(EDITOR’S NOTE: The following selections were comprised by an evaluation of 40 industry leaders in short track racing, including directors, promoters, NASCAR talent scouts, media and former #1 Draft Picks. More than 100 drivers received votes. The Top 51 Draft Picks are annually announced by Speed51.com to coincide near the date of the NFL Draft.)
Age - 23
Hometown – Coopersville, MI
Series – CRA Super Series, SLMs
When it comes to champions there’s no bigger championship trophy than the Super Bowl trophy and although many teams have posted back to back wins in consecutive seasons, no team in recent history has ever won three in a row. That’s exactly what Johnny VanDoorn is trying to do this year. After claiming the CRA Super Series title in 2009 and 2010, VanDoorn is already on track to break records and capture his third consecutive championship.
The 23-year-old from Coopersville, Michigan won the famed All American 400 and finished second in CRA Super Series standings in only his first full season in late models. After a sophomore slump in 2008 with only one win, VanDoorn changed teams and went to Kaos Motorsports for the 2009 season. They won in their first race out and haven’t looked back since after five wins and two championships.
Pros: The back-to-back champion, who works as a fabricator at Port City Racecars, is simply marketable. He’s a very polite, hard-working young man who’s not afraid to talk a little and never forgets to thank his sponsors.
Cons: VanDoorn needs to step out of his comfort zone a little more often. We’ve seen him travel down for a few sporadic shows around the Southeast and usually see him at the Snowball Derby every year but we’d like to see him run the big shows more regularly and maybe see him grab another big win like his All American 400 victory in 2007.
Age - 14
Hometown – Byron, MI
Series – PLM, CRA JEGS All-Stars Tour
The #12 pick in the NFL draft was Christian Ponder, a quarterback from Florida State who went to the Minnesota Vikings. Ponder wasn’t the popular pick that early on in the draft and many critics say he’s not quite ready to be a starting NFL QB just yet, but with some time and polishing, he could be quite good. The time and polishing is about all that stands in 14-year-old Erik Jones’ way from being the next bright young star in short track racing.
Jones has turned heads quickly on the Midwestern Pro Late Model scene. He came into the Varney Late Model Series in 2010 and won three races, becoming the youngest winner in that series’ history. He also won the series’ prestigious event during Oktoberfest weekend at LaCrosse (WI). He’s traveled outside his Midwestern roots, as well, putting a good showing together at the Snowflake 100, starting 34th and finishing 7th. He also led laps earlier this season at the Pro Rattler 125 at South Alabama and finished third in the opening JEGS CRA All-Stars Tour event at Toledo (OH).
Pros: Making some noise against tough talent and not afraid to race, and succeed, against top competition.
Cons: Still young at just 14, so as much seat time as possible will only help his development. Running in the Crate Late Model classes is good, but we’d like to see him in some Super Late Model shows near the end of the year to see how he handles the high horsepower.
Age - 26
Hometown – Wallingford, CT
Series – NASCAR Whelen All-American Series SK Modifieds & Late Models
The top-level NASCAR developmental series such as the K&N Pro Series and Whelen Modified Tours get the headlines, but the action is just as good in the grassroots NASCAR Whelen All-American Series weekly program at tracks across the country. Just like how the Michigans, Ohio States, Alabamas and Floridas of the college football world get the TV time and top billing on ESPN’s SportsCenter, the competition is just as fierce in the lower-level divisions of college football.
But just because Keith Rocco isn’t racing in the headline divisions of NASCAR doesn’t mean that he’s any less capable of being one of the most successful racers in the country. In fact, in 2010, Rocco was the most successful NASCAR racer of them all. He maxed out on his point-earning wins in the All-American Series, making him a lock for the 2010 National Championship. Competing in the SK Modified ranks at the Connecticut NASCAR triumvirate of tracks, Stafford, Waterford and Thompson, Rocco kicked butt all season long, having to compete in heat races then have to come through the field because of a handicap system that puts the fastest cars deep in the starting grid each and every time he won.
Pros: Had to truly race for each win, not just time trial on the pole and set sail from there in the feature. Dominated against guys like Ted Christopher, Woody Pitkat, Eric Berndt and more tough customers at those CT tracks.
Cons: His reputation as an aggressive driver has seemingly kept him from getting a ride on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. His media skills before 2010 weren’t good at all, but all the speaking he had to do throughout the year and at the banquets last year have improved that side of his game.
Age - 23
Hometown – Norfolk, VA
Series – Late Model Stock Cars
The NFL Pro Bowl is a dud when it comes to fan and television viewer interest. It’s an all-star event, but it’s after the season and none of the players really take it seriously. But, perhaps if they let some college players take some snaps at Quarterback or some college running backs get some handoffs in the Pro Bowl, then people would be a little more intrigued. An “amateur” going out and making the “pros” look silly would make for a great story, just like it did when C.E. Falk beat some of NASCAR’s top drivers in the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown back in 2010.
Falk, a Late Model Stock Car regular around Virginia, bested Hamlin, who promoted the event, two-time event winner Kyle Busch and even more Cup stars in 2010 at Southside Speedway to move from a popular driver in the VA Late Model scene to a name that many in the short track world recognize. Falk is a two-time Langley Speedway (VA) track champion.
Pros: Already proved that he can run with, and beat, some of the most talented drivers in the country.
Cons: When the Showdown moved from the bullring at Southside to Richmond in 2011, Falk struggled and was out of the race early after a crash. He’s also been known to be a little on the cocky side.
Age - 17
Hometown - Griffin, GA
Series - NASCAR K&N East
Max Gresham is a Georgia youngster who has performed at every level on his march up the short track ladder. From Legends to Late Models, Gresham has been able to find the road to victory lane. Gresham won two races in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Series in 2010. He also won in the ARCA Racing Series at Mansfield Motorsports Park (OH).
Gresham has been bitten by the mid-year birthday bug and will run the balance of the East season for Joe Gibbs Racing with some ARCA races for Venturini Motorsports mixed in as well. Gresham will have opportunities that most other drivers will kill for, but at the same time he will further his education this fall at Belmont University in North Carolina.
Pros: He's already done a lot before his 18th birthday which has him a ahead of the class. Has gotten a knack for running well out of the gates. He won in his fifth East start and third ARCA start. A win out of the gates in the top three series could be gold.
Cons: Gresham has been tagged as an aggressive driver in the past, but that should be traded for just unlucky. He could have been a factor for the 2010 East title, but poor luck ended his bid. He's got another shot in 2011. Also has a reputation as a “rich kid” who can pay for opportunities, but he’s been able to prove his value with on-track success.
Age – 19
Hometown – Mooresville, NC
Series – ARCA, LMSC
The entire purpose of the NFL draft is to provide the young stars of the sport with an opportunity to shine in the big leagues, and that’s precisely the opportunity Brandon McReynolds is waiting on. The 19-year old driver, and son of Cup championship winning crew chief Larry McReynolds, found mounds of success in the Late Model Stock Car world and has now moved onto the premier touring ranks of the ARCA Racing Series as well as the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East. McReynolds is now just biding his time and keeping his eyes peeled for his chance to take his talents to one of NASCAR’s “Big Three.”
McReynolds hit the LMSC scene in 2008 where he has since racked up six UARA-STARS victories including the sweep of both races at the famed Rockingham Speedway in 2010. The North Carolina native competed in four ARCA Racing Series events in 2010 and also made his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut at Gateway International Raceway.
Pros: Despite not racing full time, McReynolds does his part to keep his name out there. McReynolds is heavily involved in the Field Filler Fairgrounds karting track and never turns down a media opportunity to keep his name in the news. Travels to the NASCAR events just about every weekend to keep his name in the minds of team owners.
Cons: Already in 2011 we’ve seen him post solid finishes in both the ARCA Racing Series as well as the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, but we need to see him racing more. When he runs for points McReynolds is always a force to be reckoned with and we’d like to see how he would stack up in a season-long battle with the ranks of the K&N East or ARCA Racing Series. With no set schedule for the 2011 season, we never know where he’ll show up.
Age - 19
Hometown – Norwalk, CT
Series – NASCAR K&N East/Mods
Corey LaJoie is no stranger to success. It was in his blood, between his grandfather Don LaJoie’s Modified successes around the Northeast and his dad Randy’s short track success that led to two NASCAR Busch Series Championships. Having a winning pedigree is what has led “Supershoe” to plenty of short track success, as well. He’s a former winner in the UARA-Stars Late Models at Rockingham Speedway (NC) and won in his first and only NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour start at Atlanta Motor Speedway (GA), proving that grandpa and dad’s Modified skills weren’t lost on this generation of LaJoies.
LaJoie has tried his hand at the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East since 2010 and has been a consistent frontrunner with a limited budget. Working daily in the family racing seat business, LaJoie burns the midnight oil without the help of a full-time crew to prepare cars for the East Series to race against Cup development efforts. He was in contention for wins at Iowa and New Hampshire in 2010 and had a strong top-five at Richmond a few weeks ago.
Pros: Can wheel anything, anywhere, as proven with his win in his first-ever Modified start. Has a winning lineage and does a lot with a little.
Cons: His well-spoken ways also gets him in some trouble, as he does not lack in the confidence department. LaJoie recently said in a NASCAR Home Tracks article that if he was in one of the Cup development program cars in the East series, he’d “lap the whole field.” Also has to overcome some mechanical problems that sidelined him from the first two East Series races of the 2011 season.
Joey Polewarczyk, Jr.
Age - 21
Hometown – Hudson, NH
Series – ACT Late Models
Joey Polewarczyk, Jr., better known to the racing world as Joey Pole, is not going to impress the scouts with his size. He has the tall and lean figure more like a punter than a skill position player in the draft. But it’s not his size that our scouts were interested in. Instead, it was the body of work on the racetrack, and that’s a department where Pole lacks nothing.
Pole has been working up into a short track star for a few years, but over the past two seasons, he’s been one of the most decorated racers not just in the Northeast, but in all the country. Pole’s 2010 season in an ACT Late Model-type car was one for the ages, as he won two of the most prestigious Late Model races in New England, the Milk Bowl at Thunder Road (VT) and the ACT New Hampshire Invitational on the one-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He’s dabbled in the NASCAR K&N East Series from time to time, finishing sixth in his first series start at New Hampshire. He also won the first-ever ACT race at New Smyrna Speedway during Smyrna Speedweeks in Florida earlier this year en route to the two-night division championship.
Pros: Has won just about everything there is in ACT-style racing, except the Oxford 250, a race he’s been in contention for several times. Polite with a winning smile and a “boy next door” look.
Cons: Hasn’t seen too much success in anything besides his ACT-type racecar. Failed to qualify for “THE RACE” PASS South Super Late Model event a few weeks ago at North Wilkesboro.
Age – 18
Hometown – Grimes, IA
Series – K&N East
In the National Football League, switching teams season after season isn’t typically a common practice but for Brett Moffitt, three teams in three seasons has proved to be a winning move. The Grimes, Iowa teenager has produced five wins in three seasons in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East with Andy Santerre Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and most recently Michael Waltrip Racing.
The 18-year old driver seems to win in everything he steps into. Moffitt scored two wins in his rookie season with the K&N East Series with Andy Santerre Motorsports in 2009. He, again, posted two wins in 2010 with Joe Gibbs Racing on his way to a second-place finish in the final point standings. In his first race in back-to-back series champion Ryan Truex’s vacated #00 car in 2011, Moffitt dominated the season opener at Greenville-Pickens Speedway by leading every lap of the event. If this pattern continues could the #00 car be a back-to-back-to-back champ?
Pros: Although in his rookie season, Moffitt broke many of the “youngest” records set by Joey Logano, his driving style seems more mature than his 18 years. The five-time series winner is always near the front when it counts as the laps wind down.
Cons: Despite finding success with all three teams, moving around that much doesn’t exactly create a reputation for loyalty to any team. And when bad luck strikes, it strikes hard – when Moffitt isn’t finishing in the top-3, he usually isn’t finishing at all as trouble seems to find him when he runs in the back of the pack.
Age - 22
Hometown - Erie, CO
Series - SLMs, and PLMs
The sad thing is most people didn't have Eggleston on their radar until he won the big money race at North Wilkesboro. Before his PASS triumph he won an ASA Late Model title up north and won several Late Model races at his home track of Colorado. In the short track world, draft picks can raise themselves real quick unlike the NFL Draft.
He already has some experience in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series with five starts in the 2010 season. Now Eggleston will look to make that move back to the top series after the big win.
Pros: He has wins and championships all under his belt. He is tied in with Butch Miller's team which is always a plus. He is also going to Colorado State University instead of waiting for a Cup team to call him.
Cons: Might not race enough to get noticed, but he was just fine for the 300 laps at North Wilkesboro. His location is also a challenge, but he spends lots of time in North Carolina.
Age – 24
Hometown – Loxahatchee, FL
Series – SLM, PLM
It’s no secret that the NFL’s got its fair share of controversy these days with a strike threatening the 2011 season. But with or without that adversity, odds are they won’t fall from their glory as one of the leading sports leagues in the country. The same could be said for Late Model standout Jeff Choquette. Although he’s been hammered in the tech shed on occasion, Jeff Choquette never fails to bounce back… and typically he bounces back in a big way and lands in victory lane.
The Florida-native won the first World Crown 300 at Gresham Motorsports Park but was disqualified because of an unapproved transmission. The next season Choquette went on to win four Sunoco National Tour races. Choquette has also found immense success at New Smyrna Speedway as a former Governor’s Cup winner as well as several victories during the World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing. The Super Late Model hotshoe also took part in Roush Racing’s “Driver X” competition in 2005. Most recently, Choquette brought home the second-place finish in PASS’s “THE RACE” out of 75 cars.
Pros: After being in his family-owned #70, then moving to the Fountain Motorsports #33 and now in the #29, Choquette knows his way around a Late Model and has found success in whatever number he climbs behind the wheel of. The 24-year old driver is full of personality and always gives a great interview.
Cons: Moving between rides so often usually means switching between series as well, and lately it’s meant switching regions. Choquette has returned to his native Florida and although he’s finding success there, we would rather see him make it out to more of the big shows outside of the Sunshine State.
George Brunnhoelzl III
Age – 28
Hometown – West Babylon, NY
Series – NWSMT
There are many families in the NFL who clearly have the genetics of winning in their DNA, the Mannings, Matthews, and Ryans just to name a few. And just like those families have created dynasties of athletic success, the Brunnhoelzl family has done the same. George Brunnhoelzl III, who currently holds the NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour points lead, is only following in the footsteps of his famous father and grandfather before him.
The third-generation driver has been in the Modified world his entire life and has been behind the wheel since he was 16 years old. “Georgie” owns eight NWSMT wins as well as the 2009 series champion title. In 2010 the 28-year old driver took on a full season in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour where he finished a season-high fifth at his family’s home track, Riverhead Raceway (NY). Brunnhoelzl also ran the USARacing Pro Cup Series from 2003 – 2006 where he found one top-5 and two top-10 finishes. GB3 works full time for family-owned Brunnhoelzl Racing in Mooresville, NC.
Pros: Brunnhoelzl isn’t afraid to take on a challenge – case in point, running the full NWMT schedule in 2010 after winning the NWSMT championship in 2009.
Cons: It seems he’s found a home with the Southern Modified Tour but it wouldn’t hurt to see him continue to run a little more out of his comfort zone and maybe back in a few NWMT events.
Age - 19
Hometown - Grass Valley, CA
Series - NASCAR K&N East
Matt DiBenedetto is a bright young kid originally from California who has come east to seek the racing dream. All the stars looked to be lining up with some races in the NASCAR Nationwide Series last tear for Joe Gibbs Racing. Now that deal has run its course and DiBenedetto has returned to the NASCAR K&N East Series where he is already a winner.
Like the 23rd pick in the NFL Draft, Danny Watkins, who came from Baylor University. DiBenedetto needs to be that hidden talent and sharpen it where ever he can to move back in the right direction. His second run in the East Series will give him a shot to run for a championship which he has not had the opportunity to do at the NASCAR level.
Pros: He's still young and the window it's not closed. Trevor Bayne went through some rocky times, but found himself a home and this year a Daytona 500 win.
Cons: Didn't sell himself well enough at the Nationwide level. Yes he got lots of exposure, but he needed to post better finishes from the stables that won 16 races.
Age - 23
Hometown – Shinnston, WV
Series – World of Outlaws Late Models
The University of West Virginia Mountaineers have not had the best track record of producing NFL stars. Adam “Pacman” Jones is perhaps the most known WV player to be drafted in the last decade, but he’s spent seemingly more days in prison or a courtroom than on a playing field. That opens the door for Josh Richards to be the biggest star to come from the Mountaineer State on the racetrack.
Richards, known as Kid Rocket, is the 2009 and 2010 World of Outlaws Late Model Series Champion. Those records alone speak for themselves. He won eight WoO features in 2010 and was in victory lane during the WoO Winternationals in Florida in 2010 and earlier this year. He also made a handful of starts in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and ARCA Racing Series in recent seasons.
Pros: Proven winner in just a short period of time, having started racing only 10 years ago. Winner against the best of the best in Dirt Late Model racing, plus is the son of the Rocket Chassis builder, so he knows the cars inside and out.
Cons: The success on dirt hasn’t carried over into asphalt. He finished in the top-10 in his first East Series start, but crashes and mechanical problems kept him from finishing up front in any of his asphalt races. There’s nothing wrong with dirt racing, but the scouts want to see asphalt success if there’s any NASCAR dreams in Richards’ mind.
Age - 28
Hometown - Northampton, PA
Series - NASCAR WMT, Modifieds
For the sixth year in a row Matt Hirschman finds himself on the 51 draft board, but this time it's much lower than in the past. Built like a kicker, Hirschman has no ties to the 25th pick in the NFL Draft who just happened to be an Offensive Lineman. As the second-generation Hirschman closes in on the age of 30, he seems to almost be a forgotten talent. His stock should have stayed the same after he won the RoC Modified title for the third straight season, but the lack of a full-time NASCAR Whelen Mod Tour ride kept him out of the spotlight.
2011 will find Hirschman in the "Ole Blue" number-3 on the NASCAR Modified Tour for the first time since the 2008 season. His father Tony won five tour titles in the past and Matt has been close a few times, but a championship could catch the eye of some NASCAR teams.
Pros: Has the ability to run well everywhere he goes. He's got the trophies to prove it. Also knows how to save his stuff which is hard to do in the Modified ranks.
Cons: Has won almost everything in Modifieds, but has been off the Tour too long. He will need to perform this season to raise his value.