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.

Kyle Busch to run five Truck races for KBM in 2023

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Kyle Busch Motorsports announced Wednesday the five Craftsman Truck Series team owner Kyle Busch will race this season.

Busch’s Truck races will be:

March 3 at Las Vegas

March 25 at Circuit of the Americas

April 14 at Martinsville

May 6 at Kansas

July 22 at Pocono

Busch is the winningest Truck Series driver with 62 career victories. He has won at least one series race in each of the last 10 seasons. He has won 37.6% of the Truck races he’s entered and placed either first or second in 56.7% of his 165 career series starts.

Zariz Transport, which specializes in transporting containers from ports, signed a multi-year deal to be the primary sponsor on Busch’s No. 51 truck for all of his series races, starting this season. The company will be an associate sponsor on the truck in the remaining 18 series races.

Myatt Snider to run six Xfinity races with Joe Gibbs Racing

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Myatt Snider is the latest driver to be announced as running a select number of Xfinity races in the No. 19 car for Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

Snider will run six races with the team. Ryan Truex (six races), Joe Graf Jr. (five) and Connor Mosack (three) also will be in JGR’s No. 19 Xfinity car this year.

Snider’s first race with the team will be the Feb. 18 season opener at Daytona. He also will race at Portland (June 3), Charlotte Roval (Oct. 7), Las Vegas (Oct. 14), Martinsville (Oct. 28) and the season finale at Phoenix (Nov. 4).

The deal returns Snider to JGR. He worked in various departments there from 2011-15.

“We’re looking forward to have Myatt on our No. 19 team for six races,” said Steve DeSouza, executive vice president of Xfinity and development. “Building out the driver lineup for this car is an opportunity for JGR to help drivers continue to develop in their racing career, and we’re looking forward to seeing how Myatt continues to grow.”

Said Snider in a statement from the team: “With six races on our 2023 schedule, I’m looking forward to climbing into the No. 19 TreeTop Toyota GR Supra with Joe Gibbs Racing this year. Having worked with JGR as a high schooler and a young racer, it’s an awesome full circle moment to return as a driver to the team that taught me so much about racing itself.

“It’s good to be reunited with (crew chief) Jason Ratcliff as we have an awesome history working together. With many memories and wins from 2013 and 2014 when I worked on the No. 20 Toyota Camry under Jason’s leadership, the team has always been more of a family relationship to me. I’m glad to be returning to the JGR family and looking forward to continuing to learn and grow as a driver.”

Daytona will be Snider’s 100th career Xfinity start. He has one series win and 21 top 10s. He was the rookie of the year in the Craftsman Truck Series in 2018.

Tree Top will be Snider’s sponsor for his six races with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Also in the Xfinity Series, Gray Gaulding, who will run full season with SS Green Light Racing, announced that he’ll have sponsor Panini America for multiple races, including the Daytona opener. Emerling-Gase Motorsports announced that Natalie Decker will run a part-time schedule in both the ARCA Menards Series and Xfinity Series for the team.

 

Travis Pastrana ‘taking a chance’ at Daytona

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In so-called “action” sports, Travis Pastrana is a king. He is well-known across the spectrum of motorsports that are a bit on the edge — the X Games, Gymkhana, motorcross and rally racing.

Now he’s jumping in the deep end, attempting to qualify for the Daytona 500 and what would be his first NASCAR Cup Series start.

Pastrana, who is entered in the 500 in a third Toyota fielded by 23XI Racing, will be one of at least six drivers vying for the four non-charter starting spots in the race. Also on that list: Jimmie Johnson, Conor Daly, Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Austin Hill.

MORE: IndyCar driver Conor Daly entered in Daytona 500

Clearly, just getting a spot on the 500 starting grid won’t be easy.

“I love a challenge,” Pastrana told NBC Sports. “I’ve wanted to be a part of the Great American Race since I started watching it on TV as a kid. Most drivers and athletes, when they get to the top of a sport, don’t take a chance to try something else. I like to push myself. If I feel I’m the favorite in something, I lose a little interest and focus. Yes, I’m in way over my head, but I believe I can do it safely. At the end of the day, my most fun time is when I’m battling and battling with the best.”

Although Pastrana, 39, hasn’t raced in the Cup Series, he’s not a stranger to NASCAR. He has run 42 Xfinity races, driving the full series for Roush Fenway Racing in 2013 (winning a pole and scoring four top-10 finishes), and five Craftsman Truck races.

“All those are awesome memories,” Pastrana said. “In my first race at Richmond (in 2012), Denny Hamlin really helped me out. I pulled on the track in practice, and he waited for me to get up to speed. He basically ruined his practice helping me get up to speed. Joey Logano jumped in my car at New Hampshire and did a couple of laps and changed the car, and I went from 28th to 13th the next lap. I had so many people who really reached out and helped me get the experience I needed.”

Pastrana was fast, but he had issues adapting to the NASCAR experience and the rhythm of races.

“It was extremely difficult for me not growing up in NASCAR,” he said. “I come from motocross, where there’s a shorter duration. It’s everything or nothing. You make time by taking chances. In pavement racing, it’s about rear-wheel drive. You can’t carry your car. In NASCAR it’s not about taking chances. It’s about homework. It’s about team. It’s about understanding where you can go fast and be spot on your mark for three hours straight.”

MORE: Will Clash issues carry over into rest of season?

Pastrana said he didn’t venture into NASCAR with the idea of transferring his skills to stock car racing full time.

“It was all about me trying to get to the Daytona 500,” he said. “Then I looked around, when I was in the K&N Series, and saw kids like Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. They were teenagers, and they already were as good or better than me.”

Now he hopes to be in the mix with Elliott, Larson and the rest of the field when the green flag falls on the 500.

He will get in some bonus laps driving for Niece Motorsports in the Craftsman Truck Series race at Daytona.

“For the first time, my main goal, other than qualifying for the 500, isn’t about winning,” Pastrana said. “We’ll take a win, of course, but my main goal is to finish on the lead lap and not cause any issues. I know we’ll have a strong car from 23XI, so the only way I can mess this up is to be the cause of a crash.

“I’d just love to go out and be a part of the Great American Race.”

 

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”