With NASCAR’s national touring divisions edging closer toward their respective Playoffs, the top rookies in each division are clamoring to stake their spots in their championship races. The rookie race in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is contained among three drivers (Ryan Preece, Daniel Hemric, and Matt Tifft) who are racing more among themselves, while Xfinity Series rookies have finally broken into the win column following Chase Briscoe’s win at Iowa.
The same can be said for the Gander Outdoors Truck Series, as Tyler Ankrum scored his first win at Kentucky, highlighting what has been an up-and-down season for the 18-year-old Californian. The win definitely gives momentum over fellow Truck standouts Sheldon Creed and Harrison Burton.
MENCS – Richard Childress Racing driver Hemric has started to come around as the season has progressed, as evidenced by his Pocono finish on Sunday where he finished seventh. His second top-10 of 2019 comes ahead of some stout runs in recent weeks where, with the exception of Kentucky and Loudon, he’s been lingering in the top-20. This includes a streak from the June Pocono race to Daytona where he finished as high as 12th, but no lower than 19th.
The No. 8 Luke Lambert-led team has had speed on the mile-and-a-half speedways, as Hemric qualified third at Chicago, but now it’s a matter of connecting the dots for Hemric as the team is still in its building phase.
Meanwhile, performance in Preece’s JTG-Daugherty Racing camp has remained a constant, running in the top-25 unless sidetracked with issues both on-track and mechanical. He’s shown that his primary strength lies in superspeedways, although his third-best finish of 2019 was a 16th at Martinsville. Other than that, it’s that consistency that might keep him from a Rookie of the Year victory. Still, being a rookie is about learning and growing, and given time Preece may become a contender. But there’s a ceiling at JTG-Daugherty, and he may be hitting it right now with Tristan Smith.
Meanwhile, at Front Row Motorsports, there is definite improvement for Tifft. He’s made it easy on his team, only being slowed by two DNFs in 21 starts, and as a result, he was able to boost his career-best finish from a 20th at Phoenix to a ninth-place run at Daytona. A recent Crew Chief swap with teammate David Ragan sent season-long CC Mike Kelley to the 34 while Seth Barbour helped lead Tifft’s No. 36 to one of its better outings of the season as they finished 23rd at Pocono, a week after the team finished 24th at Loudon.
The No. 36 Mustang has been finishing in the top-30 every race since Michigan, and although that isn’t saying much when compared to the other rookies on this, for a completely new team that was formed before the season began it’s definitely a step forward. At this rate, it isn’t unreasonable to expect regular top-25s out of that camp in the near future.
Xfinity – The Xfinity Series rookie race has now yielded a race winner, as Briscoe joined his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Cole Custer as a winner this season when he won at Iowa. Briscoe is not only a weekly contender; he’s also a championship favorite now as he’s scored a win, eight top-fives, and 14 top-10s in 19 starts. He isn’t just consistent; he’s strong. He’s been in or among the leaders weekly, and there’s little doubt that Iowa will be his only win this season.
Meanwhile, the best result JR Motorsports rookie Noah Gragson has been able to put together was a second at Michigan, but considering JRM has gone from division powerhouse to not breaking into the win column yet this season isn’t Gragson’s fault. Still, four top-fives and 11 top-10s in 19 starts is nothing to frown at as a rookie. He’s only finished off of the lead lap in four races, but one of those was a sixth at Kentucky, so it isn’t for lack of effort. He’s been consistent, but the JRM strength isn’t there.
It’ll be interesting to see where the No. 11 of Justin Haley goes from this point on this season. He’s been as strong as the top rookies in the division this season, but following the death of Crew Chief Nick Harrison, the team will no doubt be faced with a firmer resolve to succeed in his honor. He’s currently ninth in points with two top-fives and 14 top-10s in 19 starts this season, including an eighth at Iowa with Interim CC Alex Yontz (who also led the team to a 10th at Michigan).
Haley came close to victory at Daytona, proving the No. 11 Kaulig Racing team has the strength and resolve to contend for wins, and as good as Haley is with his equipment (zero DNFs in 2019), it’ll be no surprise when he does score a win.
John Hunter Nemechek has had a roller coaster rookie campaign in 2019. He has three top-fives (including a second at Las Vegas) and 11 top-10s in 19 starts but sits in 10th in the standings as he’s been sidelined with three crash DNFs. He placed third at Iowa, and considering he knows what it takes to win in the series and run near the front, he’ll post more strong finishes this season.
However there’s a catch: GMS Racing’s Xfinity effort isn’t as strong as Ganassi Racing’s 2018 Xfinity effort was, as Nemechek was a Ganassi development driver when he won at Kansas last year. He can get a win, and GMS has an Xfinity Series win, and he’s come close this season to Victory Lane, but it’ll take a little more luck than it did last season to seal the deal.
NGOTS – Harrison Burton still continues to lead the Truck Series rookie class with seven top-fives and nine top-10s in 14 starts, which currently leaves him fifth in points with his No. 18 Kyle Busch Motorsports team. Despite the strong showings, though, he can’t seem to finish any higher than third-place, a feat he’s accomplished four times this season.
It’s granted that Burton feels a bit of pressure in his role as a full-time rookie; he’s with a championship-winning organization that has yielded some of the hottest names in NASCAR in recent memory. There’s also pressure considering that the No. 18 is the flagship entry in an organization that has put it in Victory Lane countless times. But unlike his snake-bitten teammate Todd Gilliland, Burton stands a higher chance of placing strongly in the Playoffs and even scoring a win.
Sheldon Creed, however, is not too far behind Burton; with four top-10s he’s currently ninth in points. There’s still pressure on him as he is with a championship-winning organization as well, not to mention his teammate, defending champion Brett Moffitt, has already won twice this year. But Creed needs to exercise a modicum of balance. He’s aggressive behind the wheel, and although it’s nice that there’s a driver who is up on the wheel and ready to get the job done, he’s put himself in situations that have left him with a wrecked truck.
He’s been up front a lot in 2019 and led a lot of laps, so it’s not entirely impossible he parks it in Victory Lane by the end of the season.
Tyler Dippel has definitely been on the underdog side of things, as he’s managed to put himself in the top-15 more often than not. His season highlight so far was when he finished eighth in the first Texas race of 2019, but aside from that his No. 02 Young’s Motorsports entry has only finished outside the top-25 once this season (a crash at Daytona left him in 29th). He’s quietly consistent, and although his equipment may not be top-notch, he’s posting good, solid results that could land him a ride with a solid team down the road.
Tyler Ankrum, on the other hand, got a late start on the season driving for DGR-Crosley Racing, and he’s making up for it in spades. Despite losing a sponsor and being relegated to a couple of appearances in Joe Nemechek’s No. 87, he’s scored a win at Kentucky as well as three top-fives and five top-10s. At Pocono on Saturday he put his No. 17 Toyota in the runner-up spot to Ross Chastain, scoring his second-straight top-two finish, thus showing that the young Californian means business.
Ankrum keeps his equipment together and stays out of wrecks (his save at Texas in June was nothing short of legendary), and considering the No. 17 has momentum he could very well win again this season. If their sponsorship issues can get squared up soon, he could post some more strong results when the Playoffs come around.