James Gilbert | Getty Images
James Gilbert | Getty Images

Truck rookies Carson Hocevar, Chandler Smith short on experience, but long on playoff confidence

Two teenaged drivers provide an interesting wrinkle to this year’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series postseason field, with both Carson Hocevar and Chandler Smith getting their first taste of the elimination-style playoffs format.

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Hocevar and Smith are the only two first-timers on the 10-driver playoff grid, meaning there’s at least a surface-level experience deficit when it comes to chasing a series title. Does it matter? The answer for both isn’t a clear yes or no, but yes and no.

“I definitely think there is an experience gap especially for me and the 42 (Hocevar), the other rookie driver,” said Smith, the 19-year-old pilot of Kyle Busch Motorsports’ No. 18 Toyota. “If you look at all of the other drivers in the playoffs and how many starts that they have compared to us. Look at all of the overall experience and practice they have in the Truck Series compared to myself, so yes, there is a very big experience gap but there is no excuse for it. I feel like we are more than capable of going to win this championship.”

Hocevar, the 18-year-old in Niece Motorsports’ No. 42 Chevrolet, said much the same in Tuesday’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Playoffs Media Day, but with a slight additional flourish.

“I mean, I guess it matters but I think we’ve outran a lot of them or most of them a few times this year,” Hocevar said. “So that’s not to say we can’t do it again and do it weekly, so that’s our plan. There’s not a race track in the playoffs besides Talladega (Superspeedway) that I haven’t been to, so that’ll be big. My experience level is at least closer. I’ll at least have something to kind of lean on for my own experience going into these races.”

Their quest to disrupt the closing seven-race stretch begins with Friday’s Toyota 200 presented by CK Power (9 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM) at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway. They’ll have to make those gains from the lower end of the playoff spectrum with Hocevar entering as the eighth seed and Smith tied for ninth.

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The two have parallels, both in their seasons and their Truck Series careers to date. Each drove in partial schedules the previous two seasons before joining the circuit full time this year. Both Hocevar and Smith enter the playoffs with three top-five finishes and five top 10s in 2021, and though Smith has a significant edge over his fellow rookie in laps led (165 to 24), both have had real opportunities along the way to notch a breakthrough win.

A common boon to their playoff hopes is a solid support system. Smith has a veteran teammate in John Hunter Nemechek, the series points leader, but also possesses one of the more hands-on team owners in the garage in Kyle Busch. Busch went a victorious 5-for-5 in his partial Truck Series driving schedule this season, but his impact on the ownership side has been that of a teacher who expects great things from his young prospects.

“Kyle is a great mentor, team owner for sure, and a great friend,” Smith said. “He has always been there to help me in anything I’ve ever asked him to. He’s always given me loads of advice when I needed it. I definitely lean on him a lot. I couldn’t ask for a better team owner.”

Hocevar has his own foundation in Al Niece’s camp, with Ryan Truex as a current teammate and Ross Chastain as a former team driver before his rise to full-time Cup Series duty this year. Hocevar’s team has thought enough of his performance that it announced Tuesday he would return to the organization full time in 2022.

Hocevar’s rookie campaign has been a learning experience, with a blend of factors aiding his push into the playoffs.

“It’s been a mixture of things. I wouldn’t say I’ve been learning it on my own,” Hocevar said. “Everybody at Niece, they’ve done this song and dance in 2019 and leaning on Ross, but a lot behind the wheel, you’ve just got to learn on your own. You can only get spoon-fed so much. You’ve gotta take what the race track’s giving you and what the race truck’s giving you on that day and adapt and roll with it, and I think we’ve done that.”