(CBS Local)- Hard to believe but the inaugural season of the Camping World SRX series comes to a close this weekend at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway. Through five races, there's been plenty of excitement and nearly every driver has been in contention at one point or another. And, the series has given a star turn to one young driver.
23-year-old Ernie Francis Jr. will enter Saturday's race 38 points behind Tony Stewart for the top spot in the championship. Theoretically, he could overtake Stewart this weekend, though that would seem unlikely given that he can earn a maximum of 49 points if he wins both heats and the feature race. Still, regardless of the overall outcome, Francis Jr. has gotten the spotlight on the series which can now lead to some big opportunities.
"I think this is one of the coolest stories of the whole championship. The whole concept of SRX was to take the heroes and the legends of their respective categories," CBS Sports SRX series analyst James Hinchcliffe said of Francis Jr. "While on one hand, yeah he's already established and a legend in his own series, he's still only 23 and still has a lot of aspirations and goals in the sport. This just put him front and center against some of the best that have ever been. He's never raced on ovals, never raced on dirt and every week we go to a new track and he's right on the pace, and fighting for podiums and wins. What's so cool is you take this championship that was comprised of guys you think are in the twilight of their career but it's highlighted a young driver that still has a bright future in front of him and opened up some great opportunities for him."
Francis isn't alone in terms of young drivers getting some shine from the series. Last week saw 17-year-old Luke Fenhaus finish second just days after winning Slinger Nationals. 19-year-old truck series driver Hailie Deegan has put in strong performances in each race she's been involved in.
Though the youngsters have gotten a lot of the shine, one of the legends has also brought plenty of entertainment and at times, tension to the races: Paul Tracy.
"Paul came into this championship with the moniker of the 'bad boy' and the chrome horn reputation from his days in IndyCar so I think he had people with an eye on him regardless and maybe he was a bit more under a microscope than other drivers would have been," Hinchcliffe said. "But, it does seem like he's been a magnet for incidents whether you can pin them on him or something you can pin on someone else. He just seems to always be where the action one way or another. I know it's gotten to a point where it's frustrated him a little bit but I'm not going to lie it's great for the story, great for the show."
Tracy was involved in more bumps and bruises last week at Slinger, leading to a post-race back and forth with Deegan with neither particularly thrilled with the other's driving. All in all, the hard racing from Tracy has brought a distinct element to the series that Hinchcliffe has enjoyed.
As for the man on the top of the standings heading into the weekend, that would be co-founder Tony Stewart who's back-to-back wins in the dirt have him sitting in prime position to win the inaugural series championship.
"Let's put it this way, I'm not a betting man, but I know who I'd be putting my championship bets on and it's the guy in the 14," Hinchcliffe said.
While the season long trophy might be out of reach, this week's race is very much up for grabs. Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway was a regular NASCAR Cup Series stop from 1958-1984 and was a stop on the then Busch (now Xfinity) Series from 1984-2000. Several drivers in the regular lineup have run on the track but the one with the most recent experience? This week's ringer and defending NASCAR Cup Series champ, Chase Elliott.
"The ringers have actually been very competitive every single week and it's been fun to have that as part of the series. I think honestly, the guy that might have the most recent experience is Chase Elliott. He won a race back in 2013 so his knowledge of the track and his experience is maybe a little fresher than dad's or Michael Waltrip's would be. So it's going to be interesting," Hinchcliffe said. "He obviously doesn't have five weeks of racing these cars under his belt but if you look at his schedule he's doing three races in the three nights leading up to Saturday and then obviously racing in the Cup cars on Sunday so seat time has definitely not been short for young Chase so it's going to be fun to watch him as well."
Bringing in the defending Cup Series champ to race against his dad and the rest of the field is just one of the many moves that Hinchcliffe has been impressed to see co-founder Ray Evernham make this season.
"Ray and the group have done such a great job for these cars to be race-able everywhere we go. I'm not going to lie, there's been a couple of tracks we've pulled up to and I thought, 'yeah this is probably going to be a one lane place, may not be the most action packed race unless guys are getting into each other and using bumpers' and that really just hasn't been the case," Hinchcliffe said. "We've seen with the exception of maybe one track, the high line come in pretty much everywhere. We've seen a lot of good side by side action. So, it's just a testament to the work Ray Evernham and everyone on his team have done to get these cars in a place where they can race. Whether it's a half-mile dirt track or asphalt track we've had a lot of good races."
With a championship on the line and another ringer joining the fold as the season wraps up Hinchcliffe's hope for this week's race is a simple one.
"The key is just to have fun. That's true for the people working the series, the drivers themselves, the people on the broadcast. This one is just about having fun, going out in style. I think the SRX experiment has been a tremendous success and everyone can go and enjoy themselves and be proud of the effort that everyone has put in so far," Hinchcliffe said.
The Camping World SRX series takes on Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway on Saturday, July 17 with coverage beginning at 8 p.m. Eastern Time on CBS and streaming on Paramount+.
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