2017 Georgia NASCAR drivers review and 2018 preview

2017 Georgia NASCAR drivers review and 2018 preview 

Posted: 11:42 am Thursday, February 1st, 2018

By Doug "Fireball" Turnbull

The 2018 season was one of almost utter exuberance and certain, sighing heartbreak for the Georgia drivers gang – and several drivers struggling with middle or back marker teams. Here’s a quick breakdown of how each driver in NASCAR’s top series fared and what they look forward to this quickly approaching season.


Chase Elliott:

Wins: 0, Top 5s: 12, Top10s: 21, Poles: 1, Rank: 5, Avg. fin.: 12.0, DNFs: 4, LLFs: 27

That goose egg in the win column should not be of worry; Elliott notched five runner-up finishes (four in the Playoffs), out performed all of his teammates (including seven-time champ Jimmie Johnson), and came one spot short of a berth in the Championship 4 at Homestead. Elliott upped his totals in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series versus his rookie 2016 campaign in each category, except for poles (two to one) and including DNFs (four to two).

Elliott’s season mirrors that of Georgia sports: Elliott scored his second-straight Daytona 500 pole in the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy and led 23 consecutive laps, before running out of fuel with three laps to go. He nearly won Michigan in June, leading late and led big chunks of the Chicagoland Playoffs race, both ended up as runner-ups.The next week at Dover, Elliott led a race-high 138 laps, only to have Kyle Busch pass him for the win with two to go. He led 106 laps at Phoenix in March, finishing 12th and had the Playoff race there won in November, before Matt Kenseth passed him for a very popular final-career win with 10 to go. That win would have sent Elliott to the Championship 4 at Homestead. These were heartbreaking losses for Elliott fans, but signs of what is to come.

Elliott needs to shore up a few things, before the wins start flowing like Dawsonville moonshine. First, he has to get over the yips that overcome him in big moments. Late race miscalculations, like a failure to change his line and gain speed at both Dover and Phoenix, cost him. Restarts are not Elliott’s strong suit and are the best time to gain spots on the track. And in an effort to score more stage points, Elliott could raise that 10th-place average starting spot.

Elliott ran two NCWTS races for GMS racing’s No. 23 Chevy and won Martinsville in March. And he did not run a Xfinity Series race, ending a three-year winning streak in the series.

For 2018, Elliott returns with the same Alan Gustafson-led team, but will now champion the No. 9 – a number that Elliott ran pretty much his whole career before Cup (including the 2014 NXS championship) and that his father, Bill, dominated with in the 1980s. NAPA returns as the primary sponsor, with a similar slate of associate sponsors to the previous two years.

Hendrick Motorsports is further integrating its four race teams in 2018,instead of operating them like separate, two-team operations. This should help the organization as a whole and put Elliott in position to get that first MENCS win.


David Ragan:

Wins: 0, Top 5s: 0, Top10s: 3,  Poles: 0, Rank: 30,  Avg. fin.: 24.9,  DNFs: 4,  LLFs: 7

The now-32-year-old Unadilla, Georgia driver had the season one would pretty much expect at Front Row Motorsports. Ragan spent three years with the team, before shifting over to replace the injured Kyle Busch in 2015 and then Brian Vickers at Michael Waltrip Racing later that same year. After spending 2016 at BK Racing, Ragan reunited with FRM in 2017, but this time in the No. 38 Ford and not the team’s No. 34. Ragan improved his average finishing positions by four spots over 2016 and one that was only .3 spots/race worse than he scored in much better equipment in 2015.

Ragan’s three top 10s came in three of the four restrictor plate races – a discipline that has brought him his two MENCS wins. He had trouble in the Daytona 500, but came within two laps of winning Daytona in July (another heartbreaking Georgia driver loss). His four laps led at Daytona were the only four the No. 38 led all season. Ragan’s top 10 at Talladega in May was his first top 10 since Martinsville in March 2015.

One downside for Ragan’s 2017 season is that he seemed to find himself in the middle of a few more wrecks than normal. He had one less DNF than the year before, keeping that total of four in step with the total he gets each year.

Ragan, who will begin his 12th MENCS season in the No. 38 FRM Ford, is about to join an elite club. Barring injury, Ragan will make his 400th-career start at Atlanta Motor Speedway in race number two. Ragan will then join a club of only 61 drivers in Cup history to achieve the feat and 398 will have been consecutive. This is all a testament to Ragan’s ability to appeal to sponsors and bring cars back in one piece. With the youth movement and need for sponsorship that has swamped the sport, Ragan has been able to survive.

Seth Barbour replaces Derrick Finley atop Ragan’s pit box, having previously worked in Roush-Fenway Racing’s NXS operation. The team announced a stronger relationship with RFR and Ford and Ragan said in a team release that he hopes the team can improve its average finish by five spots. Michael McDowell joins Ragan as a teammate, replacing Landon Cassill in the No. 34, so change will definitely be a theme for the team, which hopes to mirror the rise of Furniture Row Racing over the past few years.


Reed Sorenson:  

Races: 28 of 36, Wins: 0, Top 5s: 0, Top10s: 0, Poles: 0, Rank: 35, Avg. fin.: 32.1, DNFs: 5, LLFs: 1

Premium Motorsports continued its existence as a backmarker team, with Reed Sorenson piloting its flagship No. 15 car in 28 of the 36 races. With few employees and sparse funding, the team normally would struggle to make races, but with NASCAR’s underfilled fields, Sorenson only DNQ’d for the Daytona 500.

Premium certainly will field at least one team in 2018, as Danica Patrick will run a No. 7 GoDaddy.com Chevy in a partnership with Tommy Baldwin Racing just for the Daytona 500. But the team has not announced its plans the rest of the season. Barring another driver showing up with funding, Sorenson is likely to get the nod after spending two seasons with the team.

Sorenson is only two months younger than Ragan and arrived in the Cup Series a year earlier, but he has been unable to hold on to rides. Sluggish performance, bad luck, and some perceived attitude problems have plagued Sorenson since his early years with Chip Ganassi Racing. The last competitive ride he had was with Turner Motorsports’ Xfinity Series program in 2011, but the team fired him late in the year while he was in the thick of the points battle. He reportedly had clashed with some people on the team, but the firing was surprising.

The only saving grace for Sorenson is being able to find funding. Sponsorship is the ticket these days and dollars can bring instant redemption for anyone. The typically quiet and incognito Sorenson may have to break out of his shell to find a big backer for his career to continue productively.


Ryan Sieg:

Wins: 0, Top 5s: 1, Top10s: 1, Poles: 0, Rank: 15, Avg. fin.: 20.8, DNFs: 3, LLFs: 15

2017 was undoubtedly a step back for Sieg and his family-owned RSS Racing team. The Georgia team got them inside the Xfinity playoffs in 2016 and an overall 9th-place points finish. But with more competitive teams running full-time in 2017, Sieg’s program finished an average of three spots worse per race and had two less top 10s. They also missed the Playoffs and were 15th in the year-end standings. Interestingly enough, Sieg finished three more races on the lead lap (15) in 2017 than 2016. Sieg also got his first non-restrictor plate top 5 last season, a career-best 2nd at Iowa in June.

With Kevin “Cowboy” Starland leading the No. 39 Chevy, Sieg is in place to run the 2018 NXS campaign with Jeff Green rejoining the team in the typically start-and-park No. 93 and the organization campaigning a third car full-time. If they can find enough sponsorship, this should shore up some funds and allow them to make competitive gains. The team used to run Earnhardt-Childress Racing engines, but no longer does.

Sieg also made his MENCS debut with BK Racing for five races (four in place of Gray Gaulding in the No. 23 and one in the No. 83, when Corey Lajoie moved to the No. 23) in the spring and summer in 2017. His best finish was 26th, in his debut at Dover, a race in which he spun. BK Racing has not announced its 2018 plans and is in financial trouble and Sieg didn’t run with them after July, so that pairing doesn’t seem apparent.


Brandon Jones:

Wins: 0, Top 5s: 0, Top10s: 3, Poles: 1, Rank: 16, Avg. fin.: 21.4, DNFs: 7, LLFs: 16

There’s not much good news in Jones’ 2017 season – point blank. But let’s start with one piece: Jones started off the season with a pole at Daytona. Things were looking up after a solid rookie campaign in the RCR No. 33 Chevy – a playoff berth, 12 top 10s, no DNFs, and 10th in points. But, alas, 2017 was snakebitten for the Atlanta native, who turns 21 on the day of the Daytona 500 this month. Jones crashed out at Daytona, the first of seven DNFs in his sophomore slump campaign. His average finish plummeted eight spots and he finished six spots worse in the points (each year a spot behind Sieg in points, by the way). The biggest drop off for Jones was his top 10 finishes…he notched only three in 2017, nine less than his rookie year.

Jones did have better luck in the NCWTS, running five races in the MDM Motorsports No. 99 Chevy with four top 10s and two top 5s. Like Sieg, Jones is winless in his NASCAR career, but did score a runner-up NCWTS finish at Kentucky Speedway.

For 2018, Jones brings sponsorship from his father’s company Rheem to Joe Gibbs Racing. Jones will drive the No. 19 car with Menard’s sponsoring the ride for 10 races and Rheem largely backing the JGR No. 20 of Christopher Bell and No. 18 “all-star” car. Despite a really rough 2017, Jones actually moves to a better team and has a chance to redeem himself.

As part of the move to JGR, Jones will also run a handful of NCWTS races in the Kyle Busch Motorsports No. 51 Toyota.


Garrett Smithley:

Wins: 0, Top 5s: 0, Top10s: 2, Poles: 0, Rank: 21, Avg. fin.: 26.5, DNFs: 7, LLFs: 7

Keeping in step with the other Georgia drivers in the NXS, Smithley’s numbers also slid back in his second full-time season in the series. His average finish was two spots less, average start 1.7 spots worse, and ranking three spots less. Smithley also had three more DNFs.

Smithley did score his first career top 10s, an 8th at Daytona in February and 10th at a strategy-laden Iowa race in June. Those are big accomplishments for a team of Smithley’s size. Vinnie Miller brought sponsorship and replaced Smithley for one race, at Chicagoland Speedway in September, and Smithley ran for Carl Long’s No. 40 that week.

Smithley’s career has been one of perseverance. JD Motorsports is a mid-pack team at best, but even within the organization there are different levels. The team’s primary No. 4 car is driven by Ross Chastain, who brings significant coin to the table. In 2016, both Chastain and Ryan Preece had sponsorship and Smithley’s No. 0 team was third in the chart. In 2017, Smithley and Harrison Rhodes were in the same boat – campaigning cars with far less money than Chastain. Smithley works hard during the week cold-calling sponsors to back his race team and is very active on social media, using “#NumberNuthin” on his posts.

The 2018 season sees driver Miller join JDM full-time in the No. 01 and Chastain returning to the No. 4. Sources say Smithley should return full-time to the No. 0 and Rhodes hopes to run at least part-time in a fourth car for the team. Team owner Johnny Davis said that he plans to run the entries of Smithley and Rhodes as R&D for the other two teams some weeks, depending on funding. 2018 may be more of the same results for Smithley, but the fact that he is holding down a ride for multiple years in NASCAR’s penultimate series is an accomplishment in its own.


Chris Cockrum:

Races: 5, Wins: 0, Top 5s: 0, Top10s: 0, Poles: 0, Rank: 53, Avg. fin.: 30.2, DNFs: 2, LLFs: 1

Cockrum continued his trend from the year before and ran more than just a couple of plate races. But he and his family decided to stake out on their own and form Cockrum Racing,with longtime stock car veteran wrench Jeff Spraker maintaining the cars and crew. The No. 25 Advanced Communications Group Chevy fell victim to the new five minute crash clock at the season-opening Daytona race, when a car’s passenger window came undone in a wreck and lodged in Cockrum’s radiator.

Cockrum ran both Daytona races (season-best 26th in July), Talladega in May, Atlanta in February, and Chicagoland in September. Realistically, the 31-year-old Conyers driver’s best chance to win with his own team is at these plate races and indications are that is the team’s plan again in 2018, along with Cockrum’s hometrack Atlanta Motor Speedway.


Mark Thompson:

Races: 2, Wins: 0, Top 5s: 0, Top10s: 0, Poles: 0, Rank: 62, Avg. fin.: 28.5, DNFs: 2, LLFs: 0

Thompson shows up for the plate races each year in both the NXS and ARCA Series. The 66-year-old Cartersville driver brings his company, Phoenix Air, as sponsor each time. Thompson failed to qualify at Daytona in February, lost an engine at Talladega in May, and crashed at Daytona in July, all in Carl Long’s No. 13 entry. He also ran Carl Long’s No. 66 in both ARCA plate races and crashed and finished 31st in both.

Thompson branched out and qualified for the MENCS Talladega race in October, crashing out and finishing 39th. Thompson had last run at Cup race in 1992 – at age 40.


Wendell Chavous:

Races: 21 of 23, Wins: 0, Top 5s: 0, Top10s: 0, Poles: 0, Rank: 15, Avg. fin.: 20.4, DNFs: 5, LLFs: 1

Chavous was the only full-time Georgia driver in the Camping World Truck Series in 2017, running again for Premium Motorsports, a team he ran part-time with in 2014 and 2015. The NCWTS field was light this season, meaning Chavous had decent mid-pack finishes with a small team. But he still hasn’t scored a top 10 in his career, had only one lead lap finish in 2017, and had to start-and-park a few times.

Sobriety Nation is sponsoring Chavous to run full-time in 2018 and the series may have tighter competition, since the series is now running uniform spec engines. That should allow Chavous to stay on the lead lap more often in the No. 49 Chevy.


Austin Hill:

Races: 12 of 23, Wins: 0, Top 5s: 0, Top10s: 1, Poles: 0, Rank: 23, Avg. fin.: 17.8, DNFs: 3, LLFs: 6

Hill has been trying to find his NASCAR footing for a few years, after being named a NASCAR Next driver. At 23, Hill had an almost identical season to the year prior: one top 10, very similar average starts, and only one spot lower in the average finish column. Hill split his time between the Young’s Motorsports team and his own truck in 2016, but spent all 12 of his 2017 races in the Young’s No. 02 Ford.

Hill and the team announced they will run together full-time in 2018 with veteran crew chief Chad Kendrick calling the shots.


Spencer Davis:

Davis didn’t run full-time in any NASCAR national touring series, but ran seven ARCA races with four top 10s and a top 5 (3rd at Daytona) for Venturini Motorsports. The 19-year-old from Dawsonville also ran three NASCAR K&N Pro Series East races with two top 10s and a handful of modified and late model races.

2018 will be Davis’ big break, as he will suit up for several races in the Kyle Busch Motorsports No. 51 truck, just like his childhood friend, Jones. Davis was a standout in go karts and has had a mixed bag of results in his racing results up the ladder since. Some strong finishes in a KBM truck could really get some momentum going for the young driver.

Korbin Forrister:

Forrister ran two Xfinity Series races in 2017 for SS/Greenlight Racing in the No. 07 Chevy,finishing 31st and 33rd. The 25-year-old from Cedartown opened the season running Daytona and Atlanta in the Camping World Truck Series for Wauters Motorsports No. 5, with a best finish of 20th. The team withdrew from race number three at Martinsville and then didn’t run again the rest of the year. Forrister and Wauters also ran together at Talladega in 2016. Forrister, who cut his teeth running dirt, returned for the Eldora race with backmarker Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing, crashing and placing 28th.

But 2018 brings better news, as Forrister will run a 10-race NCWTS schedule for a team his family has formed – All Out Motorsports.

“I’m excited to be back in a truck this year,” Forrister said in the team’s press release. “My parents figured if we were going to continue to race we might as well open our own team. This year we will run a partial schedule with hopes to run a full season in 2019. Right now we are still acquiring sponsorship and hope to add some additional races this year.” Forrister ran almost the entire season in 2015 for SS/Greenlight Racing.

Veteran Doug George will serve as the crew chief on Forrister’s No. 7 Toyota.

Again, with a sparse field in the Truck Series, Forrister has a better chance to run well and score his first-ever NASCAR top 10 finish and lead his first lap.