Last season, all eyes were on Riley Herbst as he replaced Chase Briscoe in Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 98 Xfinity Series car. The year before, Briscoe won a series-high nine races in that ride.
Out of necessity, Herbst’s expectations skyrocketed, despite entering just his second year at the Xfinity level. And there’s no sugarcoating it, 2021 was a struggle.
“[Everyone] had a bar set for me, obviously, and I knew I wasn’t going to hit that bar because I’m not Chase Briscoe,” Herbst recently told NASCAR.com. “He’s in the Cup Series right now and I’m in the Xfinity Series.”
Throughout Herbst’s tenure at Stewart-Haas, he hasn’t gotten caught up in the comparisons to previous Xfinity drivers in the team’s young history. But it took the No. 98 team until the fifth race of 2021 to get its first top-10 finish of the season, with three of the first four races being results of 26th or worse with three DNFs.
The silver lining for the duration of the 2021 season was that Herbst showed flashes of speed. It was something to build on for 2022, his third full-time season in the Xfinity Series.
“Sometimes, it beats you down,” Herbst said of not getting consistent finishes. “But then, you have to step back and think we were at ‘X’ track and had good speed, we just didn’t finish. I either made a mistake or wrecked. It’s hard to go off the finishing order because that doesn’t show the whole story most of the time.
“Momentum is everything. It was tough last year, and we knew that if we did what we were supposed to do, we would finish OK.”
Consistency is key, and something Herbst honed in on over the offseason. He entered the 2022 season with a new mentality of solidifying the No. 98 Ford as a weekly top-10 competitor. From there, it’s slowly been about getting into the top five. It also marked the first time in his racing career that he’d have the same crew chief, full time, for the duration of a season in Richard Boswell II.
That familiarity and chemistry with Boswell is an understated part of Herbst’s turnaround through the opening 11 races of the 2022 season.
“The biggest thing is we’ve taken the day for what the car is going to give us and what the team is going to give us,” Boswell said. “If that’s a solid seventh place, then it’s a solid seventh place and we’ve got a race car that’s in one piece and something to work on.”
Finishing races was a point of emphasis that Kevin Harvick and his Kevin Harvick Inc. management company helped instill in Herbst, who joined KHI as a client ahead of the 2022 season.
So far, so good.
“The main thing with him is just making sure that we finish the races and get the things out of the day that they’re given you,” Harvick added. “He’s done a good job and [the team has] done exactly that. You have to finish ninth to finish fifth, you have to finish fifth to finish fourth and so on and so forth.”
How good has it been? Through 11 races, Herbst already has four top-five finishes, one shy of his 2021 total. With eight top-10 finishes, he’s tied with Noah Gragson for the second-most top-10 finishes thus far, only behind AJ Allmendinger who has yet to finish outside the top 10.
Not bad for Herbst, who’s in his first Xfinity season with practice and qualifying for each race.
“I don’t really know what that is, maybe experience,” Herbst said. “We’re way more consistent and being able to finish has been huge for us as a team and allows us to keep moving forward and progressing and ultimately move towards those goals of winning races.”
Boswell, a perfectionist, knows the No. 98 team is much improved from 2021. But with just 34 stage points on the season, he says the team can still boost its performance.
“Still a ways to go,” he said. “All of our goals are the same in wanting to win races; we want that for Riley and the guys on our team. But by all means, a big improvement that’s attributed to finishing races.”
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Boswell credits Herbst’s improvement to having matured a significant amount over the past year and a half. In communicating with his team, Herbst understands what he needs out of his car more and understands when the No. 98 team is discussing different setups to run.
But don’t think Herbst didn’t try hard even when the success wasn’t on paper.
“He’s always worked hard and put his heart and soul into it,” Boswell said. “I think a lot of times he catches a bad rap because, quite frankly, his family has been successful. It drives me nuts because if people understood how hard he works and how badly he wants to run well then maybe they’d lay off him a little bit.”
After a season-best third-place finish at Darlington last weekend, Herbst sits eighth in the championship standings (ninth in the playoff standings), 54 points above the cutline.
While 54 points is a solid margin in a stacked Xfinity field this season, Herbst plans to keep a steady approach as the year progresses, despite having two Kaulig Racing cars, including reigning series champ Daniel Hemric, and a Richard Childress Racing entry behind him in points. Should he get a win before Bristol Motor Speedway in September, he’ll be all but locked into the postseason.
“We’re worried about ourselves and progressing as a team, getting closer to our goals of winning races,” he said. “I think each week we’re taking a step forward.
“It doesn’t surprise me. I knew I could have done this last year if we could have achieved what we were supposed to achieve and do the things we were supposed to achieve. But we haven’t won, so I’m not near satisfied. It’s cool to finish well each week, and I think we need to keep doing that and not lose sight of the goal and have to keep laying the foundation. But I really want to win a race, and I have to win a race. This is my third full-time year and you’ve got to start winning some time.”