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Carson Hocevar Back in Rookie of the Year Hunt With Career-Best Finish

Carson Hocevar career best NASCAR Cup finish eighth at Gateway 2024 NASCAR Cup rookie of the year battle

Photo Credit: Chris Owens, HHP for Chevy Racing

Carson Hocevar put in a career-best performance in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Enjoy Illinois 300 at World Wide Technology Raceway, the site of his series debut a season ago. The driver of the No. 77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 impressed with an eighth-place finish, and as a result, he now finds himself back in the thick of the battle for the Rookie of the Year Award.

RELATED: 2024 NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year Point Standings

Hocevar, who started the race from the 20th position, and remained inside the top-20 through the duration of the opening Stage of the race, which was a solid start for the driver and his team. But early in the race, it looked like Hocevar was going to have a massive challenge from Rookie point leader Josh Berry, who had rocketed inside the top-15 at one point in the opening portion of the race.

At the end of Stage 1, Hocevar (20th) ranked one position ahead of Berry. While Hocevar opted to pit under the Stage caution, Berry remained on track, which allowed the driver of the No. 4 machine to gain his best track position of the day and he would restart from the third position.

To make matters worse, Hocevar’s team had a hiccup on their opening pit stop of the race which came during the Stage Break caution at the conclusion of Stage 1 on Lap 48. The No. 77 pit crew accidentally left a lug nut loose, which as we’ve seen with these Next Gen single-lug nut wheels can result in the end of a race in a hurry.

Fortunately, the wheel would not detach, and with the race under caution, Hocevar would be able to return to pit road to address the issue, but due to the additional pit stop, Hocevar would find himself mired back in the 35th position.

As Berry remained a fixture inside the top-10, Hocevar was busy digging himself out of the track position hole that he found himself in. It wasn’t until Lap 65 that the driver of the No. 77 Zeigler Auto Group Chevrolet would crack back inside the top-30 of the running order.

However, the tables would turn for the two rookie contenders near the mid-way point of Stage 2 as Berry would be busted for speeding on pit road at Lap 91. That resulted in a pass thru penalty for Berry, and allowed Hocevar to gain some breathing room in the running order.

Hocevar had flipped the script and now found himself inside the top-10 as he remained on the track for a long stretch during a green-flag pit sequence. As Hocevar was imploying a strategy to flip his track position, things got even worse for Berry, who was attempting to make up time on the track following his speeding penalty.

Something failed on Berry’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang Dark Horse, which sent him shooting into the outside wall on Lap 112. Berry’s hope for a comeback was over, as his day would be done with a last-place finish.

But Berry’s misfortune turned out to be Hocevar’s fortune, as Hocevar had yet to pit in the green flag pit sequence, and as a result of the caution for Berry, Hocevar inherited top-10 track position.

Hocevar would score three Stage Points as he finished eighth in Stage 2, and for the remainder of the event, Hocevar was a top-10 contender. Hocevar even briefly flirted with a top-five finish, as he moved into the fourth position on Lap 149.

The driver, who had been running his car longer than others, which led to him gaining track position, short-pitted on his final stop of the day on Lap 173. As the race stayed green through the entire final Stage, Hocevar climbed his way back through the running order, and appeared to be heading to a ninth-place finish.

That is until Ryan Blaney’s fuel tank ran dry while leading with two laps to go, which handed the win to Austin Cindric. Blaney’s car sputtering allowed Hocevar to scoot by for one final position before the checkered flag. The end result was a career-best eighth-place finish for Hocevar.

“It was big for us,” Hocevar stated after climbing from his car. “We lost our lug nut there on the first stop, and our guys did a really good job catching the yellow. But ran as high as fourth there, so that was a lot of fun.”

While the 21-year-old driver put in an eye-opening performance on Sunday, more importantly, combined with Berry’s last-place finish, it allowed Hocevar to make up some massive ground in the Rookie of the Year race.

Berry, on the strength of four-consecutive top-15 finishes which included a third-place effort at Darlington and a 10th-place run at Charlotte, had started to cement himself as the walk-away favorite to win the NASCAR Cup Series Rookie the Year battle.

Heading into the weekend, Berry held a 36-point advantage over Hocevar for the ROTY crown. After Sunday’s race at Gateway, Hocevar now only trails Berry by five points as the series heads to California’s windy Sonoma Raceway for the 16th race in the 36-race season.

Hocevar, who made his NASCAR Cup Series debut for Spire Motorsports last season at Gateway showed that he, crew chief Luke Lambert, and their No. 77 team could be capable of some massive things as they reach the second race at tracks in the second-half of the season with their notebook that they are building.

“First time ever seeing a racetrack for a second time in a Spire car. And happy with our car, and the pieces, and this group,” Hocevar explained.

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