NASCAR’s 2020 rookie class faced challenges unlike any other


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.


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.



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.



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.

Alpha Prime Racing’s road woes don’t keep team from competing


SONOMA, Calif. — Alpha Prime Racing owner Tommy Joe Martins laughs. He can. His Xfinity Series cars all are here at Sonoma Raceway.

At one point last week, it was not certain if his team’s cars would make it to Portland International Raceway.

“It was probably the toughest professional week I’ve had of my NASCAR career,” Martins told NBC Sports on Friday at Sonoma.

MORE: Kyle Larson leads Xfinity practice at Sonoma

The Alpha Prime Racing team had both its trucks break down and one of its haulers have mechanical issues last week on the way to the Pacific Northwest.

“We basically sent four pieces of equipment on the road and three of them broke,” Martins said.

For a time, the car Sage Karam is driving this weekend at Sonoma was left in a hauler in Kansas City because there wasn’t room in the dually Martins sent. It had room only for the car that was needed at Portland and other equipment. Karam’s car, which was to be a backup at Portland, was left behind.

“It’s a very helpless feeling when you feel like your stuff is stuck on the side of the road,” Martins said.

He still has one truck still in St. Louis and another in Oregon. Martins estimates the mechanical issues will cost his team about $50,000 when everything is totaled.

Trouble started well before the team left its Mooresville, North Carolina, race shop for Portland.

The Xfinity Series race at Charlotte was scheduled to run May 27. Rain forced that event to be rescheduled to May 29. Martins said the team had planned to send its trucks to Portland on May 28. With the race pushed back to the 29th, the travel schedule tightened.

It got worse.

After the Xfinity race started, rain came. With the Coca-Cola 600 scheduled for 3 p.m. ET that day – after being delayed by rain from Sunday – the rest of the Xfinity race was pushed back until after the 600. That further tightened the window on Xfinity teams to make it to Portland.

The Xfinity race ended around 11:30 p.m. ET on May 29. Alpha Prime Racing’s haulers left the shop around 6 a.m. ET on May 30.

The two trucks traveled together until issues in St. Louis.

The truck hauling the Nos. 44 and 45 cars had engine issues in St. Louis. The other truck kept going until it had mechanical issues with its hauler in Kansas City. The air bags on the hauler failed.

So, Alpha Prime Racing had a truck that worked in Kansas City with a hauler that didn’t and a truck that didn’t work in St. Louis with a hauler that did.

The truck in Kansas City went back to St. Louis to attach to the hauler and take those cars and equipment to Portland. Martins then had to find something to haul the stranded equipment in Kansas City and a driver. He eventually did. A dually left North Carolina for Kansas City. Once there, what fit in the dually was taken to Portland and what didn’t, including Karam’s Sonoma car stayed behind.

Yet, more trouble was headed for Martins and his team.

The truck that had gone back from Kansas City to St. Louis to take hauler that worked then broke down about 200 miles from Portland.

“I laugh knowing that we’re on the other side of it,” Martins said Friday of all the issues his team had transporting cars and equipment across the country.

“We’ve started to make plans and corrections for it not happening again,” he said.

That hauler that was left in Kansas City? It was repaired and transported to Sonoma, arriving earlier this week.

“Our guys are troopers,” Martins said. “Both of our (truck) drivers were just awesome about the whole thing. … They went through hell week as far as driving somewhere, fly back and pick something up, drive again and now are going to have to do the same thing getting back.”

When the garage opened Friday at Sonoma, Alpha Prime Racing had all its cars.

“I don’t think we had any major issues here, so that was good,” Martins said.

The focus is back on the track. Karam was 24th on the speed chart in Friday’s practice, leading Alpha Prime Racing’s effort. Dylan Lupton was 32nd. Jeffrey Earnhardt was last among 41 cars.

After Saturday night’s race, the team heads back to North Carolina for a well-earned weekend off.

Kyle Larson leads Xfinity practice at Sonoma


SONOMA, Calif. — Kyle Larson posted the fastest lap in Friday’s Xfinity Series practice at Sonoma Raceway.

This is the first time the series has raced at the 1.99-mile road course in Northern California. Teams got 50 minutes of practice Friday.

Larson led the way with a lap of 90.392 mph. He was more than a second faster than the rest of the field.

MORE: Xfinity practice results Sonoma

Sheldon Creed was second on the speed chart with a lap of 89.066 mph. He was followed by AJ Allmendinger (89.052 mph), Cole Custer (89.020) and Ty Gibbs (88.989).

Larson, Allmendinger and Gibbs are among seven Cup drivers are entered in the Xfinity race. Aric Almirola was seventh on the speed chart with a lap of 88.750 mph. Ross Chastain was ninth with a lap of 88.625 mph. Daniel Suarez was 16th with a lap of 88.300 mph. Ty Dillon was 33rd with a lap of 86.828 mph.

Anthony Alfredo will go to a backup car after a crash in practice. He was uninjured in the incident that damaged the right side of his car.

Qualifying is scheduled for 3 p.m. ET Saturday. The race is scheduled to begin at 8:20 p.m. ET Saturday.

Anthony Alfredo’s car after a crash in Xfinity practice Friday at Sonoma Raceway. He was uninjured. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Saturday Sonoma Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather


The Xfinity Series will compete for the first time at Sonoma Raceway this weekend. This is one of eight road course events on the Xfinity schedule this season.

Seven Cup drivers are scheduled to compete in Saturday’s race, including AJ Allmendinger, Kyle Larson and Daniel Suarez, who won last year’s Cup race at this track Allmendinger has won 11 of 25 career road course starts in the Xfinity Series.

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Sonoma Raceway

(All times Eastern)

START: Golden State Warrior Patrick Baldwin Jr. will give the command to start engines at 8:08 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled to wave at 8:20 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Qualifying begins at 3 p.m. … Driver introductions begin at 7:35 p.m. … The invocation will be given by Earl Smith, team pastor for the Golden State Warriors and San Francisco 49ers, at 8 p.m. … The national anthem will be performed by 9-year-old Isis Mikayle Castillo at 8:01 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 79 laps (156.95 miles) on the 1.99-mile road course.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 20. Stage 2 ends at Lap 45.

STARTING LINEUP: Qualifying begins at 3 p.m. Saturday

TV/RADIO: FS1 will broadcast the race at 8 p.m. ... Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. … Performance Racing Network coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. and can be heard on … SiriusXN NASCAR Radio will carry the PRN broadcast.

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Mostly cloudy with a high of 72 degrees and a zero percent chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: This is the first time the Xfinity Series has raced at Sonoma.


NASCAR Friday schedule at Sonoma Raceway


The Xfinity Series makes its first appearance Friday at Sonoma Raceway.

Xfinity teams, coming off last weekend’s race at Portland International Raceway, get 50 minutes of practice Friday because Sonoma is a new venue for the series.

Seven Cup drivers, including Kyle Larson and Daniel Suarez, are among those entered in the Xfinity race. Suarez won the Cup race at Sonoma last year.

Xfinity teams will qualify and race Saturday at the 1.99-mile road course.

Sonoma Raceway


Friday: Mostly cloudy with a high of 69 degrees.

Friday, June 9

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — ARCA Menards Series West
  • 1 – 10 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 2 – 3 p.m. — ARCA West practice
  • 3:10 – 3:30 p.m. — ARCA West qualifying
  • 4:05 – 4:55 p.m. — Xfinity practice (FS1)
  • 6:30 p.m. — ARCA West race (64 laps, 127.36 miles; live on FloRacing, will air on CNBC at 11:30 a.m. ET on June 18)