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Carson Hocevar heats up NASCAR Rookie of the Year battle

Carson Hocevar has made the Rookie of the Year battle more competitive following a top-10 finish at World Wide Technology Raceway.

Hocevar was one of three drivers in the Cup Series lineup Sunday competing to win Rookie of the Year. Josh Berry and Zane Smith were the other two. Berry was 19th in points, Hocevar was 24th in points, and Smith was 35th in points after the first 14 races of the season.

Berry had the advantage in the Rookie of the Year battle. He had one top-five finish and two top-10s on his stat sheet, and he was 36 points ahead of Hocevar. Now, however, Berry is 20th in points and only five points ahead with 11 races remaining in the regular season.

Last weekend's race was the catalyst for the change as two of these rookies experienced wildly different days.

Hocevar turned in his best performance of the season at the track where he made his Cup debut last season. He scored stage points and finished eighth. This was Hocevar's best finish since Texas in April when he crossed the line 10th.

"We had a really slow stop at the beginning of the race with a lug nut coming off," Hocevar said after the race. "That really put us behind. We knew we had a great Chevy, so we just did everything we could. We played strategy a little bit to make sure we were on the right end of it.

"We caught the caution right, but then after that, our car was really good. We ran as high as fourth and we were catching third. Our lights were off, so we were a little slow down pit road. That was probably the difference of getting a top-five finish or not. All-in-all, it was just a really good job by this No. 77 team."

Berry, for comparison, started 29th at WWT Raceway and missed out on stage points. He also received a penalty for speeding on pit road.

Berry finished 36th after a sudden tire issue sent him hard into the outside wall. This was Berry's worst finish since Texas in April when he also finished 36th. He scored one point in each race.

"I really don't know what happened," Berry said after exiting the race. "Obviously with what our past has been with the (brake) rotors here it kind of makes you think that. I went over and looked at the rotors and it looked like they were still on it so it is either that or a tire."

Smith is currently 148 points behind Hocevar, but he still made progress at the track where he also made his Cup debut. Smith avoided incidents and finished 19th. This was his third top-20 finish of the season and his best finish since Circuit of the Americas in March.

Prior to Sunday's race, it appeared that Berry was cruising to a Rookie of the Year win. Now, however, the competition is heating up once again, which only creates further intrigue heading into the summer stretch.

This Rookie of the Year battle will continue for the rest of the Cup season, especially if all three drivers miss the playoffs. They will have to continue racing for maximum points while trying to avoid incidents.

With wild card tracks such as Daytona, Atlanta, and Talladega still on the schedule, this will not be an easy task.