When Zane Smith, Carson Hocevar and Josh Berry suit up for the Busch Light Clash weekend on Feb. 3-4, it will not be their first time taking on the NASCAR Cup Series. They all have limited experience but that does not diminish the importance of their rookie campaigns.
The members of this trio won’t be making spot starts for existing teams. Instead, they are kicking off their careers as the faces of their respective car numbers. Berry, Hocevar and Smith are also the Rookie of the Year contenders at this time.
“It means a lot to be with the team that I’m going to be with for, hopefully, the foreseeable future,” Hocevar told NBC Sports ahead of the season. “Be with a team that is built for me not that I was just thrown in.
“Now it counts a little bit more. Now it matters more.”
Hocevar made his Cup debut last season with one start for Spire Motorsports. He then started eight races for Legacy Motor Club. Now he returns to Spire as the full-time driver of the No. 77 Chevrolet as he partners with crew chief Luke Lambert, a veteran with one Cup win.
“It’s a pretty perfect mix for me and Luke,” Hocevar said. “I’m the fun, not organized, have a good time, who really cares kind of (person). Just as long as you’re having fun, that’s what matters the most. The rest is moot in the grand scheme of things.
“And then meanwhile, Luke’s very buttoned up, very scheduled, very punctuated, very good time, very kind of country. It’s a perfect mix.”
While Hocevar takes over a car that has competed in Cup for several seasons, Smith takes over a new entry as Spire Motorsports expands to three full-time teams.
Smith, who signed a deal with Trackhouse Racing, will drive the No. 71 for Spire. This arrangement is part of an agreement between the two organizations that opens up an opportunity for Smith to pursue his dream after making nine previous Cup starts.
“It’s special because it’s the start of something that I want to be a part of,” Smith said about his rookie season to NBC Sports. “You never get your first year in the Cup Series back.
“…I mean, I feel like I’m ready to get to the Clash and just start the year. The preparation has been there throughout the offseason since (the season finale at Phoenix). I’ve already been back at work, so just ready for what’s ahead.”
Berry has the most Cup experience of the rookie drivers with 12 starts across two seasons.
Berry made his Cup debut in 2021 with two starts for Spire Motorsports. He made eight starts for Hendrick Motorsports last season while replacing Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman as they recovered from injuries. Berry posted three top-10 finishes and one top five.
Berry rounded out his schedule with two starts for Legacy Motor Club as part of a rotating lineup of drivers.
This season, Berry will be the sole driver of the No. 4 Ford Mustang at Stewart-Haas Racing. He will be the face of the No. 4 team as he takes on a full rookie schedule and replaces the retired Kevin Harvick.
“I think I’m most excited to drive my own car with my own team,” Berry told NBC Sports. “Work with my own guys and get to go to races like the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600. It’s going to be pretty fun.”
Having experience in Cup is important. That doesn’t mean that Berry expects to come in and contend for wins from day one. He acknowledged there will be a challenge ahead as he faces off with a packed field of veterans.
This challenge is one that all three rookies will face this season. They will have to prove themselves against winners and champions alike. They will have to show that they can hold their own on the biggest stage.
Will the season ahead be intimidating? It’s possible. Will it stop the three rookies? Absolutely not.
“Racing more. Racing against the best. Just excited for that,” Smith said.
Dustin Long contributed to this report.