2016 Georgia drivers review and 2017 preview 

Posted: 9:24 am Friday, January 13th, 2017

By Doug "Fireball" Turnbull

Georgia’s NASCAR drivers corps had mixed 2016 results. Three made the Chase (one in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and two in the Xfinity Series) and they won one race. But they also spent plenty of races toiling in underfunded rides and in the infield care centers of various tracks. We digest these results and look ahead to what could be a promising 2017 for Peach State pilots in NASCAR’s top three series.

 

Chase Elliott: The now-21-year-old Elliott will be the far and above flag bearer for the Georgia gang for years to come, as long as he keeps up what he produced in his rookie season in what was Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 Chevy. Elliott’s 2016 highlights include winning the Daytona 500 pole, the Talladega pole in May, qualifying for the Chase on points, and nearly advancing to the Round of Eight (if not for getting wrecked on a restart in October’s Charlotte race), and capturing the final Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year title.

Elliott also won the season-opening Xfinity Series race at Daytona, driving for JR Motorsports in the No. 88 Chevy and nearly put his Cup Series NAPA Chevy for Hendrick Motorsports in Victory Lane a couple of times.

For the aplomb Martin Truex Jr. received on his 2016 dominance, Elliott had two more top 5s and the same number of top 10s (Truex Jr. led the series in laps led). Elliott also bested Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth in top 5 finishes. The youngster and son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill continued the family tradition of smooth, fast, consistent driving.

If Elliott can improve on just one thing, it’s his restarts. Elliott does not fare well on those and that has been a fact during other key moments early in his driving career. But with one very solid, above-expectations season under his belt, there is no reason to think that Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson cannot make the Chase again, win a race or two, and avoid a sophomore slump.

2016 MENCS stats: 36 races, 10 top 5s, 17 top 10s, 2 poles, 11.3 avg. start, 14.6 avg. finish, 10th place points rank

2016 NXS stats: 6 races, 1 win, 4 top 5s, 6 top 10s, 0 poles, 12.2 avg. start, 5.3 avg. finish 2016 NCWTS stats: 1 race, 1 top 5, 1 top 10, 1 pole, 1.0 avg. start, 2.0 avg. finish

 

David Ragan: Ragan’s foray away from Front Row Motorsports and into substitution roles with the bigger Toyota teams of Joe Gibbs Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing left him searching for a ride at the end of 2015. Ragan landed on his feet in the BK Racing No. 23 Dr. Pepper Toyota. The fledgling, fifth-year team would be no match for the majority of the field all year. Ragan admitted at Daytona that they would even be a step behind in restrictor plate races, because they had Triad Racing engines and not the fast TRD power plants that Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row racing deployed.

Ragan had some respectable runs – a 17th in the spring Dover race and an upstart 12th-place starting spot at Martinsville in October. But mechanical woes at Martinsville doomed his day and most of the Patrick Donahue-led team’s finishes were between 25th and 35th.

The highlight of the 2016 season for Ragan was the pole he notched in the July Daytona Xfinity Series race in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota. But Ragan faltered late in the race and placed 21st.

While both of BK Racing’s full-time drivers departed in the offseason and the beleaguered team has only one driver, so far, signed up for a part-time 2017 schedule (Joey Gase), Ragan has landed on his feet. The Unadilla, Ga. native turned 31 in the offseason and just two weeks before his birthday, agreed to return to Front Row Motorsports, but in the No. 38 Ford, not the No. 34 that he drove for three seasons. Landon Cassill moves from the 38 to the 34, the team’s lead car that Ragan’s buddy, Chris Buescher, won with and qualified for the 2016 Chase.

Front Row Motorsports should be slightly better off with more cash on hand and a continued relationship with Roush Fenway Racing, RFR pit crews, and their Roush-Yates engines. Ragan is still with a small team, but one in much better shape than BK Racing. A top-25 points finish may be a stretch for Ragan in 2017, but a couple of top 10s or top 15s is not that far-fetched. And remember that Ragan won for FRM at Talladega in 2013. The team has not announced a crew chief yet.

2016 MENCS stats: 36 races, 30.7 avg. start, 28.6 avg. finish, 33rd-place points rank

2016 NXS stats: 1 race, 1 pole, 1.0 avg start, 21.0 avg finish

 

Reed Sorenson: The struggle to remain in NASCAR is real for Reed Sorenson. Since losing a championship-caliber ride with Braun Racing in 2011, Sorenson has bounced around between small teams. The 30-year-old Peachtree City driver landed with Premium Motorsports early in the 2016 season, to pilot the team’s second entry, the No. 55.

The team vacillated between running Toyotas and Chevrolets and Sorenson sometimes switched to running the team’s primary entry, the No. 98 that Cole Whitt normally drove, when sponsorship dictated the change. But the sponsorship needed to run even in the top 30 was not there for Premium and Sorenson’s results showed. The season highlight was his 12th-place start at Talladega in October, which mechanical problems torpedoed in the opening laps.

Sorenson also attempted the season-opening Truck Series race at Daytona and failed to qualify the Mittler Bros. No. 63. He did return later in the season to make his NCWTS debut for Premium Motorsports in the No. 49 Chevrolet. Sorenson finished a season-best 18th at both Pocono and Talladega, in six races.

We have reached out to both Premium Motorsports and to Sorenson’s management team about Sorenson’s 2017 plans, but have not heard back from them. Premium Motorsports has not announced a driver lineup in any respect.

2016 MENCS stats: 28 races, avg. start 37.5, avg. finish 33.9, 39th-place points finish

2016 NCWTS stats: 6 races, avg. start 25.7, avg. finish 22.8

 

The Xfinity Series was a potent place for the Georgia peaches to grow. Both Ryan Sieg and Brandon Jones made the Chase and Garrett Smithley had a surprisingly consistent effort for his small team.

2017 brings a significant change to the NXS racecars: a decrease in downforce. A source says that NASCAR is shortening the spoiler by three inches and making it narrower by four inches. The sport is also mandating teams make the cars’ front splitters an inch lower and change two other dimensions on the lower front nose of the car. This should decrease speeds and handling and make for more passing.

But these changes could also be harder for smaller teams to adapt to, since bigger teams have budgets to better implement them. How Sieg, Smithley, and Chris Cockrum adjust to the changes will be a storyline to watch for the Georgia drivers in the 2017 Xfinity Series.

 

Ryan Sieg: 2016 was 29-year-old Sieg’s third full NXS season and each has been slightly better than the last. This past year was most notable for the Sugar Hill, Georgia-based RSS Racing team, because they scored enough points to run in the inaugural NXS Chase.

Sieg only scored two top 10s with a season best of 3rd at Daytona in July, but he also drove just past the “good” in his equipment – far enough to run well, but not over the edge to wrecking. Sieg had the worst season-long average finish of the Chase drivers and got eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, but he still mustered 9th in the standings.

Crew chief Kevin “Cowboy” Starland, who achieved success in the NCWTS years ago with driver Rick Crawford, returns to the team in 2017 and team owner Rod Sieg, Ryan’s father, will continue purchasing good equipment and engines from Richard Childress Racing. There will be more full-time teams in the well-funded part of the garage this season, but Sieg could still make the 2017 Chase, if he stays consistent and the team adapts well to the changes in the car. RSS Racing plans to run continue running a second team, but that is likely to be a start-and-park effort and not full-time like it was for David Star in 2016.

2016 NXS stats: 33 races, 1 top 5, 3 top 10s, 0 poles, 18.7 avg. start, 17.8 avg. finish, 9th-place points finish.

 

Brandon Jones: Jones’ rookie NXS season in the Richard Childress Racing No. 33 Chevy saw him make the first-ever NXS Chase. But Jones did not step up his game enough once the Chase got underway. He got crash damage at Kentucky Speedway, then ran mid-pack the next two races and was out of the playoffs in the first round. His season highlight, besides making the Chase, was leading 36 leaps at Talladega in May. He had 12 top 10s all year, but only one in the last nine races.

Arguably the biggest highlight for Jones was his ARCA Series win at Michigan International Speedway in June in the No. 8 Chevy. He had two other top 5 finishes in five total races for Ranier Racing with MDM. Jones also ran five races in the No. 71 truck (the same one that Chase Elliott ran and that is technically owned by Carlos Contreras) and notched two top 10 finishes. This was also fielded by RRMDM.

Mike Hillman Jr. was the lead wrench on the No. 33 NXS team last season, but Nick Harrison returns to that role for the team in 2017. With more experience, Jones should do better, but acclimating to the downforce on the racecars will be a challenge. Mix in a new crew chief and the higher competition level in the series, 2017 will have its share of challenges for the 19-year-old Atlanta driver. Any NCWTS or ARCA plans have not been announced.

2016 NXS stats: 33 races, 0 wins, 0 top 5s, 12 top 10s, 0 poles, 14.4 avg. start, 13.8 avg. finish, 10th-place points finish.

2016 NCWTS stats: 5 races, 0 wins, 0 top 5s, 2 top 10s, 0 poles, 11.8 avg. start, 12.8 avg. finish.

 

Garrett Smithley: He has come out of nowhere. Smithley snuck onto the NASCAR scene in 2015, with a couple of spot starts for small NCWTS and NXS teams. He opened 2016 with no announced plans, then stepped into the JD Motorsports No. 0 Chevy, starting in the season’s second race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He became the second Georgia-based rookie of the year candidate in 2016.

Depending on sponsorship, Smithley sometimes raced entire races on one or two sets of tires, refreshed engines, and other extremely diminished resources. But he normally kept the racecar clean and finished a few spots ahead of where he started. When the dust settled at season’s end, he was 18th in points. His two best finishes were 12th at Talladega in May and 13th in the July Daytona race. Smithley turned what had been just a three race deal into a season-long endeavor and is fairly sure that he will return to the team in 2017.

Smithley is also an iRacing driver and moonlights as a driving instructor at the Richard Petty Driving Experience, so he hones his skills beyond racing weekends. He also cold-called many of his 2016 sponsors and set up the deals – something that kept him in the racecar and will be key to his driving future.

2016 also saw Smithley run three NCWTS races. He ran at Atlanta for the Mittler Bros. and finished 18th and then two later races for SS/Greenlight Racing’s No. 07 Chevy, with tepid results.

If Smithley stays with JD Motorsports’ third car, he won’t take a step forward. But getting sidelined heading into 2017 is most certainly a step back, because out of sight is out of mind.

2016 NXS stats: 32 races, avg. start 28.2, avg. finish, 24.0, 18th-place points finish

2016 NCWTS stats: 3 races, avg. start 24.7, avg. finish 22.7

 

Chris Cockrum: Cockrum had a tough 2016 campaign. Cockrum and his family hired Jeff Spraker a couple of years ago to oversee his racing efforts and work on the racecars they buy to go to the track. They ran or attempted eight NXS races together in 2016 in a partnership with Rick Ware Racing, just as they had done the two seasons prior, but they did not take a step forward.

With the best restrictor plate car he has ever had, Cockrum drove conservatively and lost the draft at Daytona, finishing 28th. He then struggled heavily in worse equipment the next week at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the Conyers native’s hometrack. Cockrum had one of the NASCAR season’s heaviest hits at Talladega in May after slight contact in the draft with Smithley. He also hit the wall and crashed out at Michigan in June and practice incidents that wrecked the team’s small fleet at Richmond and Kentucky in the fall led the team to arrange backup racecars with fill-in drivers for those races.

The 2017 plans for Cockrum and the Advanced Communications Group team are, so far, unannounced. But they plan to start their own team and have a locked-in spot for the season-opening NXS races. They spent the offseason with Spraker rebuilding and restocking their racecars, but how many races they will run is still unknown.

Cockrum turned 30 in December, so he wants to be ambitious and race as much as possible, hoping to attract the bigger sponsor or team that will help him realize his racecar-driving dream. But the deck is stacked high, so 2017 success will be taking the chances he does have and driving cleanly, using the Smithley model. With some good luck and execution, he might be able to run well enough to draw notice.

2016 NXS stats: 6 races (entered 8, withdraw 2), avg. start 36.7, avg. finish 31.7, 44th-place points finish

 

Others: Road racing ace Andy Lally, who lives in Atlanta, ran the Mid-Ohio race and finished a head-turning 7th at Mid-Ohio, in Mario Gosselin’s No. 90 Chevy. And Cartersville’s Mark Thompson normally attempts the NXS plate races, but only got into one and finished 31st at Daytona in July. He also failed to qualify at Talladega and then qualified but switched out of the driver’s seat at the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway. Neither has announced any 2017 NASCAR plans.

 

With recent promotions in the Georgia drivers’ ranks, only one ran full-time in the NCWTS in 2016 – and he will not anymore. There were several other part-time efforts in the series for Georgia drivers, none of which have been announced again either way for 2017. Let’s look.

 

John Wes Townley: We broke the news earlier this week that Townley is electing not to race in 2017 and his family-owned Athenian Motorsports team is shutting down. The 27-year-old had great opportunities in good equipment and is deciding to settle down, get married, go to college, and try something else. His rough 2016 season didn’t do much to turn him from thinking any other way.

Townley opened the year winning the ARCA Daytona race for Athenian, but had only two top 10s the entire season in the NCWTS. He did win two NCWTS poles, but he often ran well behind where he qualified. Townley also drove in the NXS February Daytona and May Talladega races with mediocre results and withdrew from the July Daytona race.

2015 was Townley’s best NCWTS season and included a win. 2016 was one of his worst and included five races missed, due to two injuries and, of course, there was that fight with Spencer Gallagher after a wreck at Gateway Motorsports Park.

Townley’s move to retire got largely overshadowed by Carl Edwards’ big announcement this week. But Townley made the correct choice, if his passion is not in this anymore. Unfortunately, a solid NCWTS team closes its doors and Zaxby’s, co-founded by Townley’s father, probably exits the sport.

2016 NCWTS stats: 18 races, 2 top 10s, 2 poles, avg. start 12.0, avg. finish 18.9, 17th-place points finish.

 

Austin Hill: The Winston, Georgia native ran most of his races for his family-owned Austin Hill Racing team. After moderate success in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and in late models, Hill began running select NCWTS races a couple of years ago. After failing to qualify Empire Racing’s No. 43 at the 2016 season-opening race in Daytona, Hill began, as planned, with his own team at Atlanta Motor Speedway in week two and got his second-best 2016 finish, 12th. Later in the year, Hill placed the No. 20 Ford 10th at Martinsville.

Young Motorsports’ No. 02 fielded Hill in four mid-season races and the 24-year-old ran a race in Jennifer Jo Cobb’s No. 1 truck. But those arrangements were simply to get Hill in the field with truck numbers that were higher in owner’s points. Hill essentially ran his own equipment in those events.

Hill could benefit from a bigger schedule in 2017 and needs to qualify better. He missed three races – two for his own team and also the aforementioned Daytona race. The No. 20 team also switched crew chiefs mid-season, a curveball with which even veteran drivers can struggle. Hill and company have not announced their plans, but at a pivotal age and with NASCAR’s current guard aging, his decisions now could determine if he truly is a NASCAR Next driver.

2016 NCWTS stats: 10 races, 1 top 10, avg. start 18.9, avg. finish 18.8, 26th-place points finish.

 

Others: Korbin Forrister, who ran nearly a full 2015 season, made one 2016 race (started 10th and finished 27th at Talladega for Wauters Motorsports) and failed to qualify for three others. Forrister missed the first two races of the year for Lira Motorsports and then failed to make the Eldora Speedway race for Empire Racing. Forrister also finished 22nd for Lira Motorsports at the ARCA Talladega race in May.

Brady Boswell ran two races in place of John Wes Townley for Athenian Motorsports in the NCWTS, finishing 21st at Eldora and 19th at Homestead. He actually started 9th at Homestead, which is impressive, considering he’s run mostly late models and seven-career ARCA races. All seven of those came this season and he finished a season-best 5th at Pocono Raceway. With seats open in both series and some family business sponsorship, expect Boswell to be driving something in a national series in 2017.

Kyle Fowler had run a couple of races in 2014 and 2015, including the fall Martinsvile MENCS race both years. But he told me in December, after not running in 2016, that the sponsorship front has been cold and he has been focused on other ventures.

Wendell Chavous ran seven races in the 2015 season for Premium Motorsports in the NCWTS, but he did not run any in 2016 and there aren’t any listed 2017 NASCAR plans.

Jody Knowles ran four races in 2014 and one in 2015 in the NCWTS, but he didn’t even attempt Eldora in 2016. So the Tyrone, Georgia native is probably keeping his racing endeavors local this season.

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