NASCAR Next Revisited: Recapping the 2015-16 class

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On Tuesday, NASCAR revealed the membership of the 2016-17 class for its annual NASCAR Next program, which highlights the rising young talent in stock car racing.

This meant an end to the reign of the previous class, which was announced last May with 12 members. That class included the eventual K&N Pro Series East champion, four winners in the K&N East and two in the K&N West.

The class also featured four drivers who are competing in the Camping World Truck Series and have won a total of four races in the last two seasons.

Before the door is completely shut on last year’s membership, here’s a look at how each driver fared in 2015 and what they’re up to 12 months after being introduced together at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina.

 

NASCAR K&N Pro Series East NAPA 150 Columbus
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Rico Abreu – The oldest driver from last year’s class, Abreu is one of four that currently competes in the Camping World Truck Series, driving for ThorSport Racing. While the 4-foot-4 driver hasn’t finished better than 10th (Martinsville) in seven starts, his year has already a notable moment. Abreu started 2016 by winning his second Chili Bowl Nationals in a row and giving us one of the more memorable victory celebrations in recent memory. Abreu, 24, also left his this mark on the K&N East series, winning a race at Columbus Motor Speedway. MORE: Q&A

 

Iowa Speedway - Day 1
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Nicole Behar – The only female driver in last year’s class, Behar earned two top-five finishes in the K&N West series just prior to the reveal of the class last May. A second-place result tied the mark for highest finish in the series by a female driver. Behar, who was featured in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” last year, finished 2015 10th in the point standings while earning 10 top-10 finishes. The 18-year-old is splitting time this year between the CARS Tour Series for Super Late Models and the Pro All Star Series South (PASS) and will make her ARCA debut on June 19 at Madison International Speedway for Venturini Motorsports. MORE: Q&A

 

NEWTON, IOWA - MAY 16: Kyle Benjamin, driver of the #27 Eibach Ford stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR K&N Pro Series Casey's General Store 150 at Iowa Speedway on May 16, 2015 in Newton, Iowa. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Kyle Benjamin – Until Todd Gilliland came along, Benjamin was the youngest driver to ever win an ARCA race. Three years later, Benjamin is in his second season in the K&N East, driving for Ranier Racing with MDM. He will also compete in select ARCA races for the team. Last season, the 18-year-old from Easley, South Carolina, won the K&N East race at Bristol Motor Speedway and finished ninth in the standings.

 

 

James Bickford – A relative of former Sprint Cup driver Jeff Gordon, Bickford spent the last two seasons in the K&N West series, where he earned two wins driving for Bob Bruncati. Both came at State Line Speedway in Post Falls, Idaho. Bickford currently doesn’t have a ride for 2016, but he keeps busy with his own vending machine company. MORE: Q&A

William Byron
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William Byron – You’ve probably seen his name pop up in recent weeks. Byron, 18, is almost two weeks removed from his first NASCAR Camping World Truck Series win at Kansas Speedway. The victory came in just his fifth series start. The rookie earned his first pole last weekend at Dover International Speedway. He signed with Kyle Busch Motorsports this season after winning the K&N East title in 2015, amassing four wins in the process. The scary thing is Byron has only been racing for just over three years. MORE: Q&A

 

Cole Custer
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Cole Custer – After two seasons of part-time racing in the Truck series, the 18-year-old Custer is finally racing full-time in the No. 00 for JR Motorsports. The California-native took home one win last season at Gateway Motorsports Park. Through five races in 2016, Custer has one top five (Dover) and two top-10 finishes (Dover, Kansas). Custer is scheduled to compete in five Xfinity Series races for JR Motorsports. MORE: Q&A

 

Ruben Garcia Jr. – The defending winner of the NASCAR Mexico Series, Garcia now competes in the K&N East series for Rev Racing. Garcia earned his first top-10 finish last month at Virginia International Raceway. The native of Mexico City won four races in four seasons in the Mexico Series, claiming three during his championship campaign. MORE: Q&A

RICHMOND, VA - SEPTEMBER 10: Austin Hill, driver of the #22 A&D Welding/Don Rich Ford Co. Ford, celebrates after winning the K&N Pro Series East UNOH 100 at Richmond International Raceway on September 10, 2015 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
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Austin Hill – While he’s not the oldest member of last year’s class, Hill definitely has the most responsibility. At 22, Hill is the only NASCAR Next driver from last year that can put “parent” on their resume after he and his wife welcomed their daughter, Lynnlee Ann Hill, last November. That was after a season in K& N East where Hill won two races, bringing his career total to five. In 2016, Hill has competed in two Truck series races, including making his debut at his home track of Atlanta Motor Speedway with a 12th-place finish. MORE: Q&A

Jesse Little – The son of former Sprint Cup driver Chad Little, Jesse Little only had a part-time ride in the K&N West series in 2015, running in six races and winning one at Iowa Speedway. The 19-year-old driver has two K&N wins in four seasons. He is pursuing a degree in finance at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. After competing in four Truck series races last year, Jesse Little will attempt to qualify for the May 20 race at Charlotte Motor Speedway for Rette Jones Racing. He will also compete in six to eight K&N East races for the team. MORE: Q&A

Dylan Lupton – Lupton spent his 2015 season splitting time between the Xfinity Series and other racing circuits, running in eight Xfinity race with a best finish of ninth at Mid-Ohio. He finished fourth in his lone K&N East race at Watkins Glen. In 2016, he’s competed in two Xfinity races while failing to qualify for a third. He earned a DNF in his one ARCA start at Daytona International Speedway after running out of gas four laps from the race’s conclusion. Lupton is set to graduate from UNC-Charlotte.

HAMPTON, GA - FEBRUARY 27: John H Nemechek, driver of the #8 farbe technik Chevrolet, and his father Joe Nemechek pose for photos in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Great Clips 200 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on February 27, 2016 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images)
(Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images)

John Hunter Nemechek – The son of former Sprint Cup driver Joe Nemechek, the 18-year-old is in his first full-time season on the Truck circuit. Even without a full-time sponsor, John Hunter Nemechek and Nemco Motorsports are keeping the top-tier teams on notice. The No. 8 truck has won twice in the last two seasons and has 10 top-five finishes in John Hunter Nemechek’s last 23 starts. He is currently seventh in the Truck point standings and all but qualified for the season-ending Chase. MORE: Q&A

 

Dalton Sargeant – The 18-year-old from Boca Raton, Florida, dabbled in a little bit of everything in 2015. He competed in the Truck series (four races), K&N West (four races, one win), while also running in the Snowball Derby and the All-American 400. His only full-time ride was in the K&N East series, where he six top-five finishes and ended the year fourth in points. In 2016, he has competed in two ARCA races, two CARS Super Late Model Tour races and is competing in the Champion Racing Association. MORE: Q&A

Winners and losers at the Clash at the Coliseum

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the non-points race that opened the NASCAR season:

WINNERS

Martin Truex Jr. — Truex limped through a frustrating 2022 season, going winless and contemplating writing “finish” to his driving career. But he decided late in the year to make another run, and that choice paid big dividends Sunday as he put Joe Gibbs Racing in victory lane.

Richard Childress Racing — RCR opened the season with power, putting Austin Dillon in second and newcomer Kyle Busch in third. The new teammates even enjoyed some late-race collaboration, Busch backing off a second-place battle to give Dillon a chance to make a run at eventual winner Truex.

Ryan Preece — Preece, given a shot in the offseason at a full-time ride in Cup with Stewart-Haas Racing, showed strength in his first outing, leading 43 laps before electrical issues dropped him to seventh.

Bubba Wallace — Wallace held the lead at the halfway point and totaled 40 laps in first but was drop-kicked by Austin Dillon late in the race and finished 22nd.

LOSERS

Chase Elliott — It was a lost weekend for the former Cup champion. Elliott was lapped during the race, failed to lead a lap and finished 21st.

Ty Gibbs — Suspension problems parked Gibbs after 81 laps, and he finished next-to-last a day after his car caught fire in practice.

Michael McDowell — McDowell was involved in several on-track incidents during the evening and finished 24th after running out of fuel, along with teammate Todd Gilliland.

 

Long: Drivers make their point clear on Clash at the Coliseum

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LOS ANGELES — So what to do with the Clash at the Coliseum?

The second edition of this exhibition race at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum showcased beating, banging and 16 cautions in a 150-lap race won by Martin Truex Jr. on Sunday night.

A year remains on NASCAR’s three-year contract with the Coliseum — NASCAR holds the option for next year — and it seems all but certain Cup cars will be back next year.

With Auto Club Speedway President Dave Allen saying Saturday that his track will not host a NASCAR event in 2024 while being converted from a 2-mile speedway to a half-mile track, the Los Angeles area would be without a NASCAR race if the Clash did not return.

NASCAR is not likely to leave the nation’s No. 2 TV market without a race. 

A question this weekend was if the Clash would become a points race next year to replace the Auto Club Speedway date and allow NASCAR to have a new venue for the Clash.

“I think they should put (the Coliseum race) in the playoffs, personally. That would be perfect,” Denny Hamlin said straight faced after Sunday’s race before breaking into a smile to show he was speaking sarcastically.

Two-time Cup champion Joey Logano was emphatic in his response.

“No,” Logano said, shaking his head Sunday night. “We can’t do that.”

Why?

“You’re going to fit 40 cars out there? We can’t even make a caution lap without the pace car bumping the last-place car.”

Logano smiled as he spoke — then again he often smiles as he talks. He was not speaking sarcastically as Hamlin showed with his smile. Logano’s grin was part of a passionate defense.

“No. You can’t do that,” Logano continued of why a points race at the Coliseum is a bad idea. “That’d be dumb.”

Even in a celebratory mood after his first victory in NASCAR in more than a year, Truex was clear about his feelings of making the Clash a points race.

“Why would you screw it up,” he said, “and make it a points race?”

Just because drivers don’t like something doesn’t mean it won’t happen. 

But much would have to happen to make this event a points race.

Those familiar with the charter agreement between teams and NASCAR told NBC Sports that they weren’t sure that the language in the agreement would permit a points race at such a venue. With the charter system guaranteeing all 36 teams a spot in a race, it’s not feasible to run so many cars on this small track. Only 27 cars ran in Sunday’s Clash. That almost seemed too many.

Should there be a way to make this event a points race without all 36 running in the main event, there are other issues. 

The purse would have to significantly increase. NASCAR stated that the purse for Sunday’s Clash was $2.085 million. Last year’s championship race at Phoenix had a purse of $10.5 million. The purse for last year’s Cup race at Watkins Glen was $6.6 million. The purse for last year’s race at Nashville Superspeedway was $8.065 million.

If NASCAR made the Clash a points race, then the purse would be expected to fall in line with other points races. Of course, there still would be the logistics. 

But is it worth it to try to make an event something it doesn’t need to be?

While the attendance appeared to be a little less than the estimated 50,000 for last year’s race, it wasn’t enough of a drop to warrant abandoning this event. Is a points race at the Coliseum going to increase the attendance significantly? No.

Just bring this event back next year as is.

“I think it’s good for what it is,” Logano said. “It’s a non-points race. I think we need to go back to maybe only four cars (instead of five) transferring from the heat (races) … there’s just too many cars (on the track). I think that’s part of the issue as well.”

Then, to make sure he got his point across about if next year’s Coliseum race should be a points race, Logano said: “A points-paying race. No. I’ll be the first to raise my hand that’s a very bad idea.” 

But it’s possible 2024 could be the final year for this event at the Coliseum. 

If Auto Club Speedway’s conversion to a short track can be done in time to be on the 2025 schedule, then the Los Angeles region would have a short track and NASCAR could move the Clash to a new area to reach more fans.

That’s part of the goal this new dynamic NASCAR, which has moved Cup races to different venues in the last couple of years and will run its first street course race in July in Chicago. 

While NASCAR has made such changes, making the race at the Coliseum a points race serves no purpose. Just listen to the drivers.

What NASCAR Cup Series drivers said about The Clash at the Coliseum

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Here is what NASCAR Cup Series drivers had to say after Sunday’s Busch Light Clash exhibition race at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where Martin Truex Jr. was the winner and was awarded the gold medal (for results and stats, click here):

Martin Truex Jr. — winner: “Really good race car. The guys did a great job with this Toyota Camry. Last year was a pretty rough season with no wins. To come out here and kick it off this way, just really proud of all these guys. Sometimes, you just persevere. Tonight it went our way, and we made some good adjustments, too.”

Austin Dillon — Finished second: “I hate it for Bubba (Wallace), he had a good car and a good run. I just know he sent me through the corner. I saved it three times through there, Then I was going to give the same. Probably it was a little too hard. My teammate let me try to get Truex at the end, that was nice. Been fun. Hopefully, we can do this more often.”

Kyle Busch — Finished third: “It was a battle all night long, but you can’t count us out. We used the outside on a lot of passes. When you’re deep in the field, you can do that to make up ground. Overall good to get back up to third, could have gone second, but I let Austin go. He was better than us in practice. I thought he could have a shot at trying to get close to (Truex), and I’ll push him through to get a 1-2, but never made it there.”

Alex Bowman — Finished fourth: “Yeah, I think there was a couple good restarts from the outside the beginning of the second half of the race when we had a restart every half a lap. That helped us. I think we went from eighth to second there pretty quickly. Obviously that was a big gain for us, and then just kind of got put back a little bit. I had one bad restart from the outside of the front row, and that hurt our finishing position. But yeah, really good race car, and those couple restarts kind of got us out of the mess.”

Kyle Larson — Finished fifth: “It feels good to get to fifth. I didn’t really work my way forward to fifth. It was kind of a battle of attrition. I was just kind of stuck, which I’m sure a lot of people felt stuck and always wanted to choose the outside on the restarts, but everybody in the middle of the pack figured out that the outside was better at the same time. Then it just never worked out where I could choose the outside lane and just kind of got stuck in 10th for a while, and yeah, kind of just got slammed from behind forward. Never really passed but one or two cars and came from 14th to fifth. There was just a lot more slamming around this time. Last year was the first race for this car, and we didn’t know how tough they were at the time. There was not as much slamming. I think people didn’t quite know how strong the noses and rear bumpers were. This year it was just like everybody just ran through the person in front of them. If you got a hole to get down, somewhere to get down, then the three or four cars behind would just shove them through the two in front of them. A lot of accordion, and just difficult on the restarts, especially where I was, middle of the pack.”

Ryan Preece — Finished seventh: “The fuel pump (broke). The primary pump went bad. I don’t know. I don’t think we were close on fuel. At first, I thought it was ignition because usually when it’s fuel it just keeps cutting, so I shut off my alternator and all of my electrical stuff and it seemed to help a little bit. It did it again and I lost four spots, so I just flipped the switch and a miracle happened. Ultimately, this car was so badass. It was so fast. We drove from 16th outside, inside, everything it took. I’m proud of the speed. I’m happy for the opportunity, but it sucks giving them away. That just comes from, first off, my grassroots experience, just working hard and just having a fast race car. Chad and I, we’re a new team but we’ve already got a year-and-a-half experience together and knowing lingo. If it’s off, I’ll let him know it, but if it’s that close, he’ll go with his gut. I’m hoping that we can use this as a good start, go to the 500 and win that one and get ourselves in the Playoffs and then try to win some more.”

Denny Hamlin — Finished 10th: “There are just no repercussions to driving in and using the bumper of the car in front of you. They hit someone in front of them, and the car two cars up spins. The only way to do it is to officiate unnecessary contact and (send them) to the rear. But the whole field would be black-flagged if we raced like that. I don’t really have a good answer.” (Could this be a points race with Auto Club Speedway off the 2024 schedule?) “I think they should put it in the playoffs, personally. That would be perfect (smiles).”

Justin Haley — Finished 11th: “I’m so proud of everyone at Kaulig Racing and where we have come in a short amount of time. The race results weren’t exactly what we wanted, but this weekend was a fun confidence booster. It’s pretty cool to get mine and Kaulig Racing’s first NASCAR Cup Series pole, points race or not, and I think we really showed we belong here. I feel pretty confident about where we are, and I think we are in a good spot to start the season.”

Noah Gragson — Finished 14th: “I felt like we had a decent No. 42 Sunseeker Resort Chevy. We just had some damage on the front from the heat race that hurt us with cooling the right front and the brakes. We got really tight in the first half of the race. We started cutting some of it away, but overall, it was just a pinball machine out there. I thought we had some good restarts; good lane choices and we were making our way back up there. We got back up to eighth but just didn’t have enough there. I kind of made some poor decisions there at the end and chose the wrong line. I thought they were all going to stack up there on the bottom, so I went to the outside and they didn’t. It’s just part of the learning curve. Thank you to everyone at Legacy Motor Club: Jimmie Johnson, Maury Gallagher, Richard Petty, Mike Beam. Everybody that’s a part of this team. They worked really hard and I’m definitely excited to start the year off with making it into this race. I’m just very thankful.”

Chase Briscoe — Finished 15th: “For us, we were never really good all weekend on a short run and that kind of killed us at the beginning. We kind of lost our track position. There wasn’t really very many long runs. On long runs we would always kind of go forward and then you’d be beating and banging, obviously. I got turned around there the one time and it was really hard to pass. I felt like unless you were maybe three or four of those cars, they were really the only ones that were good enough that they could just kind of move through the field. We were one of those cars, I felt like if you put us in fourth or fifth, we would maintain, but we weren’t good enough to drive from the back to the front. We were just a little bit off. We just needed a little bit more. There was a lot of beating and banging and a lot of cautions. That was a really long race, longer than I expected. I felt like it was a good start to the season, just getting a race mentality. The race was extremely hot with the mufflers. I was getting pretty fumed out, but it’s good to kind of get readjusted to those things when we get the season back going.”

AJ Allmendinger — Finished 16th: “It was an up-and-down weekend for us at the Coliseum. We made adjustments after practice that helped us qualify on the front row of our heat race. We just lacked grip during the heat race and last chance qualifier. We lacked speed all day, but we made the race, made handling improvements and learned a lot to take back and build on. We’ve definitely got some work to do on this style track.”

Aric Almirola — Finished 18th: “Man, we just made a big mistake there. I didn’t get notified that it was the choose lap and we got stuck on the outside and lost track position, and then I kind of burned the tires up trying to get down. It was a track position race all night. You needed to stay in the top three or four and I felt like took off really good. The car had great speed and it was doing everything I needed it to, but you can’t make mistakes like that. I’m not sure what happened on the communication side there, but it didn’t get relayed to me fast enough that we were coming to the choose. I hate that, but still a great way to start the year. We had a lot of speed in our Ford Mustang and led some laps in the big show, but once you get in the back it turns into bumper cars. It is what it is. We’ll go to Daytona.”

Daniel Suarez — Finished 19th: “It was tough. I couldn’t breathe and it was tough because of that. I think at lap 30 or so in the first stage, we had contact in the right side of the car, and that made the exhaust get some fumes inside the cabin. After that, I struggled a lot, especially the second half of the race. I felt like I was okay for a while, but then the second half of the race I struggled big time. We just have to continue to get better. I felt like the car was okay. We definitely made a big swing for the main race and we showed that, but actually went to the other side of it. We just have to continue to work and continue to learn.”

Michael McDowell — Finished 24th: “I don’t know how many laps under caution we ran, but obviously just a calculation running the LCQ and a heat race. We just didn’t anticipate running over 100 laps of caution, so that was unfortunate. It was a battle out there for sure. I feel good about how we were able to start near the back and drive up into the top 12, top 13 twice, so our car was good. It’s just a good weekend. We’ve got a lot of new guys, so it was good to get up to speed and figure each other out.”

Erik Jones — Finished 27th: “I couldn’t move over. I was clear on the straightaway, but obviously (Michael McDowell) really wanted the spot. When we got spun out, I think we must have got hit in the right rear and it bent the toe link pretty bad. It kind of is what it is. Michael has gotten me twice pretty good now, which is frustrating. I think we had a decent car. We were kind of moving up there and I felt good about it. It’s a tough little place and it’s easy to get in trouble like that. We’ll move on with the No. 43 Chevy to the Daytona 500 and hopefully go for a win.”

Chris Buescher — DNQ for main event: “It’s definitely a bummer again.  We fought hard and thought we had made some improvements.  I think we did, but ultimately it didn’t yield a much different result here.  We had some really good short track runs last year, obviously Bristol and Richmond and a couple of others, and then there were a handful that didn’t go real good, I’m thinking like Loudon, so maybe it’s one of those deals where we’ve got to dissect what’s similar and what’s plaguing us at times like these or races like this and get back on track.  It’s definitely not the way you want to start the year, but we’ll be ready for Daytona. We’re racers, though, so it hurts your feelings.  You want to be better than that and we just weren’t.  It’s not much like other places we go and it’s kind of like bumper cars out there in a lot of ways, but it’s still a race and we need to be more competitive.”

Brad Keselowski — DNQ for main event: “We’re better than we were here last year but not enough better to make the difference.  This track has gotten slick, but we’ll go swing at them next week. There’s no other track like this and we were really good at Phoenix.  We’re excited to see what we can do there.  Of course, Daytona was really good for us last year, but we have to figure something out for this track, clearly, and we’ll just keep working on it. We are getting a better understanding of the car, but just not better enough of what it needs on the vehicle dynamics side.  We’re still working through that.  We’ve got some new hires and new things going on that started last week and we’ll see if we can get better. We just never could get the corner.  We were just really loose in with both of our cars and just couldn’t turn the wheel.”

Clash at the Coliseum NASCAR Cup Series race results

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Martin Truex Jr. led the final 25 laps to win The Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum exhibition race in the results from the first event of the NASCAR Cup Series season.

The Joe Gibbs Racing team celebrated as the 2017 Cup champion quickly rebounded from a winless 2022 in his No. 19 Toyota by winning the NASCAR exhibition season opener for the first time.

Truex became the 25th driver to win the race. It’s JGR’s series-leading 11th Clash victory.

Austin Dillon finished second, followed by teammate Kyle Busch in his debut with the Richard Childress Racing No. 8 Chevrolet. Alex Bowman finished fourth, and Kyle Laron was fifth.

Tyler Reddick took sixth. Ryan Preece led a race-high 43 laps in his No. 41 Ford debut for Stewart-Haas Racing but faded to seventh because of an apparent electrical problem. The rest of the top 10: Ross Chastain, Denny Hamlin (who also led 26 laps in the No. 11 Toyota), and William Byron.

BOX SCORE: Click here for full results from the Clash at the Coliseum

PENALTY REPORT: Click here for infractions during the race

WHAT DRIVERS SAID: Click here for postrace reaction

Aric Almirola started on the pole position and led the first 16 of 150 laps in the race, which featured no pit stops and was split into 75-lap halves.

The race was slowed by 16 caution flags (up from five last year), including 12 in the final 75 laps. Laps under yellow weren’t counted in the official distance.

Bubba Wallace led 40 laps but finished 22nd after being rooted by Dillon into a late spin.

During a series of heat and qualifying races, the field was whittled to 27 cars for the Clash at the Coliseum main event. Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing drivers Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher both failed to advance for the second consecutive year, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Corey LaJoie and Harrison Burton were among others who were eliminated.

Click here for the results from the preliminary events in the NASCAR Clash at the Coliseum.

Main event results (150 laps): 1. Martin Truex Jr.; 2. Austin Dillon; 3. Kyle Busch; 4. Alex Bowman; 5. Kyle Larson; 6. Tyler Reddick; 7. Ryan Preece; 8. Ross Chastain; 9. Denny Hamlin; 10. William Byron; 11. Justin Haley; 12. Kevin Harvick; 13. Christopher Bell; 14. Noah Gragson; 15. Chase Briscoe; 16. Joey Logano; 17. Ryan Blaney; 18. Aric Almirola; 19. Daniel Suarez; 20. AJ Allmendinger; 21. Chase Elliott; 22. Bubba Wallace; 23. Todd Gilliland; 24. Michael McDowell; 25. Austin Cindric; 26. Ty Gibbs; 27. Erik Jones