Talented young guns ready to take next test on Bristol's concrete high banks
Throughout NASCAR history there are times when an explosion of young talented drivers will burst onto the scene, all at once.
For race fans, these rare events are exhilarating. At Bristol Motor Speedway’s upcoming Bass Pro Shops Night Race weekend, a group of fresh-faced rising stars have the potential to make plenty of headlines in the weekend’s highly-anticipated support races.
Over the years at Bristol the legendary stories of raw talent taking shape are plenty. There have been many major breakthroughs for young drivers. Consider Dale Earnhardt Sr. at the 1979 BMS spring Cup race. The man who would later go on to win seven Cup Series championships and earn the nickname ‘The Intimidator’ planted his flag that day as a Cup rookie to be reckoned with by claiming the win over well-established superstars like Bobby Allison, Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip. He remains the only Cup rookie to have won a race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
In other series, the stories are similar, as current Xfinity Series star Sam Mayer won three-straight ARCA races and a Craftsman Truck Series race at Bristol over a two-year period to loudly announce his arrival on the main stage of the stock car racing scene. Others, like Erik Jones, Tyler Reddick, Chandler Smith and Ty Gibbs, to name a few, have all used Bristol victories to propel themselves into NASCAR stardom and build strong fan followings with NASCAR Nation.
So, who are the ones to watch during the upcoming Bristol weekend? Just so there are no surprises, we have identified eight drivers who fans will want to get to know a little better during the upcoming NASCAR race weekend. Below is a quick scouting report on these talented newcomers.
BUSH'S BEANS 200
Three young drivers are looking to execute Sam Mayer-like dominating performances in the Bush’s Beans 200 ARCA Menards Series race on Thursday night (6 p.m., FS1 and MRN Radio).
Jesse Love – Speaking of Young, Love puts the ‘Young’ in Young Guns, as the talented California driver became the youngest driver to win an ARCA Menards West Series race and series crown at age 15. He claimed back-to-back ARCA West titles and now is the points leader as the national ARCA tour heads to Bristol.
Love is dominating the action this season at the controls of his No. 20 JBL Toyota and has scored eight victories in 13 races. His victories have come at some of the biggest NASCAR tracks, including Talladega, Charlotte, Pocono, Michigan and Watkins Glen. His recent win at Indianapolis Raceway Park, a challenging short track just west of downtown, bodes well for his chances at Bristol.
Love has two ARCA starts at Bristol in his career and he finished 10th in 2021 and 7th in 2022. He’s ready to move that up several positions at the Bush’s Beans 200 as he eyes the series championship crown.
William Sawalich – Minnesota racer William Sawalich will be making his Bristol debut during the Night Race weekend, but the good news is that the Joe Gibbs Racing development driver is going to get two separate shots on the same night at the high-banked short track that races like a superspeedway.
The 16-year-old Sawalich has had an ultra-quick rise to prominence on the motorsports scene, as he started racing midgets at the age of 9, then advanced to Legends cars and then graduated to Late Models in 2021. As you can imagine, he passed each test with flying colors.
Sawalich has taken the ARCA Menards East Series by storm this season and will likely clinch that series title over the weekend at Bristol. In six starts he has compiled two victories and hasn’t posted a finish outside the top-five. He will certainly be one of the favorites in the ARCA Menards national Series race that weekend and also will get the opportunity to race in the Craftsman Truck Series race under the lights at Bristol as well.
On the Craftsman Truck side of the garage, Sawalich has posted a trio of top-10s in his David Gilliland-prepared TRICON Garage Toyota Tundra in four starts so far this year and he will be looking to improve on his career-best finish of sixth from IRP in the nightcap of the Bristol double-header.
Christian Rose – Certainly a late bloomer among the teen-heavy list of Young Guns mentioned in this story, 28-year-old Christian Rose was a NCAA Division I baseball player at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore before he decided to make the transition to become a stock car racer.
It has proven to be a good move as the Martinsburg, W.Va. native has had nice success in the ARCA Menards Series. The driver of the No. 32 Ford for AM Racing has posted eight top-10 finishes in 13 starts to date and sits fourth in the season standings.
You may have seen Rose in a recent viral social media moment following the ARCA Menards Series race at IRP. He was involved in an on-track incident with Conner Jones, where Jones made contact with Rose and sent him into the wall and ultimately a 10th place finish. Rose wasn’t happy with the outcome and decided to confront Jones in the pits after the race. The discussion led to hot tempers and one of Jones’ crew members got physical with Rose. Rose had to be held back by one of his crew members. More loud words and finger-pointing ensued until the dustup was over.
Rose has also made one Truck Series start this season, at Richmond, where his 32nd place finish in his No. 22 AM Racing Ford doesn't tell the full story. Early in the race he ran very well at times.
UNOH 200 PRESENTED BY OHIO LOGISTICS
Two of the trio of NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series rising stars to watch advanced to the Playoffs and will likely play a role in the outcome of the UNOH 200 presented by Ohio Logistics race (9 p.m., FS1 and MRN Radio), the night cap in what promises to be a thrilling Thursday night doubleheader.
Nick Sanchez – Rev Racing hot shoe Nick Sanchez in a true rookie in the Craftsman Truck Series this year in his very first season in the competitive class driving the No. 2 Chevy Silverado. The defending ARCA Series champ wasted little time establishing himself as one of the fastest trucks in the series. He has claimed four pole positions and earned a spot in the Playoffs by posting four top-fives and eight top-10s. While he is still looking for his first victory, he is the only rookie to qualify for the postseason in the Truck Series.
“My expectations for the Playoffs are just to compete and ultimately get to Phoenix,” said Sanchez, who grew up racing go karts in Miami. “I want to treat every race like its own season. Not really worry about points too much, not really worry about the end goal too much, but just live in the moment. At this point, we really just want to compete for wins.”
After posting an 18th place finish on Bristol dirt in April, this will be Sanchez’ first look at Bristol in concrete form in a Truck, but he has posted two respectable finishes on the challenging concrete high banks in his ARCA days, taking fourth in 2021 and securing a 12th place effort last season.
Corey Heim – This TRICON Motorsports driver, who scored Rookie of the Year honors in the Truck Series last year while running a part-time schedule, is making his first full-season attempt in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and he’s done it in impressive fashion. He has raced to two victories so far in his No. 11 truck and logged seven top-fives and 14 top-10s, good enough to claim the No. 1 seed and win the regular season title.
This will be Heim's third career start at Bristol, as last year he started fifth and finished 10th driving a Kyle Busch Motorsports truck and this April on the Bristol dirt he started 12th and finished 15th. The Georgia native was a short-track specialist when earning his racing stripes in the Late Model ranks, so expect him to shine in his third appearance at Thunder Valley.
While he’s a relatively new face in the Truck garage, Heim is quickly becoming one of the championship favorites in a field full of hungry veterans like defending champ Zane Smith, Ben Rhodes, Carson Hocevar, past champ Matt Crafton, defending Bristol winner Ty Majeski and Grant Enfinger, to name a few.
“Our consistency over the past two or three months has been really good,” Heim said. “If we can continue that momentum in the Playoffs we should be in really good shape.”
Jake Garcia – Like Sanchez, Garcia is also looking for his first victory in the Truck Series, but this rookie just missed making the Playoffs. The 18-year-old Georgia driver has been consistently good, posting a fifth place at Texas, sixth in the Bristol dirt, eighth at Kansas and a season-best fourth at Richmond recently. He also has three 10th place finishes on his resume, at Las Vegas to open the season, at Nashville Superspeedway and at St. Louis.
Please don’t confuse him with the Jake Garcia that plays quarterback for the Missouri Tigers, this Jake Garcia drives the No. 35 Chevy for McAnally-Hilgemann Racing and has worked his way up the ranks through the USAC Eastern Midget Series, the CRA Late Model Tour, the CARS Super Late Models and on to the ARCA Menards Series.
Bristol fans who are into the grassroots of stock car racing may remember Garcia for his stellar run in leading the U.S. Short Track Nationals Pro Late Model race at Bristol Motor Speedway back in 2020. He led 64 laps of that race before eventually finishing fifth behind winner Trevor Noles. Just for reference, Sammy Smith and Corey Heim, mentioned elsewhere in this story, finished behind Garcia in that race.
Garcia also had a five-race Truck run last season that included a Bristol start in the UNOH 200 presented by Ohio Logistics. He finished 22nd after starting 15th. He’ll be looking for much better results this time out on the revered East Tennessee bullring now that he’s nearly completed a full season on the Craftsman Truck circuit.
FOOD CITY 300
On Friday night, the large majority of drivers in the NASCAR Xfinity Series are very well-known, but two of the starters in the Food City 300 (7:30 p.m., USA Network, PRN Radio) are in that realm where fans may have heard their name before but still need to take a peek at the roster and driver photos spread inside the souvenir program to refresh their memory.
Sammy Smith – Last year’s ARCA winner at Bristol, Sammy Smith won the race, and in the process, clinched the championship in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing machine. This year he has graduated to the Xfinity Series full-time as a rookie driver and is qualified for the Playoffs via his victory at Phoenix in the spring.
Smith has big expectations heading to Bristol in his No. 18 Gibbs car, as he will be looking to get off to a fast start in the Xfinity Series playoffs, but more importantly chase down a second win for the season.
That’s because Smith already has an Xfinity start at Bristol under his belt, posting a 14th place finish last year during a part-time season that featured a limited schedule of nine races.
Parker Retzlaff – One of the candidates for Rookie of the Year in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Parker Retzlaff is an unassuming 19-year-old kid from Wisconsin who is proving each week that he is swiftly emerging as a very solid stock car driver.
Retzlaff has had a nice season at the controls of the No. 31 Chevy for Jordan Anderson Racing. He has amassed one top-five and five top-10s this year and sits in 17th position in the Xfinity points, just outside the top 12 cutoff for the Playoffs.
Some of his strong runs this season have come at Daytona to start the season where he turned heads by finishing fourth. He posted a seventh-place effort at Talladega, a sixth-place finish at Charlotte in May, was 10th at Nashville Superspeedway in June and then posted another top-10 at Michigan recently.
This will be his first Bristol start in the Xfinity Series. He has had one ARCA Menards Series start at Bristol, coming back in 2020 when he started sixth and finished 19th in a Toyota.
The Bass Pro Shops Night Race weekend features three nights of electrifying NASCAR Playoff action under the lights including Saturday night’s Cup Playoff race, the Bass Pro Shops Night Race (7 p.m., USA Network, PRN Radio). The weekend also includes the return of Dale Earnhardt Jr. to Bristol’s high banks in the Food City 300 NASCAR Xfinity Series race on Friday night, Sept. 15 (7:30 p.m., USA Network and PRN Radio). The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series will get the fun started on Thursday night, Sept. 14, with the running of the UNOH 200 presented by Ohio Logistics (9 p.m., FS1 and MRN Radio). The ARCA Menards Series will open Thursday’s racing to make it a doubleheader night with the Bush’s Beans 200 (6 p.m., FS1 and MRN Radio).
Off the track there’s tons to do during your Bristol visit with lots of activities available in the BMS Fan Zone and BMS Fan Midway. Kenny Wallace and John Roberts will host Trackside Live at the Food City Fan Zone Stage on Saturday at 4 p.m. where drivers and other newsmakers will be interviewed. Country music band Midland will perform the pre-race concert Saturday at 5:30 p.m. to get the fans revved up for the traditional driver introductions, where each driver enters the stadium to a favorite song or music. There will be post-race entertainment on Thursday and Friday, as DJ Sterl the Pearl will host the world-famous Foam Party after the Thursday night double-header, and country music singer Tim Dugger will perform after Friday night’s Food City 300.
To purchase tickets, please visit the Bristol Motor Speedway website or call the BMS Ticket Sales Center at (866) 415-4158.