NASCAR’s 2020 rookie class faced challenges unlike any other

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Time will tell where NASCAR’s rookie class of 2020 stacks up against those from season’s past.

But performance aside, this year’s group already stands out for the degree of difficulty they faced.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic put the sport on pause for over two months. Upon its return in May, one-day shows with no practice or qualifying were the norm.

Rookies had to learn in real-time race conditions against the toughest competition they’d ever had. From that pressure-filled environment came several great moments.

In the Cup Series, there was Cole Custer‘s dream restart and last-lap pass on two former champions that earned him his first win in Kentucky.

There was Harrison Burton hunting down and then passing Noah Gragson in the final corner at Texas to get his third of four Xfinity Series wins in 2020.

And in the Trucks, Zane Smith entered Victory Lane for the first time in a wild conclusion at Michigan – and went on to make the Championship 4.

But for each rookie, perhaps just getting this abnormal season under their belts is a victory in itself.

2020 CUP SERIES ROOKIES

Cole Custer 

Final Standings: 16th – Eliminated in playoffs, Round of 16

Best Finish: 1st (Kentucky)

Top-5 finishes: 2

Top-10 finishes: 7

Season review: Claiming a first career Cup win, Rookie of the Year honors, and a playoff berth adds up to a successful first season for Custer. The 22-year-old believes a second year with the current Cup package – instead of the now-delayed debut of the Next Gen car – will help him. “Without that practice or testing, there are a lot of things you want to run through that you’re not able to do, so having more time and another year to kind of run through things in races will definitely help out,” Custer said last week.

Tyler Reddick

Final Standings: 19th

Best Finish: 2nd (Texas I)

Top-5 finishes: 3

Top-10 finishes: 9

Season review: Reddick, the 2019 Xfinity Series champion, had some chances to win his way into the playoffs. He led late at Talladega in June, but Ryan Blaney took the point from him with four laps to go in regulation and went on to an overtime victory. A month later in Texas, Reddick finished second to teammate Austin Dillon after a two-lap sprint to the finish. Near-misses aside, however, he was the most consistent front-runner among his fellow rookies. His nine top-10 finishes and average finish of 17.5 led the group.

Christopher Bell

Final Standings: 20th

Best Finish: 3rd (Texas II)

Top-5 finishes: 2

Top-10 finishes: 7

Season review: Consistent results were tough to find for Bell, who also had to deal with the looming shutdown of Leavine Family Racing at season’s end. After finishing third last month at Texas, he admitted to the year being “extremely disappointing.” Now, all eyes will be on Bell to see if he holds his own with an elite team (Joe Gibbs Racing) boasting three elite veterans (Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin).

John Hunter Nemechek

Final Standings: 27th

Best Finish: 8th (Talladega I and II)

Top-5 finishes: 0

Top-10 finishes: 3

Season review: Hungry to win races and facing an uncertain future at Front Row Motorsports, Nemechek has chosen to return to the Camping World Truck Series for a full-season run with Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2021. The 23-year-old is banking on his year of Cup experience – including adapting to mostly one-day shows with no practice or qualifying – to make a big difference for him.

Brennan Poole

Poole earned a single top-10 finish in 2020, finishing ninth in a chaotic race at Talladega in October.

Quin Houff

Houff often struggled in his first Cup season, posting a top finish of 13th in the aforementioned October race at Talladega. His ill-fated decision to pit late in the July race at Texas led to a debate when Brad Keselowski posed the idea of demoting drivers for repeated on-track issues.

 

2020 XFINITY SERIES ROOKIES

Harrison Burton

Final Standings: 8th – Eliminated in playoffs, Round of 12

Best Finish: 1st (Auto Club, Miami I, Texas II and Martinsville)

Top-5 finishes: 15

Top-10 finishes: 22

Season review: Burton, the Xfinity Series rookie of the year, started strong and ended strong – albeit with a first-round playoff exit in between. He asserted himself with two wins and no finishes worse than ninth over the season’s first 10 races. And after being knocked from title contention due to a transmission failure on the Roval at Charlotte, he shook it off to win two of the season’s final three races. For his second season with Joe Gibbs Racing, Burton will be paired with Jason Ratcliff, who was the 2009 Xfinity Series champion crew chief for Kyle Busch.

Riley Herbst

Final Standings: 12th – Eliminated in playoffs, Round of 12

Best Finish: 2nd (Auto Club, Kentucky I)

Top-5 finishes: 4

Top-10 finishes: 17

Season review: In the intra-team competition at Joe Gibbs Racing, Herbst was a distant third behind Brandon Jones and Harrison Burton. The 21-year-old from Las Vegas had an unspectacular season that had him lead just 15 laps and suffer eight DNFs. On Nov. 12, Herbst was officially replaced by Daniel Hemric at JGR. But things could be looking up. Reports have tipped him to join Stewart-Haas Racing and take over the No. 98 Ford that Chase Briscoe drove to a series-leading nine wins this season.

Myatt Snider

Final Standings: 16th

Best Finish: 4th (Pocono)

Top-5 finishes: 2

Top-10 finishes: 6

Season review: While Snider ran eight races for Richard Childress Racing, the bulk of his season was spent driving RSS Racing’s second car (No. 93). As you’d expect, Snider got his best results in RCR’s No. 21 entry. But he also had several impressive outings in RSS Racing’s much more modest equipment, including a seventh at Miami II and 10th-place at both the Daytona road course and Darlington.

Jesse Little

Final Standings: 19th

Best Finish: 10th (Pocono, Daytona II)

Top-5 finishes: 2

Top-10 finishes: 2

Season review: After five seasons of part-time racing in the Trucks, Little finally entered full-time competition in the Xfinity Series with JD Motorsports. The son of former Cup driver Chad Little was a reliable mid-packer for much of the season in the No. 4 entry.

Joe Graf Jr.

The New York University student finished 22nd in points for Bobby Dotter’s SS Green Light Racing. His best finish was 13th in three different races.

Kody Vanderwal

Driving the No. 52 entry for Means Motorsports in all but three races, the ARCA Menards Series West product finished 30th in points. His best finish was 19th at Pocono.

 

2020 TRUCK SERIES ROOKIES

Zane Smith

Final Standings: 2nd – Made Championship 4

Best Finish: 1st (Michigan, Dover)

Top-5 finishes: 7

Top-10 finishes: 13

Season review: Following a successful part-time Xfinity run for JR Motorsports in 2019 (seven top-10 finishes in 10 starts), Smith continued to impress in his first Truck season and came one spot short of winning the series title in the finale at Phoenix. He’ll once again be part of a strong GMS Racing lineup in 2021.

Christian Eckes

Final Standings: 8th – Eliminated in playoffs, Round of 10

Best Finish: 2nd (Texas, Kansas II, Michigan)

Top-5 finishes: 7

Top-10 finishes: 11

Season review: Eckes had several near-misses in 2020, but none more painful than at Michigan, where he overcame two incidents and a restart penalty – only to lose on a last-lap pass in overtime from Zane Smith. Managing to make the playoffs on points, Eckes was eliminated from title contention because of a last-lap crash at Talladega. He closed the year with back-to-back fourth-place finishes at Martinsville and Phoenix.

Derek Kraus

Final Standings: 11th

Best Finish: 2nd (Darlington)

Top-5 finishes: 3

Top-10 finishes: 13

Season review: Coming off an ARCA Menards Series West title in 2019, Kraus narrowly missed making the playoffs but still had a nice rookie season in the Trucks. A steady hand, Kraus only suffered one DNF all year and his 13 top-10 finishes equaled three of the Championship 4 drivers – including series champion Sheldon Creed.

Raphael Lessard

Final Standings: 12th

Best Finish: 1st (Talladega)

Top-5 finishes: 4

Top-10 finishes: 7

Season review: The Canadian prospect put himself in rare company with his win at Talladega, which made him just the fifth foreign-born driver to score a Truck Series victory. It was the first of three top-5 finishes over the season’s final five races. He’ll move from Kyle Busch Motorsports to GMS Racing for the 2021 season.

Tanner Gray

Final Standings: 14th

Best Finish: 3rd (Michigan, Bristol II, Las Vegas II)

Top-5 finishes: 4

Top-10 finishes: 8

Season review: Gray moved into the Truck Series full-time with DGR-Crosley and collected five of his eight top-10 finishes on mile-and-a-half tracks.

Tate Fogleman

Driving for Young’s Motorsports, Fogleman was 17th in the final standings with a top finish of 13th at Michigan.

Ty Majeski

Short-track star Majeski was to drive the full season in the No. 45 entry for Niece Motorsports, but only got through the first 15 races before being replaced. He collected three top-10 finishes, with a top result of eighth at Charlotte.

Spencer Davis

Davis made 14 starts for his family-owned team, posting a top finish of 12th in the first race at Las Vegas. He tested positive for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and subsequently missed the race at Michigan, but returned for the next race on the Daytona road course.

RFK Racing reaps benefits of hard work with Bristol win, Texas pole

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When Brad Keselowski arrived at RFK Racing after last season, among the early changes he made included repainting the walls and restructuring the team’s shop.

They were meant to infuse an organization that hadn’t won a Cup points race since 2017 with a new look and feel. And help create a new mindset for the 165 employees.

“The first thing (Keselowski) started changing was colors,” Justin Edgell, tire carrier on Chris Buescher’s team, told NBC Sports. “Everything is satin black. My man is a satin black-type guy. I’m talking about trash cars. I’m talking about equipment. I like it. You know, look good, play good.”

RFK Racing has looked great the last week. Buescher gave the organization its first points win of the season, taking the checkered flag in the Bristol night race. Keselowski followed by winning the pole for today’s second-round playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network). Buescher starts today’s race 13th. 

MORE: Details for today’s Cup race at Texas 

It has taken much for the organization to experience a week like this. The season didn’t start well. Both Keselowski and Buescher failed to make the feature in the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in early February. 

Less than two weeks later, they each won their qualifying race at Daytona. 

RFK Racing wouldn’t be back to Victory Lane until Bristol. In between were disappointments, close calls and plenty of work.

“We’re in a spot where with our company, we’ve made a lot of changes over the last six to 12 months,” Keselowski told NBC Sports after the team’s celebration on Monday. “And there’s a maturation cycle to those. 

“Nobody likes that maturation cycle. There’s still things that we’ve invested that haven’t matured. So there’s a lot of reasons for optimism, but we have a long ways to go.”

Having patience in such a fast-moving sport isn’t easy but it is needed.

“I wish we would have matured earlier,” Keselowski said,” but I ain’t going to look at gift horse in the mouth and scream at him. I will take it and we’re going to build off it. Right now we have two teams that are like 10th-place teams. Our last few weeks have shown that’s where we’re at in speed, that’s where we’re at in finishes. If we ran a whole season like that … we’d be a playoff team.”

When Keselowski spoke to the employees at Monday’s celebration, he told them to enjoy the moment. He also had another message for them.

“Winning at this level is really hard and it’s supposed to be hard,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of fight to get there this year. Certainly some good moments and some really tough moments. I’m really proud of all of us and the work that went in.”

Another key to the organization’s success finding common ground between those who had been at Roush before Keselowski’s arrival and the new hires and their ideas.

After working through those issues, which included how the cars were prepared, Graves saw progress.

“You step back and embrace it and look at it and it’s like, ‘OK, this makes sense,’” Graves said. “You can start to develop and build on some ideas that make progress.”

The results started to show. Buescher finished second at Sonoma in June. He was sixth at Road America in July. He placed third at Richmond ninth at Watkins Glen in back-to-back weekends in August. 

“It’s been really nice to go to these race tracks and be in the hunt, be up there at the front,” Buescher told the employees at Monday’s celebration. “We’re learning every week. We’ve made huge progress really through the whole year.”

Buescher and Keselowski combined to lead 278 of the 500 laps at Bristol. Buescher found himself toward the front late in the race. Graves made a two-tire call on the last stop. Buescher went from entering the pits fourth to exiting first when no one else made such a move. Buescher led the final 61 laps to win. 

Then he got to do something he hadn’t in years. 

A burnout.

“I’ve only been able to do like three in my career,” he told NBC Sports, noting he didn’t do burnouts in ARCA because he often needed those tires for another event. “Xfinity wins, we were able do do some burnouts. 

“After the Pocono Cup win, it was rained out so we just had to push it to victory way, so it’s been a really long time since I’ve done any legal burnouts in a race car. So that part was nice. 

“It was nice to actually be able celebrate on the frontstretch with the team the real way, in the moment, not hanging around for that that rainout. That’s what made it that much better in my eyes.”

Keselowski looks to join Buescher in winning a points race this year. In a season with 19 different winners, Keselowski admits it’s challenging to be among those who have yet to win.

“Now we are in a spot where we are ready to play some offense,” he said. “It is a good feeling. It comes with a pragmatic view and a lot of humility of being able to walk away from some races where you were legitimately 20th or 25th and go to work the next morning and say, ‘Alright, we aren’t going to burn the house down. We are going to repaint the living room and then we are going to go to the next room and work on it piece by piece.’

“The easy thing to do is to lose control over yourself. That is the easy thing to do. The hard thing to do is to work through it and be methodical in that approach.”

It’s an approach that has led RFK Racing back to Victory Lane.

Dr. Diandra: Surprises in playoff performance

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The first round of playoff performances defied expectations in both good and bad ways.

That is my excuse for why my very first attempt at making predictions was an abject failure. I projected Alex Bowman, William Byron, Chase Briscoe and Austin Dillon would be the first four drivers out of the playoff. Only Dillon failed to move on to the round of 12.

Of course, my algorithm did not account for Kyle Busch having two engine failures in three races. Especially after his not having had a single engine failure in the previous 92 races.

Nor did the algorithm predict Kevin Harvick’s Darlington race being ended by fire.

Or that none of the 16 playoff drivers would win even one of the first three playoff races.

On the positive side, playoff drivers took 11 out of 15 possible top-fives (73%), and 21 of 30 top-10s (70%.) That’s consistent with a season boasting 19 different winners.

Chase Elliott is the only driver to win more than two races this season. Drivers made the playoffs by finishing well rather than winning of lot of races.

Playoff performance by the numbers

In the table at right, I list drivers in order of points after Bristol — but before re-seeding. Red numbers indicate DNFs.A table showing drivers' finishing positions for the first three playoff races

DNFs played a major role in the first round. Each of the four eliminated drivers had at least one DNF. Harvick and Busch had two each. Both of Busch’s DNFs and one of Harvick’s were due to equipment failure.

Only three drivers earned top-10 finishes in all three playoff races: Christopher Bell, Denny Hamlin and Byron. Two of my predicted eliminations over-performed. And the one driver I expected to dominate the playoffs didn’t.

Relative to the regular season

Excluding equipment failures and crashes, one expects most drivers to perform, on average, at about the same level they ran during the regular season. That mostly didn’t happen.

In the first two elimination rounds, top 10s are enough to stay in the game. So that’s the metric I’ll focus on here.

The graph below compares drivers’ top-10 finish percentage in the first three playoff races to the same metric from the regular season.

A graph comparing the regular season top-10 rate to the top-10 rate in the first three playoff races to

Each arrow starts at the driver’s regular-season average and travels to his playoff average. Blue indicates playoff performance better than the regular season and red indicates the opposite.

Six drivers performed better than their regular-season averages would suggest.

Byron entered the playoffs seeded 10th with only five top-10 finishes in the regular season. With three top-10s in the first round of the playoffs, he earned the second-most points of any driver in the round of 16.

Hamlin had the second-largest improvement with two second-place finishes and a ninth. That continues his season-long trend of trying to overcome a slow start.

Bell’s 53.8% top-10 rate for the regular season doesn’t give him much room to improve. But he did. He’s also the only driver with three top-five playoff finishes.

Bowman, whose crew chief, Greg Ives, will retire at the end of this season, increased from 38.5% to 66.6% top-10 finishes.

“I think we are super motivated,” Bowman said, “because its Greg’s last 10 races with me and we want to end on a high note. We know the summer doesn’t matter anymore, our troubles, and it’s a good reset for us going into the playoffs.”

The biggest surprise, perhaps, was Elliott. He has the most top-10 finishes of any driver with 18. But only one came from the first playoff round.

Momentum

Driver finishes rise and fall throughout a season. The ups and downs are even larger this year because of the new Next Gen car. For that reason, it’s worth comparing playoff performance not only to the entire regular-season average, but also to just the last five regular-season races.

The arrows on the next plot start at the top-10 rate for each driver’s last five regular-season races and travel to their playoff rate.

A graph comparing the regular season top-10 rate to the top-10 rate in the first three playoff races to the last five races of the regular season

Seven drivers improved relative to their last five regular-season races — the six from before, plus Daniel Suárez. Suárez rose from 20% to 33.3%. That’s typical of a season that has been fairly consistent, but not at a level that will take him to the final four.

Byron’s turnaround is even more impressive in view of his having zero top-10 finishes in the last five races of the regular season.

“I think we had a lot of really good tracks in the beginning of the year,” Byron said. “As we started to chase some speed and chase some things, we got off a little bit throughout the summer.”

He believes the team has returned to where it needs to be.

“We know what works; we know what doesn’t work,” Byron said. “We definitely know what doesn’t work after the last month or so, so that’s a good thing.”

Joey Logano has the largest downward trend relative to the last five races, going from a 80.0% top-10 rate to 33.3%.

This graph shows Elliott’s playoff decline to be a trend continuing from the end of the regular season. That might be good news for the other drivers struggling to catch up with him.

Scoring and re-seeding

The table below summarizes points and playoff points earned during the three playoff races and each drivers’ final score before re-seeding. The lineup looks quite different than it did going into this round of three races.

A table showing how many points each playoff driver earned in the first round But that’s before re-seeding.

I hadn’t appreciated playoff points until I did the math. Each driver moving on to the round of 12 gets 3000 points, plus their total playoff points.

Because none of these drivers won a race, only five of the 21 playoff points available in the last three races impact the new standings. Bell won two stages; Byron, Bowman and Busch one each.

So we’re mostly back to where we were leaving Daytona.

A table showing the re-seeded rankings entering the second round of playoff racesRyan Blaney fell a spot. Byron’s dramatic turnaround didn’t impact his playoff standing. Most of Bowman’s move up the charts is due to eliminating the drivers originally ranked seventh, ninth and 11th.

The current standings reflect NASCAR’s eternal struggle between winning and consistency. On the one hand, I understand the desire to mimic other sports’ playoffs and not let the results of the last round impact the next. But carrying over regular-season playoff points means that Elliott returns to P1 despite having earned fewer points in the three playoff races than seven of the 16 drivers.

That’s why Bell, who earned almost twice as many points as Elliott and won two stages, ties for sixth place with Hamlin and Blaney. Elliott goes from 40 points behind Bell to 27 points ahead of him.

If Bell or any of the other remaining drivers wants to challenge Elliott, even top-five finishes won’t be enough.

In these playoffs, performance isn’t enough. You have to win.

Texas Xfinity results: Noah Gragson wins playoff opener

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Noah Gragson is rolling through the NASCAR Xfinity Series like a bowling ball headed toward a strike.

Gragson won for the fourth consecutive race Saturday, taking the lead with 11 laps left and winning the 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway. The victory put Gragson in the second round of the playoffs.

Finishing behind him in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

Texas Xfinity results

The race was pockmarked by wrecks, scrambling the 12-driver playoff field.

POINTS REPORT

Noah Gragson remains the points leader after his win. He has 2,107 points. AJ Allmendinger is next, 26 points behind.

Sam Mayer and Ryan Sieg hold the final two transfer spots. They are one point ahead of Riley Herbst, eight points ahead of Daniel Hemric, 13 points ahead of Brandon Jones and 29 points ahead of Jeremy Clements.

Texas Xfinity driver points

The Xfinity playoffs will continue Oct. 1 at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET, USA Network).

Noah Gragson wins Xfinity race at Texas Motor Speedway

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Noah Gragson opened the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs the same way he has run much of the season.

Gragson sidestepped a web of issues plaguing playoff drivers and won Saturday’s 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway, tying a decades-old Xfinity record by winning for the fourth consecutive race. Sam Ard, formerly a series mainstay, won four in a row in 1983.

Gragson, continuing to establish himself as the championship favorite, took the lead with 11 laps to go from Jeb Burton as most of the day’s leaders were running different tire and fuel strategies over the closing laps.

Gragson, 24 and set to jump to the Cup Series next season, led 85 laps. He won by 1.23 seconds.

“This number 9 team, man, they’re on fire,” Gragson told NBC Sports. “Luke Lambert (crew chief) and the boys executed a great race.”

MORE: Texas Xfinity results

The win was Gragson’s seventh of the year. Following in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

The victory pushed Gragson into the second round of the playoffs.

A big crash at the front of the field on lap 117 changed the face of the race. John Hunter Nemechek lost control of his car on the outside and was clipped by Justin Allgaier, starting a wreck that scrambled most of the field. Damages forced playoff drivers Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones and Allgaier from the race.

“The 7 (Allgaier) chose the top behind me, and I haven’t seen the replay of it, but the 7 chose the top behind me and started pushing,” Nemechek said. “The 21 (Hill) made it three-wide on the 9 (Gragson), and I was three-wide at the top, and I think we ended up four-wide at one point, which doesn’t really work aero-wide in the pack.”

Pole winner Jones, a playoff driver taken out in the crash, said Nemechek “was pushing a little too hard. Nothing to fault him there for, but probably a little early to be going that far. It is what it is.”

Six laps earlier, another multi-car crash scattered the field and damaged the car of playoff contender and regular season champion Allmendinger.

The wreck started when Brandon Brown slipped in front of Allmendinger and went into a slide, forcing Allmendinger to the inside apron. Several cars scattered behind them trying to avoid the accident.

Allmendinger’s crew repaired his car and he later had the race lead.

Playoff driver Jeremy Clements had a tough day. He parked with what he called mysterious mechanical issues about halfway through the race.

Below the cutline after the first race are Herbst, Hemric, Jones and Clements.

Stage 1 winner: Daniel Hemric

Stage 2 winner: AJ Allmendinger

Who had a good race: Noah Gragson is threatening to turn the final weeks of the Xfinity season into a cakewalk. He clearly had the day’s dominant car Saturday in winning for the fourth race in a row. … AJ Allmendinger’s car was damaged in a wreck in heavy traffic, but his crew taped parts of the car and gave him an opening to finish fourth.

Who had a bad race: Jeremy Clements, in the playoff field, finished 36th after parking with mechanical trouble near the race’s halfway point. … Jeffrey Earnhardt crashed only 17 laps into the race and finished last.

Next: The second race in the first round of the Xfinity playoffs is scheduled Oct. 1 at 4 p.m. ET (USA Network) at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.