA East standings. Plus, he nearly won the truck playoff opener at IRP last weekend.
11. Nick Sanchez (age: 21, previous ranking: NR): He has two wins in ARCA driving for Max Siegel and sits second in the season standings. Chevrolet is high on Sanchez and worked to get him some races in the Big Machine Records Racing No. 48 Xfinity car.
12. Rajah Caruth (age: 20, previous ranking: NR): Caruth leads the ARCA Series standings driving for Max Siegel with five top-5s in 11 races. He isn't one of those young drivers who has been racing since age 5 or 6, so many view him having a strong upside.
13. Daniel Dye (age: 18, previous ranking: 16th): Dye is third in the ARCA national series standings driving for GMS Racing after finishing second in the East standings last year.
14. Ben Rhodes (age: 25, previous ranking: 10th): The defending truck champion has one win this year. He should have more driving for ThorSport. How he does in the final six races of the truck season could determine whether anyone will want to give him a shot at another series.
15. Jesse Love (age: 17, previous ranking: 8th): Love hasn't had a great year with three top-5s in seven ARCA national series starts for Venturini Motorsports. But his back-to-back ARCA West titles in 2020-21 are enough to keep him on this list.
16. Luke Fenhaus (age: 18, previous ranking: NR): Fenhaus leads the CARS Pro Late Model tour standings with an average finish of 2.8 and hasn't finished outside the top-5 in that series driving for Highlands Motorsports. The Wisconsin-based driver is showing he can get it done against the best in the Southeast.
17. Brent Crews (age: 14, previous ranking: 20th): He has already won a Trans Am race, becoming the youngest winner in the series' history. He has already signed with KHI. Crews will have a spotlight on him wherever he goes, and many believe he could be the next generational talent.
18. Carson Kvapil (age: 19, previous ranking: 18th): He had four wins and won the CARS Late Model tour last year. This year, he has two wins and, driving for JR Motorsports, leads the CARS Late Model Stock tour.
19. William Sawalich (age: 15, previous ranking: NR): This young driver from Minnesota won a CARS Late Model race at Hickory this year and many are taking notice.
20. Hailie Deegan (age: 21, previous ranking: 11th): Deegan has had a year to forget in the trucks. But she should still get a look, based on her marketability and the fact that her résumé coming into the trucks in 2021 showed potential.
24 others to watch: Kaylee Bryson, Jake Drew, Drew Dollar, Christian Eckes, Santino Ferrucci, Ernie Francis Jr., Kaz Grala, Tanner Gray, Derek Griffith, Riley Herbst, Brandon Jones, Caden Kvapil, Buddy Kofoid, Derek Kraus, Landen Lewis, Ty Majeski, Connor Mosack, Thad Moffitt, Stefan Parsons, Parker Retzlaff, Layne Riggs, Isabella Robusto, Kyle Weatherman, Connor Zilisch.
Bob Pockrass has spent decades covering motorsports, including the past 30 Daytona 500s. He joined FOX Sports in 2019 following stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @bobpockrass. Looking for more NASCAR content? Sign up for the FOX Sports NASCAR Newsletter with Bob Pockrass!