Editor’s note: This is the second of three stories on 2018 breakout candidates. Camping World Truck Series breakout candidates can be read here; Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series breakout candidates can be read here.
The NASCAR Xfinity Series lost its champion with William Byron graduating to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, but a handful of young drivers are poised to take his place. Using statistics compiled in 2017 to project performance in 2018, here is a list of likely breakthrough competitors for the upcoming season:
Reddick, a three-time winner in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, gets a crack at full-time Xfinity Series racing, taking the reins of the very JR Motorsports entry that captured the series championship with Byron.
Last season, Reddick made 18 starts behind the wheel of a Chip Ganassi Racing entry he shared with Monster Energy Series regular Kyle Larson. The difference in performance was noticeable. Reddick’s 16.7-place average finish was 10 positions worse than Larson’s (6.1). Reddick eventually scored a win at Kentucky, but overall, his results left a lot to be desired.
His peripheral numbers provide optimism. Among drivers with 10 or more starts, Reddick ranked 12th in restart position retention from the preferred groove– seventh with Cup drivers omitted — defending his running spot on 82.93 percent of restarts. Races with more restarts were advantageous for him. He averaged a 21.75-place finish in events with less than seven restarts; his average result in races with nine or more was 9.5.
His passing outside the restart window proved effective on the larger tracks — 1.5-mile intermediates, where he earned an adjusted pass differential 19 positions more than expected from driver with his average running position, and the 2-mile, non-drafting tracks where his plus-9.04 percent surplus passing value ranked third among front-runners, trailing only Joey Logano (plus-11.65 percent) and Larson (plus-11.39).
An Xfinity Series rookie in 2017, Hemric acclimated to the higher level of competition in the second half of the season when his 8.73-place average finish was more than seven positions better than his first-half average (15.88). He was one of two rookies to qualify into the Championship 4 and, unlike fellow rookie and eventual champion Byron, he remains in the series in 2018.
Without the need for assimilation, Hemric appears capable of a concentrated bid for the series championship. His passing could act as the foundation to a potential title march. He ranked as the best passer among series regulars on the intermediates of Atlanta, Charlotte and Texas, where he bagged 35 positions beyond the expectation of his average running position. He was also a plus passer on tracks 1 to 1.49 miles in length.
His crash rate of 0.21 times per race was exactly the series average among drivers with six or more starts, and that’s a good thing considering an average young driver’s penchant for crashing. A 2017 Motorsports Analytics study proves a driver’s crash rate dissipates the older he/she gets, meaning Hemric projects as a cleaner driver moving forward.
Among playoff participants, Custer’s No. 00 was the fastest car, per timing and scoring data supplied to NASCAR.com, in the final seven races of 2017 and at 1.5-mile intermediate tracks all season. If that speed carries into the new season — it’s unclear what the pending merger of Biagi-DenBeste Racing and the Xfinity operation of Stewart-Haas Racing means for the on-track product– Custer will threaten to dominate races in the manner he did during the season finale at Homestead.
It takes talent to go fast in a race car, so Custer’s effort shouldn’t be taken lightly, but his peripheral numbers looked as if they belonged to a rookie. His minus-6.83 percent surplus passing value ranked as the second worst among series regulars and led to an adjusted pass differential 253 positions worse than expected. The restart window proved troublesome. He suffered a net loss of 131 positions, retaining his position far less often than the series average.
Another season in the Xfinity Series means another year of possible growth, and for Custer that is an opportunity to hone his skill set when clean air eludes him.
In a miniscule eight-race sample size, Bell looked every bit the part of a future Xfinity Series title contender. The 2017 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion receives the full-time promotion to Xfinity in 2018 and at his disposal is a reliable race-winning car from the Joe Gibbs Racing stable.
Bell ranked as the 12th most efficient passer, among front-running drivers, across all track types and ranked second and third, respectively, on short tracks and high-banked intermediates, a combination on which he scored a 70-position surplus pass differential, a heavy takeaway from traffic in just four races.
In 20 restart attempts from the preferred groove, he retained his running position 95 percent of the time for a gain of 18 positions, a positive sign for a driver who projects to be in clean air the majority of the time in what is perennially one of the series’ fastest cars.
Briscoe’s exploits in the Truck Series flew below the radar and culminated in a win in the season’s final race. The 23-year-old driver was an effective restarter all year, retaining his running position 80 percent of the time from the preferred groove for a gain of 47 spots, the third highest total behind Ryan Truex (66) and John Hunter Nemechek (57). Additionally, he was a plus passer across all track types, a pleasant designation for a rookie regardless of series strength.
In 2018, he’ll be part of a driving triumvirate in the iconic No. 60 Roush Fenway Racing car alongside Ty Majeski and Austin Cindric. In Briscoe’s starts, restarts could prove bountiful as he represents something Roush Fenway’s Xfinity program did not have in 2017: an above average restarter from the non-preferred groove, where Briscoe was one of the 10 best position defenders in the Truck Series.