Editor’s note: This is the first of three stories on 2018 breakout candidates. Xfinity Series breakout candidates can be viewed here and Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series breakout candidates can be viewed here.
A dominant year by eventual champion Christopher Bell forced performances by a few NASCAR Camping World Truck Series drivers under the radar. Bell has since graduated to the Xfinity Series, but these five drivers return to Trucks in 2018, primed for breakout seasons:
Rhodes grew to a fringe Truck Series title contender, scoring a Production in Equal Equipment Rating of 2.348, nearly double what is expected from the average 21-year-old driver. Being considerably better than average probably isn’t the only career highlight he covets, though; fortunately, there are other statistical signs that forecast success.
He ended the season with a positive pass differential and was best on 1-mile tracks and 1.5-mile intermediates, where he ranked as the sixth and fifth most efficient passer among series regulars, respectively. These two track types comprise over half the 2018 schedule, making Rhodes a solid bet to become one of the series’ best passers.
Shrinking his DNF tally should be an overarching goal for Rhodes in the upcoming campaign. He failed to finish five races, four of which were crash related, after recording 0.48 wrecks per race, tied for the highest rate among series regulars. A 2017 study by Motorsports Analytics proves crashing dissipates with age; another year in the seat should spell improvement by Rhodes in this category.
The younger brother of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion finished inside the top five in a third of his starts in 2017, but never won. If he breaks through for a victory in the upcoming season, his restart prowess will be the reason why — although Hattori Racing Enterprises and Truex announced Jan. 4 the driver would not return, leaving him looking for a new ride in 2018.
Among drivers with 15 restart attempts from the non-preferred groove, no one was better than Truex. He defended his position more than 73 percent of the time and took home a rare positional net gain (plus-11) from the lesser of the restart lanes. He ranked second best from the preferred groove — Kyle Busch was the only driver better — retaining his restarting spot 88.68 percent of the time for a gain of 66 positions.
Truex proved dependent on full-field resets during the year, averaging a 9.45-place finish in races with at least six restarts, nearly four positions better than races with fewer than six restarts (13.25).
The 2016 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East champion was 17 years old when the 2017 Camping World Truck Series season began, rendering him ineligible for the first two races at Daytona and Atlanta. He joined GMS Racing for the remaining 21 events.
Haley thrived in races that offered plenty of clean air and long runs. His 10.45-place average finish in races with fewer than six restarts was over three positions better than his average in races with eight or more (13.6) and his 8.92-place average finish in races that ended with long runs was over five spots better than in races with at least one late-race restart (14.22).
In addition to the scenarios that favor Haley’s chances, he has a history of improvement between his freshman and sophomore years. He averaged a 9.1-place finish in the K&N East in 2015; he returned the next season, throwing down a scorching 3.4-place average result that clinched him the series title.
A two-time champion and 13-time winner in NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series West, expect Gilliland to burst onto the Truck Series scene in 2018. In six races last season with Kyle Busch Motorsports, he recorded three top-seven finishes, each with a different crew chief. He’ll have more stability in the new season with more starts and appears poised to shine in one of the sport’s stingiest statistical categories.
Seventeen of Gilliland’s 24 restarts emanated from the non-preferred groove, a bad luck of the draw that didn’t deter the 17-year-old in his quest for track position. He retained his running spot 64.71 percent of the time, over 13 percent better than the series-wide rate, and scored a three-position net gain. That’s impressive stuff from a novice.
Though it hasn’t been announced which KBM entry he’ll wheel or for how many races, he won’t be wanting for speed if the status quo is kept. Four KBM trucks ranked as the 10 fastest in the series in 2017, according to timing and scoring data supplied to NASCAR.com.
The 34-year-old Ontario-born dirt-tracker has built a home for himself in the Truck Series. He averaged a 13.3-place finish in the second half of 2017, over seven positions better than his first half average (20.6). The better results were partly due to his Halmar Friesen Racing team aligning with GMS Racing for technical support prior to the race at New Hampshire, from which point Friesen scored four top-seven finishes and averaged an 11.14-place result.
One doesn’t have to think too hard in pinpointing the track likely to serve up Friesen’s first NASCAR win. He led 93 laps en route to a second-place finish on the dirt at Eldora Speedway, ranking first in average green-flag speed for the race.
Friesen will need to pay closer attention to his own attrition in 2018. He crashed 0.47 times per race, the fourth-highest rate among series regulars.