It’s simple, we put together some of the best scouts and experts in the business and told them one thing: if you had a team in NASCAR’s big three, which kids would you like to draft from the short track ranks for your organization.
But, like with all things, there are some rules. You can’t have a full-time ride this year in the “Big Three.” We also abide by NASCAR’s age requirement for our overall draft – 18 years old or more, but you also can’t be older than 30. There are a lot of great drivers over 30, but nobody is looking to draft them in this day and age.
So, without further adieu, with the number one selection in the 2009 Short Track Draft presented by Speed51.com, we select…
1. Brian Ickler - East Series/ARCA/Super Late Models
This 23-year-old kid is prime for the picking. Last year he ranked 42nd and was mostly overlooked by our scouts. Now he has plenty of similarities to the #1 pick in the NFL Draft, University of Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford. Included in that fact is that both Stafford and Ickler were highly touted coming into the draft.
Both performed well in 2008; Ickler had three victories with his start-up NASCAR Camping World East Series team, but faltered on occasion under pressure as well. Sometimes the coaching, as with Stafford, hurt Ickler in 2009, both in the East Series and in the Snowball Derby (the most prestigious Super Late Model event of the year).
To start ’09, he threw a touchdown in the East Series at Greenville-Pickens and then his coach hurt him with equipment that wasn’t up to ARCA regulations at “The Rock.”
Stafford was drafted by the Lions, that’s not good. Ickler is being touted by NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Kyle Busch, that’s good. In fact, he will start in the Billy Ballew owned truck when Kyle can’t make it this year. He’s on his way in ’09 and we know he’s got the confidence; now like Stafford, we’ll see if he can deliver to become a regular in the big leagues.
2. Matt Hirschman - Modifieds
The 26-year-old didn't start racing karts or Bandoleros at an early age. He wasn't groomed by father Tony, a five-time NASCAR Modified Tour champion, to be the next Jeff Gordon or Joey Logano. He just grew up around short track racing and soaked up knowledge like a sponge.
So it came as no surprise to see Hirschman win Modified races under just about every sanction on asphalt, to finish second to Ted Christopher in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour standings of 2008 or to win multiple RoC Modified Titles.
The biggest question concerning Hirschman's potential to be a big-time racing success was partially answered last fall. Everyone wondered how the master of Modifieds could adapt to full-bodied racecars. Hirschman silenced critics by placing fourth in his NASCAR Camping World East Series debut at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. One week later, he proved that was not fluke by finishing sixth at Dover.
Like draft pick number two Jason Smith, Hirschman has figured out how to make something big and heavy go quickly. In Hirschman's case, it isn't 325 pounds of offensive tackle that needs to move with agility and speed, but a CW East machine.
Hirschman definitely has the skills to move up the racing ladder according to our voters. More seat-time in stock cars will help hone his skills, while more Modified seat time probably won't improve his game much over where it already is. Hirschman just needs the help to put a deal together. He doesn't have money, big sponsorship or a golden spoon to help his cause, but he does have talent in spades.
3. Bobby Santos III - Open-Wheel
This year’s third pick in the NFL draft, Tyson Jackson, a Defensive End from LSU, is not the flashiest player available in the draft pool. He doesn’t have the stats that would make you think he should be the third-best player available. The same can be said for Bobby Santos III. The 23-year-old may not have the flash of some of his open-wheel counterparts on the racetrack, but his ability to come through when it counts, in just about any type of racecar he straps into, makes him a highly coveted draft pick for our Short Track Draft panel.
Santos doesn’t have a school to call his own, like Jackson did down in the bayou of Louisiana. He’s driven – and won – in Modifieds on the NASCAR Whelen Tour and SK’s, Supermodifieds, Sprints, Midgets and just about everything in between. All his success caught the eye of a big scout a couple years ago – NASCAR team owner Bill Davis – who put him in an ARCA ride. Santos also had a couple shots at the Nationwide series with Riley-D’Hondt Motorsports, but not even poles and strong finishes were enough to keep him with the pro ranks for long.
But even with a shot that fizzled at the big time, it’s hard to call Santos a draft “bust.” The kid can wheel a car, there’s no denying it. Five wins in 2008 and 10 podium finishes in the NEMA tour prove he’s consistently fast, so it’s only a matter of time that the pro scouts see the poential moreso than the lack of flash and give Santos another shot.
4. Sean Caisse - East Series/ARCA
You often hear of college athletes taking a “redshirt” when they’re either hurt or saving a year of eligibility for later in their career. Sean Caisse “redshirted” his 2008 season, albeit unwillingly, by racing in spot starts in the ARCA RE/MAX Series with mixed results. The racing economy kept him out of the limelight and out of sight for last year’s Draft panel, who didn’t even select him in the top 51. It was undoubtedly a tough pill to swallow for a racer that had been in the top-10 in the Draft rankings just one year before.
Seven NASCAR Camping World East wins in a stellar early career made Caisse one to watch, but his sometimes erratic behavior behind the wheel likely caused some of our panel to think there was a little too much baggage for a high draft pick – or a pick at all – in ’08. But what a better way to prove that the year on the sidelines didn’t knock any luster off an otherwise successful couple of years before it than by winning the ARCA RE/MAX Series race at Rockingham earlier this month.
ESPN’s Draft experts call the fourth pick of the NFL Draft, Aaron Curry, “the complete package.” It’s hard to say that Caisse doesn’t fall into that category, too. He’s a great shoe and passionate about succeeding; he’s well-spoken and a great interview, plus he’s got the look – a look that he takes great pride in at times, too.
5. Josh Richards - Dirt Late Models
With a name like “Kid Rocket,” you know this 21-year-old has to be good when speed is the name of the game. This kid reminds us a lot of the Oakland Raiders first pick in the draft. He’s one of the fastest in his game, but there are a lot of questions surrounding his diversity.
There’s no denying that Richards is one of the best in the business in the Dirt Late Model scene right now. During the past three years, he’s won 23 of the toughest races in the dirty biz, including six so far this year and the “World Finals” at the Dirt Track at Lowe’s Motor Speedway last year.
The question is, can he do the same in the big leagues on pavement. He got off to a good start by scoring a top-five in his NASCAR Camping World East Series debut at Greenville-Pickens Speedway in April, but will he be a one hit wonder – that only time will tell.
He’s got the look NASCAR teams want and a good personality to boot. Toughness is certainly not a question because he duels with the likes of Darrell Lannigan, Scott Bloomquist and Dale McDowell on a daily basis. It’s kinda like a good NFL receiver or running back; they need to be good on all types of surfaces, both natural and artificial. Richards needs to continue to be good on dirt and asphalt in order for the big boys to give him a chance.
6. Ryan Lawler - Super Late Models
If someone called down to central casting and ordered up a prototypical rising short track star, they might find Ryan Lawler delivered in short order.
Lawler is 22, young, good-looking, knows what to say in front of a camera or microphone and has the resources to move up the racing ladder. He followed the standard path of Legends Cars to Super Late Models and is now gaining experience in a limited schedule of NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races.
Actually, Lawler isn't just gaining experience in short track racing, he's also posting some impressive numbers. He won the 2007 PASS South championship and the 2007 Winchester 400. He came close to winning this year's Rattler.
Like Patriots star Tom Brady, Lawler has the personality and look to become a sports celebrity as well as the skills to back it up on the field or the track. Lawler's mentor Robert Hamke and current crew chief Bond Suss have both been around the game enough to coach him right - just like Bill Belichick has done with Brady.
The only downside to Lawler's current situation is that he just hasn't really been racing much lately. In 2008, he only started four short track events (three of which ended up with finishes of first or second). This year, that is likely to change, since Lawler has been tapped by Kyle Busch Motorsports to run their Super Late Models when boss Kyle Busch is otherwise busy with a Cup, Nationwide or Truck race somewhere.
7. Jeff Choquette - Super Late Models
Jeff Choquette just looks like a football player. He’s burly and can be tough and mean on the racetrack if he needs to be. After all, the 22 year old grew up in what some people call the “Florida Mafia” of the Super Late Model world. He’s a prototypical speedy defensive end style player, much like Florida State's Everette Brown, whom the Carolina Panthers selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Choquette can run with the best of them and has proved that time and time again. Last year he won the difficult Mobile Int’l Speedway (AL) Super Late Model title and added another Super Late Model crown to his trophy mantle during Florida Speedweeks at New Smyrna Speedway. He has also been a consistent winner in ASA Southeast lately and is currently competing for the championship this year.
There are two concerns with Choquette, one he has fixed, one he has not. He used to be over-confident and not outgoing; that has changed for the better. The other is that sometimes Choquette fumbles the ball in the big dances, much like he did by not qualifying for the prestigious Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in December.
Nevertheless, he is worth another shot. We say another because Choquette did compete in the Roush “Gong Show” a few years ago, but that was before he matured into the racer he has become. Plus, the girls seem to think he is pretty, with his nice head of hair, bushy eyebrows and golden skin. Wow, that doesn’t sound like a football player, or racer for that matter, does it? But, that’s what the scouts are looking for these days!
8. DJ Shaw - Super Late Models
This New Hampshire racer has the genes of a winner. The Shaws may be following the Mannings of the football world. When you saw Archie Manning play in the ‘70’s, you knew Peyton and Eli (now both Super Bowl champs) were going to be good too.
Well, the same can be said of DJ Shaw. His father, Dale, was pretty darn good. In fact, he won the 1994 NASCAR Busch North Series and even got a chance himself in NASCAR’s junior series. The elder Shaw has won in PASS and in the Northeast in addition to the ‘ol Busch North, now Camping World East Series.
Well, he’s handed down those talents to DJ, but the kid may be even better than the father just like the Mannings. DJ is the youngest guy in the top-10 at 19, but he’s already won two tough PASS races in New England and a White Mountain Speedway (NH) track title a couple years ago. In fact, he contended for the PASS North title last year.
He’s got potential and that’s why our scouts took a chance on him, but he does not have the outgoing personality yet. He’s quiet, certainly the opposite of his dad. Yet, his dad and his verbose speaking is not a good school to enlist in. Shaw needs to take his quiet demeanor, speak a little more with a smile, and he will turn into one of the best prospects in short track racing.
9. Kevin Swindell - Open-Wheel
Many would think that this 20-year-old kid would make the list because he’s a “Legacy,” – the kid of a former “All-American” who gets a scholarship just because of his last name. But, the younger Swindell is doing everything he can to make the family name live on far longer than just the career span of his three-time National Sprint Car Championship-winning driver Sammy Swindell. Living in the shadow of a star father can be tough, but this is one case where the driver is backing up the family legacy on the track.
Ever since he can remember, Kevin has wanted to be a racecar driver. From go-karts in the early years to the current USAC sprint car he wheels around the ovals all across the county, this guy is a solid pick for anyone’s team after all the success of open wheel guys in the NASCAR ranks. He may be what they call a project, but just like Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne proved, learning car control in open-wheeled cars can apply to anything. He’s already wheeled a Camping World East Car on two occasions. He finished 13th at Mansfield and finished all the laps in both races for then Evernham Motorsports.
His resume is impressive, from his Western World champion in USAC sprint cars at Manzanita Speedwa, in Phoenix, AZ, to his win the Louie Vermeil Classic at the Napa County Fairgrounds in USAC sprints in 2008.
He has already won in 2009, in Australia of all places. Not many guys can say they go to race, let alone win. Needless to say he may not be the flashiest pick, but he will get you results.
10. Josh Hamner - Super Late Models
Year after year, Josh Hamner keeps making appearances in the 51 Short Track Draft. Year after year, he backs that up by accomplishing enough to be worthy of an invite back, but this year he's cracked the top 10.
This past season, Hamner earned the prestigious Blizzard Series Super Late Model championship and had nine top 10 finishes in his 14 starts.
To gain the notice of big-time talent scouts though, Hamner might need to expand his horizons a little bit more. He's a proven winner in the Super Late Model community of the Deep South. Now he needs seat time and results in a NASCAR Camping World East or ARCA RE/MAX Series car to turn the right heads at the top of the sport - since those two tours appear to be the hot development series of the moment. However, if he continues with the Late Model route, he needs to throw the long ball and head out of the Alabama/Pensacola racing region. He is attempting to do that this year by competing for the ASA Late Model Challenge Series championship.
With some luck, the 22-year-old Hamner will be able to graduate from the 51 Draft into being one of those drivers who we watch on TV every weekend - which could make the Town of Birmingham Alabama just as proud of one of their own as they are of Bengals-bound Andre Smith. For Hamner, it's Roll Tide all the way baby!