Daniel Hemric doesn’t have a NASCAR Xfinity Series win to his name. Richard Childress Racing sees no problem with that.
Hemric’s relatively unexpected announcement that he’d make his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series debut at Richmond Raceway this weekend is backed by legendary precedence.
Jimmie Johnson signed for a Hendrick Motorsports ride in the fall of 2000, 10 months before he’d score his first and only Xfinity Series race win. Kasey Kahne had yet to find Xfinity Series Victory Lane when Ray Evernham selected him as Bill Elliott’s replacement in 2003. Denny Hamlin was tabbed for Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 11 car in 2005 during a winless rookie season in Xfinity. Chip Ganassi deemed development driver Kyle Larson ready for Cup months before he was a winner, an interesting detour from the fun “Chip Likes Winners” narrative.
What’s going on, you ask? In a sport where winning garners headlines and attracts fans, its participants are paying more attention to success in the periphery. It’s for good reason.
Winning is of the utmost importance, especially in NASCAR, where a regular-season victory equates to a playoff berth, but wins aren’t on the level when evaluating potential for driving stardom. Consider this: The five fastest cars in the Xfinity Series, occupied by 12 different drivers, won 70 percent of last year’s races. Through seven events in 2018, the same rate exists (five of seven). Since entering Xfinity, Hemric has never had one of the five fastest cars.
Still, those keeping close tabs appreciate Hemric. It helps that we’re now predisposed to grading drivers in less-than-elite equipment with the understanding that there’s a limit on what their superficial stat line — wins, top-five finishes, laps led, etc. — can tout. This is thanks to drivers, emerging from second-tier equipment or worse, who proved formidable immediately upon entering NASCAR’s premier series.
A peripheral area in which Hemric thrives is long-run passing, particularly on 1.5-mile tracks, NASCAR’s most prevalent track type. In 2017, he provided his team with an adjusted pass differential of plus-43 at Atlanta, Charlotte and Texas, over 35 positions beyond the expectation of a driver with his average running position. Earlier this month at Texas, he finished third despite his 35th-place starting spot, thanks primarily to the 17 additional positions supplied via efficient passing.
This is a trait that translates to Monster Energy Series success. Chase Elliott and Erik Jones, both winners in top-tier Xfinity equipment, were plus passers before jumping to Cup, where their penchant for efficiently sifting through traffic continues. So was Larson, ranked first in pass efficiency among Xfinity Series regulars in 2013, whose passing acumen proved more predictive of his fortune than his lack of race victories at the time.
Efficient passing represents something RCR doesn’t typically get from its driving roster. Three drivers, Austin Dillon, Ryan Newman and Paul Menard, combined for an adjusted pass differential 301 positions worse than expected last year, forcing their crew chiefs to place a season-long emphasis on pit strategy in an effort to supplement track position. That game plan turned out OK, all things considered. Both Dillon and Newman won races based on strategy. Menard’s crew chief, Matt Borland, chipped in 67 additional positions for his driver, the second-highest total among all crew chiefs, through green-flag pit cycles.
Dillon and Newman returned in 2018, and the focus on pit strategy remains; Luke Lambert has pitted Newman either early or late in the fuel window a relatively high 40 percent of the time. A driver like Hemric, with an innate ability to maneuver through dirty air, would represent a mental reprieve for RCR’s brain trust and a pathway to winning they haven’t had since the days Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer walked through their hauler door.
RCR also understands the initial Cup Series output from Hemric won’t adequately represent his ceiling. The Monster Energy Series can make for a daunting transition. There is reason, though, for optimism.
Hemric has improved on the fly during his brief Xfinity Series stint. He underwent an assimilation period during the first half of last season, averaging a 15.9-place finish through the first 17 races before improving by about 5.5 positions in the season’s second half. His 8.6-place average to this point in 2018 is in line with every series champion within the last five years. He currently ranks second in Production in Equal Equipment Rating among series regulars, trailing only Elliott Sadler, a driver with 438 career Cup Series starts to his name.
Hemric’s second-half leap last year may have been due to improved position retention rates on restarts. During the first half, he retained his spot on preferred groove restarts 77.78 percent of the time, a measure that increased nearly 12 percent in the second half to 89.19, which would’ve sufficed as the best full-season rate in the series among regulars. He gained 18 positions inside the first two laps when restarting from the preferred groove through the year’s first half; he doubled his first-half positional gain (plus-36) in the second half.
Time is required for Hemric’s potential for impact to be realized, but given the drivers that came before him with similar records, RCR will happily stomach such an assimilation. The team is betting that Hemric will offer something different than what they already have at their disposal. It’s a smart gamble, and if he becomes another diamond rescued from the winless rough, it would shift the trajectory of an organization that’s won just three times in the last 153 races.