NASCAR Roots and International racers honored with a Nashville celebration of their own

(Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – During a week in which Ryan Blaney, the champion of NASCAR’s top series, will be honored on Thursday night, the sport also acknowledged the achievements of drivers in its grassroots divisions in a Tuesday night gala at the Music City Center.

The awards dinner recognized an array of drivers, from track, state and regional champions in the NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series to ARCA Menards Series national champion Jesse Love, who collected 10 victories on his way to the title.

“I think just two years of hard work and determination to get better,” Love said of his path to the championship. “Obviously, our cars were really good in ’23, and I think I was doing a good job, as well. We had every piece of the pie figured out – good setups, good aero, good people around us, good crew chief, good spotter, everything. When that happens, you’re bound for success.”

Love, 18, will make the jump from ARCA to the NASCAR Xfinity Series with Richard Childress Racing in 2024. The 18-year-old from Menlo Park, California had plenty of suitors during and after the season.

PHOTOS: NASCAR Roots champs honored in Nashville

NASCAR Chief Operating Officer Steve O’Donnell, Jesse Love, ARCA Menards Series Champion, and Billy Venturini, champion owner, attend the 2023 NASCAR Awards at Music City Center on November 28, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“I think having a real good year this year put me on the map of some free agency – it was a contract year for me – so I knew some people were looking,” Love said. “RCR contacted me a few months ago, and it seemed like the right time to move with how some things were shaking out. So, I decided to go talk to them, and once I talked to them, I kind of fell in love with the program.”

Love doesn’t expect the leap to the Xfinity Series to be as daunting as his three starts in the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series this year.

“It’s not that big of a deal for me,” Love said of the transition. “The truck deal was probably a bigger jump initially than Xfinity will be for me, just because I kind of have the jitters of racing in the top three series for the first time out of me.

“I know how to get on and off pit road now and all the different small things I was able to learn this year. It just takes the stress off my shoulders. Got a great team on that 2 car (at RCR) and a great leader in (crew chief) Danny Stockman to point us in the right direction.”

Also honored were the respective ARCA Menards Series East and West champions, William Sawalich and Sean Hingorani.

Sawalich, 17, under contract with Joe Gibbs Racing through 2025, won four races on his way to the championship.

“I think the team effort was probably the biggest thing, and us all working together and having good coordination and communication at the race track – I feel like that was the key factor in us winning all those races and the championship,” Sawalich said.

NASCAR Senior Vice President, Racing Development and Strategy Ben Kennedy (L) presents Ron Silk, NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour Champion, with the champion’s ring during the 2023 NASCAR Awards at Music City Center on November 28, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

During an awards dinner that featured a plethora of teenagers, Whelen Modified Tour champion Ron Silk was the notable exception. Silk, 40, outdueled Justin Bonsignore for the championship 12 years after he won his first title.

“It feels really good,” Silk said before accepting his championship ring from Ben Kennedy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing development and strategy. “The first one was quite a while ago, so it’s nice to know that I can still do it.”

The awards celebration had a distinct international flavor, with champions recognized from Canada, Mexico and Europe – and a title still to be won in South America.

“We’ve got great race cars every time we show up to the track,” said NASCAR Pinty’s Series champion Treyton Lapcevich. “It’s just up to me to drive them.

The NASCAR Mexico Series featured a champion, Salvador de Alba Jr., who made the title battle a family affair, winning the championship for his father and car owner Salvador de Alba.

Gianmarco Ercoli took the title in the hotly contested NASCAR Whelen Euro Series, with the championship in the eight-event NASCAR Brasil Sprint Race – a series acquired by NASCAR in 2022 – to be decided in the next two weeks.

National Champion Connor Hall (R) and NASCAR Cup Series Champion Ryan Blaney attend the 2023 NASCAR Awards at Music City Center on November 28, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Connor Hall was foremost in the NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series, giving a representative from Langley Speedway (Hampton, Va.) that coveted championship for the first time. Blaney made a brief cameo appearance to present the champion’s trophy.

“We started off (the season) with a full CARS Tour schedule, built our own (late model) car and started racing that on weekends,” said Hall, who won 11 straight weekly series main events. “It came down to the point where we had to waylay the CARS Tour to pursue the weekly championship.”

Sixteen-year-old Lanie Buice, weekly series rookie of the year in South Carolina and a member of NASCAR’s 2024 Drive for Diversity class, was honored with the Wendell Scott Trailblazer Award.

The award is given to a weekly series driver based not only on performance on the race track but also for admirable qualities such as sportsmanship and a commitment to community service.