They grow up so fast, don’t they?
It doesn’t feel all that long ago that we were ushering in the newest crop of Xfinity Series rookies to some of NASCAR’s elite teams, and welcoming back veteran drivers for a run at the title.
In 2023, the playing field will look a lot different than in past years. 2022 series champion Ty Gibbs is headed to the Cup Series to wheel the new 54 car for Joe Gibbs Racing, runner up Noah Gragson joins Petty GMS full time after running a partial schedule for Kaulig Racing in the Cup Series during 2022. Fifth place points finisher A.J. Allmendinger returns to the Cup Series full time after going “Trophy Hunting” the past few seasons with Kaulig and spot starts in the Cup Series including a win at Indy in 2021.
While we say goodbye to a good chunk of the wins in the series the past few seasons, there are still a good number of veterans and old faces in new places this season ahead. We will also see a new crop of rookies who have moved up from various series. While we’re still more than eight weeks away from the green flag at Daytona, it won’t hurt to look ahead. Here’s a way too early look at the possible Championship Four, and one more driver who may just miss out on the festivities.
Choosing Allgaier to be in the Championship Four sort of feels like a cop out in a way. Justin finds his way into the playoffs with consistency each year. Since 2017, his points finishes are third, third, seventh, fourth, second, fifth and third. He’s a former regular season champ, and while the competition gets younger, the 36 year old has plenty of gas left in the tank to make a few more runs. What prevents me from calling him a frontrunner is closing out with good momentum in Phoenix. Since the championship race moved to Phoenix in 2020, his average finish in the race is 5.6. While that’s a great average, the champions of the past two seasons won the race to claim the title both times.
Jones finds himself in a new seat for 2023 after spending the last seven seasons driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. He has the task of taking over the seat that was occupied by Noah Gragson for the last four seasons, including a runner up finish in the championship in 2022 to go along with eight wins. Jones found himself within a lap of the Championship Four, but was taken out at Martinsville by race winner and eventual series champ Ty Gibbs. I feel as if the switch to Jr Motorsports and Chevrolet will benefit Jones, as he was never presented as the main focus at Joe Gibbs Racing. While he’ll have to contend with other stars over at JRM such as Berry and Allgaier, it doesn’t mean he can’t shock the world and find himself in a position to challenge for that title. Jones will have to clean up his average finish stats by a wide margin this season if he has any plans on being on that stage at the end of the Phoenix race, as his average finish since going full time in Xfinity in 2016 is 15.1.
John Hunter Nemechek
John Hunter’s path back to the Xfinity series has had a few twists and turns. In 2018, he ran his first part time schedule, 18 races with Chip Ganassi Racing. The 42 car that season was split between John Hunter, Kyle Larson, Ross Chastain, Justin Marks, and Jamie McMurray. He ran the most races out of the group, and picked up his first career Xfinity Series win. He would parlay those results into a full-time gig the next season in Cup, albeit with a shaky at best Front Row Motorsports team. While the results were okay, the following season he would be replaced by Anthony Alfredo. He would then shift his efforts back to the Truck Series, where he’d finish in the top-five for the championship in the last two seasons for Kyle Busch Motorsports. He made spot starts in the Xfinity Series for Sam Hunt Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing in 2022, including a spirited last lap battle for the win with Ty Gibbs at Richmond in April. With KBM’s move to Chevrolet, John Hunter now finds himself at Joe Gibbs Racing full time, with help from sponsor Mobil 1. It’s the perfect storm for all parties involved. JGR gets a driver who is hungry to prove he doesn’t just belong in the lower series, as his growth seems to have been stunted by poor business decision making. Now with a stable team behind him, the time is now for the 25 year old. While he does have to contend with probable Rookie of the Year and ARCA Champion Sammy Smith, there’s a realistic chance he can win several races and have a great shot at winning back to back titles for JGR.
For Josh Berry, it feels like not if but when. The 32 year old Late Model champion came out on fire in 2021, with two wins in 22 starts in a car he shared with several developmental drivers for GMS and JRM. In his first full season in 2022, he had three wins, 11 top-fives and 20 top-10s. While Noah Gragson rightfully drew most of the attention, Berry’s consistency last season cannot be understated. He also knows how to take care of a race car. In 62 career starts, he has no DNF’s. Like his other teammates mentioned earlier, the key for the team will be to bring that regular consistency to the playoffs and learning to finish at Phoenix, a track where the success for the team has been so so. As long as the sophomore jinx doesn’t rear it’s ugly head, it’s Berry’s to lose.
Plus One More: Cole Custer
When I was formulating this list, I was hesitant to include Cole Custer on it. It wasn’t because he isn’t deserving, but more it feels like too easy of a choice to add. Custer has spent the last three seasons in the Cup Series. He won his only race at Kentucky in the Summer of 2020, and there has been a mixed bag of finishes for him since. Part of the issue could have been the rest of the sport catching up to what Stewart-Haas and Ford Performance had for a competitive edge, but team indecision between Tony Stewart and Gene Haas saw Custer’s results differently. For 2023, Tony Stewart hand picked Ryan Preece to take over the 41, after making spot starts last season in a Rick Ware Racing fielded car with a technical alliance for SHR and starts in both Xfinity and Trucks. Custer moves back to Xfinity full time, in his familiar 00. It will be his first full time season in Xfinity since 2019, a season that saw him with seven wins, 17 top-fives and 24 top-10s. In 2022, he won in his first start of the season at Auto Club Speedway for SS Green Light Racing, with a technical alliance from SHR. Cole is hungry to prove that he can still race at a high level, and with the possible retirement of Kevin Harvick looming in the not too distant future, a little seasoning down in the Xfinity Series with a few Cup starts sprinkled in could be just what the doctor ordered for the 24 year old. The key will be for Cole to race his competition, not the competition in house. Concentrating and not being distracted by the outside noise will be key if he wants to add to a terrific Xfinity series legacy.
Featured photo from Pat Vallely.