Hometown: Middletown, NY
Series: ARCA/Super Late Models
Last Year’s Pick: 32nd
One year ago, Christian Eckes was considered an early second-round pick. He’d been fast, but he hadn’t accumulated any wins, or accomplished anything notable. That completely changed at the end of 2016 when Eckes rattled off three straight marquee victories in the Myrtle Beach 400, Thanksgiving Classic and the Snowball Derby, the biggest pavement short track race of the year.
Those three wins shot Eckes almost straight to the top. Much like Mitch Trubisky, a quarterback from the North Carolina Tarheels, Eckes went from a decent pick to a top pick in one season.
Eckes’ name appeared on 61 ballots (the most of any driver), with 80-percent of his votes being quality votes, meaning they were either first-place votes, top-five votes or top-10 votes. Eckes only received three first-place votes, but he received 31 top-five votes and 48 top-10 votes.
For comparison’s sake, in 2016 Eckes received zero first-place votes, zero top-five votes and zero top-10 votes.
At just 16, Eckes is starting to harness his raw talent. He’s now a consistent threat for victories in Super Late Models, and he’s knocking on the door of his first Stock Car win. A third-place finish in the ARCA Racing Series event at the Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville shows that a win in the big car is coming soon.
Eckes still has some work to do to, but what 16-year-old doesn’t? Unfortunately for Eckes, most of the areas in which he needs improvement are off the race track. Some have criticized Eckes’ lack of personality. He’s been regarded as quiet and a bit dry.
However, lately Eckes has been making strides in that department. He can regularly be seen joking around with friends Zane Smith and Harrison Burton in between practice sessions. Jump in on one of those conversations and Eckes is guaranteed to make you laugh.
Recently, Eckes jokingly told a Speed51.com reporter that he was guaranteed to not win the fan vote for the Short Track Draft presented by PFC Brakes. While it was a joke, there was still truth to that statement. Eckes wasn’t even in the top three in the fan vote. But, if Eckes can continue to learn how to show his friendly personality to the fans and media the way he does with his friends, it won’t take long for him to became a star on and off the race track.
Hometown: Oakwood, IL
Series: Dirt Late Models
Last Year’s Pick: 5th
Leonard Fournette was selected with the fourth selection in the NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Fournette’s “Bull in a China Closet” style is similar to that of the fourth pick in the 2017 Short Track Draft presented by PFC Brakes, Dirt Late Model driver Bobby Pierce.
Known as the “Smooth Operator,” Pierce showed his toughness in 2016. He knocked off Scott Bloomquist in the prestigious North-South 100 at Florence Speedway (KY). He then went toe-to-toe with a pair of three-time Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series champs (Bloomquist and Jimmy Owens) in the Show-Me 100 at Lucas Oil Speedway (MO), and quite possible only lost by virtue of a late-race flat tire. In the Summer Nationals “Hell Tour,” he won the grueling title for the second straight year by capturing 10 victories. He then capped it off with a signature win in the World 100 at Eldora Speedway (OH).
Nobody in Dirt Late Model racing turned more heads in 2016 than Bobby Pierce with 22 overall wins. The Illini has triumphed five times already in 2017 and the summer months are still to come.
And remember, Pierce captured a second-place run in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event on the dirt of Eldora in 2015, but has not done a lot in subpar equipment on the pavement in the series.
Pierce has everything on his side. Talent. Youth (20 years old). Personality.
The second-generation racer had six first-place votes and 30 top-five selections, nearly half of the ballots. His quality vote rating of 80% was only bested by two other drivers.
The question is: will he be able to climb the ranks or remain to become a legend of Dirt Late Model racing?
Hometown: Lawrenceville, GA
Series: Super/Pro Late Models
Last Year’s Pick: Best of the Rest
Unlike other top picks in this year’s draft, Casey Roderick has had his shot at the upper echelon of the sport, running part-time in what is now the NASCAR XFINITY Series back in 2012.
Some may say that he “declared his eligibility” too soon. In his eight XFINITY starts, his average starting position was outside the top 25 and average finish was lower than that at 27. Now more like a fifth-year senior, he is experiencing success on a whole new level in the short track ranks.
In 2016, Roderick posted a career high in Late Model wins with double-digit visits to Victory Lane between Pro and Super Late Model competition, putting his name into consideration for a top draft seeding.
Even with his 2016 success and five wins to start 2017, Roderick still comes in one notch below his highest ever draft rating of fourth back in 2010. That year’s top pick was Roderick’s then teammate and current NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series driver Chase Elliott.
They say that great coaches make average players good and good players great. Just look at Nick Saban in Alabama and his propensity to turn decent quarterbacks into powerhouses in the college football game. Roderick seems to have found a great coach in Pro Late Model car owner Ronnie Sanders who is also helping on the Super Late Model side.
In addition to his on-track prowess lately, Roderick excels off the track too. His southern charm and smile are an instant hit with the female fans. He’s well-spoken through his Georgia drawl, and he takes the time to make his fans feel special when they meet him.
Roderick’s name appeared on 56 ballots in this year’s draft, tying him with top-pick Todd Gilliland with the fourth most overall votes. He also garnered the fourth most first-place votes with six. Of the 56 votes he received, 80% were quality votes, meaning they were top-five or top-10 votes.
Will Roderick get a second chance at the big time? That remains to be seen, but our expert panel is certainly willing to give him another shot.
Hometown: Easley, SC
Series: NASCAR K&N Pro Series East
Last Year’s Pick: 7th
Starting off the second half of the top 10 in the 2017 Short Track Draft presented by PFC Brakes is a name that has become very familiar on this list: NASCAR K&N Pro Series East standout Kyle Benjamin.
In the NFL Draft, players who get selected in the second half of the top 10 are often players that have been stars both at their schools and even within their conference. Those players are often stars who have the potential to break into superstars. In his seventh year in the Short Track Draft, Benjamin continues to have that potential, but has yet to breakout.
Benjamin showed much potential at a young age with wins in the ARCA Racing Series, which helped him become the number-one pick in the 2013 Short Track Draft. During the 2014 and 2015 seasons, the wins did not come with his usual consistency. But that changed in 2016 when he led the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East in the win column with three victories, including the season finale at Dover.
Benjamin fell just shy of winning his first major points title, being beaten out by Justin Haley. He already has a series win in 2017 at Greenville Pickens Speedway (SC), but is only running a partial schedule.
However, the part-time schedule does come with a big reason, as Benjamin has teamed with Joe Gibbs Racing for four races in the NASCAR XFINITY Series this season. He is set to make his series debut at Richmond International Raceway (VA) this weekend.
While Benjamin’s somewhat stoic personality would be welcomed by crew chiefs, it is something that sponsors would like some improvement on. But with time, plus the stats he has already racked up with years of experience in racing, Benjamin might not be in the 2018 Draft. He might just might have that big ride in NASCAR by this time next year.
Benjamin was selected as the number-one pick by five of our industry experts in this year’s draft, while recording 19 top-five and 28 top-10 picks in the 39 ballots he appeared on.
Hometown: St Joseph de Beauce, QC, Canada
Series: Super Late Models/ARCA
Last Year’s Pick: 50th
Canadian-born football stars are a rarity in the NFL Draft. In fact, the top Canadian prospect in this year’s draft, Justin Senior of Montreal, isn’t expected to be drafted until the late rounds.
The same can be said for Canadian race car drivers attempting to enter the top levels of NASCAR, but Quebec native Raphael Lessard is trying to break that trend. At pick number seven, Lessard has become the top Canadian driver selected in the history of the Short Track Draft on Speed51.com.
At only 15 years old, Lessard can call himself something that many drivers can’t: a champion. Last year, Lessard turned in an impressive four-win season on his way to winning the CARS Tour Super Late Model championship.
After having a difficult 2015 season, Lessard didn’t hear his name called until the 50th pick in the 2016 Short Track Draft. A successful 2016 season has helped him go from zero-to-hero as he now lands himself in the top 10 this time around.
The Canadian has a very outgoing and personable personality and has been groomed by David Gilliland Racing. DGR has helped Lessard on the race track and off, working professional mannerism into the young driver. He also has the mentoring of Toyota and runs alongside this year’s number-one pick Todd Gilliland in the pits, creating plenty of entertainment.
Lessard is a strong candidate everywhere he goes in a Super Late Model. He recorded top-10 finishes in his lone starts in the Snowball Derby, SpeedFest and Winchester 400. His strongest run in a major race came in last year’s All American 400 when he scored a top-five finish.
With wins and strong finishes comes interviews, and while Lessard’s English has improved immensely since he first started racing in the United States, there is still some improvement to come to enhance his interviewing skills.
Lessard collected three number-one picks, 10 top-five selections, and 22 top-10 picks. His name was listed on 47 of the 65 ballots submitted to Speed51.com
Hometown: Wheeling, WV
Series: Super Late Models/ARCA
Last Year’s Pick: 15th
What a year it was for Travis Braden in 2016. Braden was once a very highly touted prospect when he was in the process of winning back-to-back ARCA/CRA Super Series championships, but then he kind of faded. In 2016 he returned in a big way, winning the Winchester 400 in thrilling fashion.
Braden goes off the board with the eighth pick of the draft, the same spot where Christian McCaffrey was selected by the Carolina Panthers in the 2017 NFL Draft. Unlike the McCaffrey pick, which some experts have given a D-grade for him being taken too soon, Braden is perfect in the eighth slot.
Braden has been on a bit of a rollercoaster ride the last few years. His stock would rise and then fall and now it’s risen again. But that’s a good thing because it shows that Braden can battle back from the hard times like a true winner.
In 2016, Braden received just one first-place vote, two top-five votes and five top-10 votes. He did much better in 2017, receiving three first-place votes, 10 top-five votes and 20 top-10 votes.
Hometown: Fort Kent, ME
Last Year’s Pick: 33rd
Those who play the game of football only get one chance at the NFL Draft. Once they’re drafted and get their shot at the big leagues, there are no do-overs or second chances. Luckily for Austin Theriault, the same rules don’t apply in the world of motorsports.
After getting his shot at the big leagues with JR Motorsports in the NASCAR XFINITY Series and Brad Keselowski Racing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Theriault has returned to the short track racing ranks with hopes of increasing his stock for future opportunities.
His selection as the ninth pick in this year’s Short Track Draft is the second highest of his career. He entered the draft for the first time in 2012 as the 41st pick before peaking at number seven in 2013. After being selected as the 14th pick in 2014, Theriault made the jump to NASCAR’s top levels and was ineligible for the Short Track Draft in 2015. He returned to the draft last year as the 33rd overall pick.
Theriault, who didn’t begin racing until he was 13 years old, has been on a rollercoaster ride during his young racing career. He has experienced the thrill of winning big races like the PASS 300 at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway (ME) and the agony of experiencing an injury that sidelined him during what could have been the prime of his career.
Now, he’s back and arguably better than ever with plans to run a full season for Ken Schrader Racing in the ARCA Racing Series. He kicked off the year with a big win on the big stage at Daytona International Speedway (FL). There’s no better way to increase your stock than to win, and that’s what Theriault is focused on accomplishing.
In addition to driving on the track, Theriault also holds a pilot’s license and spends some of his time away from the track piloting small planes. His personality can come off as a bit dry, but he’s worked hard to improve on that and interact with his fan base. He can often be found on social media updating his fans on what he’s up to at the track, at home and on the road.
Theriault recorded one first-place vote from our panel of experts and appeared on 37 of the ballots submitted. His 23 top-five votes were the seventh most among all drivers.
Hometown: Mooresville, NC
Series: Dirt Mods / Dirt LM / Outlaw Karts
Last Year’s Pick: 22nd
Just like Jabril Peppers from the University of Michigan, Nick Hoffman’s draft ranking has been all over the charts. This is his fourth draft selection, but his highest pick yet. His previous best was just last year with the 22nd pick.
And similar to Peppers, Hoffman can play a variety of positions. During the past year, the 24-year-old driver with only one year of eligibility left, has won in Dirt Modifieds, Mini-Outlaw Karts and Dirt Late Models. Hoffman, of course, would cherish a shot at the big time, but unlike Peppers, he wants a better team than Peppers received with the Cleveland Browns.
Hoffman’s performance in 2016 drove up his stock on the depth charts. He was able to wrangle the gator during Florida Speedweeks with four wins and the championship in the Winter Nationals at Volusia Speedway Park (FL). He backed that up this February with the same exact feat. Also, last year, he scored six victories and the overall title in the “Hell Tour” that is the DIRTcar UMP Modified’s Summer Nationals. He also won his first Dirt Late Model race recently on the famed Eldora Speedway (OH) and has picked off two wins in the Mini-Outlaw scene at Millbridge Speedway (NC).
Hoffman has a great personality, but he can be a little rough around the edges.
While he had no overall number-one selections by voters, he did garner 12 top-five votes. His best was an overall number-two pick. More importantly, nearly 20% of his votes had a quality pick ranking. Hoffman has the desire and the talent; he just needs a shot, but time is running out.