‘Names are made here’ is the slogan of the NASCAR Xfinity Series and there are plenty of names looking to make their mark during the 2019 season. Tyler Reddick returns to defend his championship, albeit with a new team, while fellow Championship 4 participants Christopher Bell and Cole Custer return to their rides at Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing, respectively.
There are also several returning players in the mix like Justin Allgaier (No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet), Austin Cindric (No. 22 Team Penske Ford) and Brandon Jones (No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota). Noah Gragson (No. 1 JR Motorsports Chevrolet), John Hunter Nemechek (No. 23 GMS Racing Chevrolet) and Justin Haley (No. 11 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet) lead a host of fresh faces in full-time rides.
So just who is the favorite for the 2019 Xfinity Series crown? NASCAR.com’s Jessica Ruffin and RJ Kraft debate who will be the next driver to make their name in the Xfinity ranks.
RUFFIN: As a rookie in the Xfinity Series last season, Christopher Bell notched a series-best seven victories, including three in the playoffs. When he wasn’t visiting Victory Lane, Bell’s No. 20 Toyota was running consistently in the top pack; his season included 18 top-five results and 759 laps led, topping the series in both categories.
Beyond his finishes, though, Bell showed the ability to persevere when faced with a setback last season. He headed into the penultimate elimination race at ISM Raceway in a must-win situation and did just that, rallying from a 38th-place starting spot to clinch the victory and the Championship 4 spot. While the 24-year-old wasn’t able to clinch the title at Homestead-Miami Speedway — finishing fourth in the standings to champion Tyler Reddick — that’s only motivation for the sophomore driver, who won the 2017 Gander Outdoors Truck Series title. Couple his 2018 heartbreak with a full year of experience in the Xfinity Series and it just may pave the way for Bell to notch his second NASCAR championship.
KRAFT: Bell will be a factor and he certainly could put up the better overall season. For me, though, I am going with Cole Custer as the Xfinity Series title favorite in 2019. He showed significant growth in 2018 as he doubled his top fives (14 in ’18 after seven in ’17), tallied 26 top 10s in 33 races and racked up six pole positions. His 9.0 average finish is best among returning series regulars — Bell’s was 11.1 last year. While Custer only had one win in 2018, expect him to tack on a few more of those in 2019.
The real reason I like Custer as the title favorite: His runs at Miami — site of the Championship 4 race — over the past two years. The title comes down to a one-race shootout among four drivers and his stats there position him better than almost everyone at coming away with the championship. He won the race at the 1.5-mile track in 2017 as he led 182 of a possible 200 laps despite not being in the Championship 4. Last year, he led 95 laps and looked to be the dominant car before some questionable pit strategy left him scrambling to catch Reddick, the eventual winner and champion, and he finished second.