Last year’s class of freshmen NASCAR Cup Series drivers led by Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and two-time Xfinity Series champion Tyler Reddick was one of the most buzzed about rookie crops in recent years.
Bell had an up-and-down season peaking with a third-place run in the third-to-last race of the year at Texas Motor Speedway, Reddick showed extremely promising flashes in a fourth-place finish at Homestead-Miami Speedway and a runner-up finish at Texas in the summer. However, it was Custer who nabbed a win with a thrilling restart at Kentucky Speedway in July, made the playoffs and captured Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors. The victory made Custer the first Cup rookie to win since Chris Buescher did so at Pocono in 2016.
Who will be the best in their respective sophomore seasons? Reddick and Custer have continuity on their side as they had the same crew chiefs and rides as last year with Richard Childress Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing, respectively. Bell is on the move to Joe Gibbs Racing to pilot the No. 20 Toyota and will have two-time championship-winning crew chief Adam Stevens atop the pit box.
NASCAR.com’s RJ Kraft and Pat DeCola debate which driver from the trio is most primed to make a jump in their second Cup season.
KRAFT: Each driver in this group has an appealing reason to choose them. Custer came on in the second half of the season with 12 top 15s (including the Kentucky win) in the final 21 races of the season (after he had just two top 15s in the first 15 races) and Reddick’s high-line, hard-charging style is exciting to watch even if does lend itself to greater variance in his peaks and valleys.
That said, I’m taking Bell as he moves from Leavine Family Racing to JGR for Year 2. Bell was a bit unlucky in his rookie year as the COVID-19 pandemic procedure forced a change from qualifying sessions to a lineup formula that hurt his starting positions for much of the summer. He started 15 races 26th or worse — something that is unlikely to happen a second year in a row. A good starting position can lead to significant stage points — Bell finished with just 75 on the year — and be a major boon in a playoff push and move up the standings.
While Bell finished the lowest in the standings of the three 2020 rookies we are discussing, I believe he has the biggest ceiling. The move in-house to JGR is big for Bell — LFR was affiliated with Toyota and JGR — now being directly linked to the mothership for Toyota. He has championship-winning teammates to lean on in Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. and a driver who has reached the Championship 4 the past two seasons in Denny Hamlin in the same stable as him.
The biggest reason for optimism with Bell’s 2021 season is atop the pit box in Stevens. Paired with Busch, Stevens won 28 races at the Cup level as well as the 2015 and 2019 championships, but is coming off a disappointing 2020 that eventually led to his new assignment. Bell is coming off a season that left a little to be desired as well. Both parties have something to prove — Stevens that he can succeed away from Busch, and Bell that he can get it done at the Cup level.
I liken the Stevens-Bell pairing to when William Byron and Chad Knaus were paired together after Byron’s first Cup season — starting with the 2019 campaign. Byron was coming off a learning-filled rookie year that resulted in four top 10s (Bell had two top fives and seven top 10s in 2020) and a 23rd-place finish in the standings (Bell finished 20th). Byron’s sophomore year produced five top fives, 13 top 10s, a playoff appearance, a berth in the Round of 12 and an 11th-place finish in the standings. Stevens and Bell can certainly follow that blueprint. A more ambitious path would be that of Erik Jones, who won in his sophomore season at the Cup level … in the same ride Bell will be piloting in 2021.
DECOLA: All compelling points per usual, RJ, but I’m going to go with Reddick on this one.
A lot has changed over the past few years, of course, but we’re still not too far removed from Reddick topping both Bell and Custer in two straight Xfinity Series Championship 4 races in 2018 and ’19 — while driving for two different organizations. This season also marks the first time since Reddick’s Brad Keselowski Racing days (2014-16) that he’ll be with the same organization for a third straight season.
Despite Custer being the only one of the three to win in 2020, when I think back to which one of them seemed to find his way to the front and battle the leaders the most … it’s Reddick. His overall stats were the best of the trio as well, landing just behind seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson in the standings and nearly matching him in top 10s (nine to Johnson’s 10) and average finish (17.5 to Johnson’s 17.3). For a rookie to achieve that, I’m willing to bet he’s just scratching the surface of his potential.
Looking at his trajectory within his own organization, Reddick’s rookie season was statistically better than each of teammate Austin Dillon’s first two. AD then broke through for his first playoff appearance in 2016 with his first win coming a year later. After Reddick nearly kept up the pace, stats-wise, with his teammate in Dillon’s seventh Cup campaign, it feels more likely than not that Reddick lands in Victory Lane this year rather than down the road.
Reddick showed consistently throughout the ’20 season — and en route to those back-to-back NXS titles, which feel worth re-mentioning — that he’s not afraid to drive aggressively and battle with the sport’s veterans, a trait that will likely only be fine-tuned in his sophomore campaign.
It’s a little concerning that six of his nine top 10s came in the season’s first half last year, but something tells me he and crew chief Randall Burnett are well aware of this and have focused on bringing more consistency to the Californian’s results this season.
Really, you can’t go wrong with any of these rising stars in the sport, but Reddick stands out to me as the one to make the most noise in ’21.