Christian Eckes, the most recent winner in the ARCA Racing Series, has landed a four-race deal with Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Camping World Truck Series.
Eckes, 17, won Sunday’s race at Salem Speedway while driving for Bill Venturini. The win came in his 16th start in the series.
The native of Middletown, New York, will make his Truck Series debut June 16 at Iowa Speedway in KBM’s No. 46 Toyota. He will drive it again on June 23 at Gateway Motorsports Park, Oct. 27 at Martinsville and Nov. 9 at ISM Raceway.
“The opportunity to compete for Kyle Busch Motorsports in my NASCAR Camping World Truck Series debut is a dream come true — my first chance to get behind the wheel of the No. 46 Tundra can’t get here soon enough,” Eckes said in a press release. “I can’t thank everybody at Toyota Racing, Mobil 1 and all of my supporters enough for making this possible.”
In 2017, Eckes collected four top five and nine top-10 finishes in 10 ARCA events and four top five and five top-10 finishes in six CARS Super Late Model Tour starts.
In December 2016, Eckes won the Snowball Derby Super Late Model race at Five Flags Speedway in a narrow finish over John Hunter Nemechek.
Cody Glick, who oversees KBM’s Super Late Model program, will serve as Eckes’ crew chief in his four starts. Glick earned his first career Truck Series victory in Kyle Busch’s win from the pole at Bristol Motor Speedway last year.
Noah Gragson will drive the Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 in the Xfinity series for three consecutive races beginning with his series debut April 20 at Richmond Raceway.
His other two starts will be at Talladega Superspeedway and Dover International Speedway. He has experience on all three tracks in the Camping World Truck Series where he is a full-time driver for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the No. 18 Toyota.
Primary sponsorship will come from Switch, a technology infrastructure company with headquarters in Las Vegas – Gragson’s hometown.
“I’m fortunate and very honored to make my NASCAR Xfinity Series debut for Joe Gibbs Racing at Richmond Raceway,” Gragson said in a press release. “JGR is known for building fast race cars and I’m excited to get behind the wheel of the No. 18 Switch Toyota Camry and prove to everyone that my skillset is ready for the next level.
“My plan is to not just make my NXS debut, but to also run up front in each race and make a name for myself.”
In four starts in Trucks this year, Gragson has earned two top fives while racing for KBM. He finished second at Atlanta Motor Speedway and fifth at Martinsville Speedway.
This is Gragson’s second season with KBM with one victory last year at Martinsville.
Is a future Daytona 500 winner competing in a sim race today having yet to drive a real race car?
For as far-fetched as it might seem, it was only five years ago that William Byron — his skills honed online in iRacing events — started driving a Legends car.
Although many of his competitors began racing by the time they were 7 years old (Byron was 15), Byron already has an Xfinity championship and won rookie of the year in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, Camping World Truck and Xfinity Series in each of the past three seasons.
Now the 20-year-old drives the iconic No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. Some suggest Byron will win a Cup race this year as a rookie.
Byron’s rise leads to the question: Is he the exception or the start of a trend as simulation racing and eSports become more popular to a younger generation?
If Byron succeeds, the search will be on to find someone like him. While many children start racing in karting, Banderlos or quarter midgets, many can’t because their families do not have the means or expertise to compete.
Byron didn’t come from a racing family, so he raced on a computer instead of track as a child.
“iRacing was my chance to really see if I had any ability to drive a car,’’ Byron told NBC Sports. “I think from that standpoint it’s a great starter for understanding if you do have some ability and seeing if that can translate.’’
While he admits not everything transferred from the computer to a car, the hours spent racing online helped.
“The biggest thing was learning the restarts and learning being side by side, setting up passes – the technical things that you figure out in a race car, I could figure out on the sim and put that in the race car,’’ Byron said. “Driving on the track by myself, that was natural. But the race craft from iRacing was something that I think helped me get farther ahead quicker.”
In the search for the next great driver, at what point does it make sense for teams or manufacturers to create an iRacing league for specific age groups to see who might have potential similar to Byron and put them in a car to see if their skills carry over?
“That is something that is of interest and something we’ve spent some time on,’’ Jack Irving, director of team and support services for Toyota Racing Development, told NBC Sports. “It’s definitely non-traditional. I think that is evolving, the better the physics are, the better that iRacing becomes and even the home units.
“By no means do we discount iRacing. I think it’s as important as any other form of working out or going to the gym. Obviously, racing is racing, so being put against a bunch of kids on the track, competing against each other, tells you a lot and the ups and downs of it are real. You can’t reset a race track. If you go hit a wall, you’ve got to deal with the feelings of that after.
“The psychological aspect of racing, that’s one thing I think from William’s perspective is he was extremely special from the way his makeup was and how he approaches races and how he approaches competing. If William had a tough race, it was the same William the day after, he was going to build on it and get better.’’
Toyota Racing Development already has created a driver pipeline that has sent Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez to Cup rides at Joe Gibbs Racing and watched as Byron — he drove in the Truck series for Kyle Busch Motorsports — moved to Chevrolet. Toyota has Christopher Bell in the Xfinity Series, Todd Gilliland and Myatt Snider in the Truck Series and Hallie Deegan in the K&N Pro Series West, among others.
For every Jones, Bell or Gilliland, others could be missed because they didn’t have the opportunity to begin racing at an early age.
Before Toyota can do something like that, Irving notes his group needs to understand what to measure and what translates from computers to the track.
“Can we expand it and do more with what we have? Yes,’’ Irving said of its analytics study. “Just getting data has been relatively new to the sport over the last few years. So even kind of dissecting data and how you would traditionally go after athletes at every level, we’re just starting to get over that more and more and we’re continuing to get better at that in the last few years.
“Figuring out the metrics that you’re just rating real racers has been difficult. We’ve spent a fair amount of time the last two years doing that, three years doing that, and evaluating the people that are out there that are currently racing. I think, yes, to touch further backgrounds and to find in deeper regions, (online simulation games) is definitely a tool that can be what the future is.’’
2. Daytona Speedweeks Crash Report
Ninety-five vehicles were involved in accidents in Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck races at Daytona, based on race reports and replays.
That is tied for the second-highest total of vehicles involved in incidents during Daytona Speedweeks since 2013. Those in incidents range from cars destroyed to any that were slightly involved.
The 28 Cup cars involved in accidents in the Daytona 500 was down from last year when 35 cars were listed in incidents. But this year’s total was the second-highest for the Daytona 500 since 2012.
The 63 cars involved in incidents in the Daytona 500 the past two years rank as the highest two-year total in the last 10 Daytona 500s.
Here is how many Cup cars were involved in accidents in the Daytona 500 in recent years:
Todd Gilliland will get a helping hand driving Kyle Busch Motorsports’ No. 4 Toyota this season before he turns 18 on May 15.
The two-time K&N Pro Series West champion will miss four of the first six races to start the year because of NASCAR’s rule that drivers under 18 years old are restricted to tracks 1.25 miles or less in length or road courses.
Gilliland will miss the season-opener at Daytona (Feb. 16), Atlanta (Feb. 24), Las Vegas (March 2) and Kansas (May 11).
After starts at Martinsville (March 24) and Dover (May 4) to begin his Rookie of the Year campaign, his first race on a 1.5-mile track will be at Charlotte Motor Speedway on May 18.
In a video released by the team on Twitter, it announced that Gilliland’s dad, David Gilliland, will open the season at Daytona.
The former Cup driver will make his first NASCAR start since 2016 in the NextEra Energy Resources 250.
A veteran of 398 national NASCAR races, David Gilliland’s last Truck Series start was in 2015. He has 10 Truck starts. One of those was at a restrictor-plate track (Daytona, 2015).
That’s not the only race the elder Gilliland will try to be part of that weekend.
He will attempt to qualify for the Daytona 500 with Ricky Benton Racing, which has fielded the No. 92 in the Truck Series since 2010.
Gilliland will attempt to qualify the No. 92 Black’s Tire and Auto Service/Carquest Auto Parts Ford into the “Great American Race.” If he’s successful, it will mark the Cup debut for the team.
Gilliland made seven starts for the team in 2015.
“After talking with our partners, we felt the time was right to make a move into the Cup Series,” team owner Ricky Benton said in a press release. “Getting David back on board was also key. Having a veteran driver with his experience and success on restrictor-plate tracks – with whom (crew chief Mike) Hester has familiarity – gives us a leg up as we try to make the race.”
Gilliland has made 16 starts at Daytona in the Cup Series, including seven in the Daytona 500. His best finish was third in the 2011 Daytona 500.
UPDATE: KBM has also announced its crew chief lineup for this season.
Ryan Fugle will be paired with Noah Gragson on the No. 18 truck.
Mike Hillman Jr. will work with Harrison Burton, Busch and other drivers on the No. 51 truck.