When the SRX racing lineup was first announced, Ernie Francis Jr.’s name stood out as being “one of these things is not like the other.” SRX was a roster full of older veteran drivers and then you have this random 23-year old that nobody had heard of thrown in.
I had heard the name Ernie Francis Jr. before, but I thought that was from watching him in the Xfinity or K&N races I happen to watch him in. The fact of the matter is, Francis is just as qualified as any of them to run with his fellow champions. Yes, I said fellow.
Francis is a seven-time TransAm Series champion. The TransAm series is a sports car road course racing series where drivers like Boris Said spent a lot of their careers. Francis is the best driver in the series and was part of Tony Stewart and Ray Evernham trying to make this a spiritual successor to IROC and bringing champions from all forms of motorsports. Just last season, Francis won the TransAm championship in 9 races with 4 wins and 6 podium (top 3) finishes.
He currently sits 2nd in the SRX points standings, 30 points back behind Tony Stewart. He has been finishing well each week and while road courses are where his specialty is, he is showing that he can earn money on ovals and even dirt. This series provided him with the opportunity to show that he is talented but has not gotten the exposure needed from TransAm.
While chasing down Tony Stewart in SRX is his main priority in 2021, his 2022 plans are still up in the air. At his age and with this new exposure, there are a lot of doors that could open from this deal. With his experience in road course racing, he becomes an appealing development prospect for IndyCar teams and now that he’s showcasing his ability on ovals, NASCAR teams could start calling.
A scenario that makes too much sense to me is Stewart-Haas Racing signing Ernie Francis Jr. to a development contract and signing him to their Xfinity series team. This would be a mutually beneficial exchange as it gives Francis a development track and competitive car to race, but it also benefits Tony Stewart immensely.
SRX is exciting racing that brings together some of the best racers of the past generations. He has claimed he wants to compete against NASCAR, but that’s counterproductive for a guy who owns a NASCAR team. SRX will be able to exist alongside NASCAR and produce its unique form of racing but never be a direct competitor with it, and it never should be.
For SRX to take that next step, it needs to be a place where younger drivers can come in and look at it as a viable racing option to benefit their careers. We’ve already seen Doug Coby come in and get a chance in the truck series thanks to his win at Stafford. I’m talking about opportunities for young talented drivers to come in and use SRX as a pathway to more NASCAR or IndyCar deals.
Tony Stewart can sign Ernie Francis Jr. to Stewart-Haas Racing for a full-time Xfinity ride and promote this as what SRX has the potential to do for young drivers. Francis could be made an example of what opportunities SRX can provide.
Francis has the talent as he’s shown skill in the TransAm series and while competition there is not as stiff as other forms of motorsports, the fact that he has been a legendary form of dominant at such a young age tells you his upside is incredible. Going into the SRX, competing and beating Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte, Marco Andretti, Tony Kanaan, and Helio Castroneves holds weight. All these guys still compete in racing in some form or another, and Castroneves just came off an Indy 500 victory, the most prestigious race in the world.
The talent is there, this isn’t just a marketing scheme for Stewart and SRX, this is a genuine moment where all the pieces could fit together perfectly. Ernie Francis Jr. even drives a Ford Mustang in TransAm, so the crippling Ford development pipeline gets a homegrown talent to bolster their NASCAR stock.
The biggest hurdle in all this is Riley Herbst and if he will return to the #98 in 2022. The easy solution would be to add a second car, but SHR might not be looking to do that with their Xfinity program.
Riley Herbst is a paid driver, it’s no secret that he has been paying his way into rides for years. He has support from Monster, but with the performance that he’s put up in 2021, I don’t know how much sponsorship can compensate for. You mix his poor performance with the fact that Monster has also shown interest in sponsoring another paid driver in Ty Gibbs who has shown immensely more talent than Herbst, and you have a cocktail for a jobless Riley Herbst in 2022.
It’s not even just the fact that Herbst isn’t finishing well, but he’s crashing cars and tearing up equipment far too often. He is a guy who is not void of talent, but not talented enough to be racing in Xfinity, let alone SHR equipment. His money will keep him in a seat, but it doesn’t have to be SHR.
With all the sponsorship relationship Tony Stewart has forged in SRX and the benefits that showcasing Francis’ development can bring to SRX, I doubt SHR would have a difficult time finding a sponsor to replace Monster. That is assuming Francis couldn’t find his own sponsor. The bottom line is, if money is the only thing holding this deal back, then I don’t think it will stop anything from happening.