Every so often, a rookie battle comes along that is truly remarkable.
The 2009 campaign that witnessed current Team Penske mates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski entering the fray – even though Keselowski did not officially declare for the honors – and the 2006 battle included Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, and Martin Truex Jr. are two that spring to mind.
Logano won the 2009 Rookie of the Year (ROTY) honors and Hamlin took the trophy in 2006.
More recently, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney challenged for top freshmen honors in 2016. The next year, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, and Ty Dillon launched their careers. The 2020 ROTY battle could well be one of the best we have ever seen, however, as three of the Xfinity Championship 4 contenders from the last two seasons are elevated to the Cup series.
In 2020 Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, and Cole Custer will each have strengths and weaknesses to their campaigns. We will look forward to their prospects in greater depth a little later in the off-season. For now, let’s look back to see what they accomplished in the second series.
Leavine Family Racing (with support from Joe Gibbs Racing)
Xfinity Starts: 74
Wins: 16 (21.6%)
Top-fives: 41 (55.4%)
Top-10s: 46 (62.2%)
Bell may well be one of the most talented drivers to come along in a long while. At the age of 22, he was tapped to be one of the rotating drivers of the No. 18 and 20 Xfinity cars. There was little doubt that the equipment was strong as Bell won his first pole in only his second start at Iowa in 2017. He led 152 laps of that race, but was involved in two incidents and finished 16th.
Three weeks later, he proved to be equal to the machinery by winning at Kansas in his fifth start. Bell’s eight-race try out was sufficient to land a fulltime ride in the No. 20 in 2018 and he was an immediate contender. Bell qualified for the Championship 4 in his first year in the series and ended the season fourth in the points on the strength of seven wins, 18 top-fives, and an average finish of 11.1.
Bell’s 2019 season was even better. He won eight of the 33 races, scored 20 top-fives, and improved his average finish to 9.1.
Tack on seven more wins in the Truck series and this is a driver who is accustomed to finding Victory Lane.
It has been a while since we’ve had a rookie who was a serious contender to win. Chris Buescher won at Pocono in his rookie season of 2016 in a fog and rain-shortened race. In 2009, Logano won a weather-aided event while Brad Keselowski took a victory on the wild card track of Talladega.
But Bell could challenge for a win on a number of different tracks in 2020. He’s patient when he needs to be and aggressive at other times. The No. 95 team came close to winning in the August Bristol race and Bell will slot easily into this ride.
Richard Childress Racing
Xfinity Starts: 84
Wins: 9 (10.7%)
Top-fives: 35 (41.7%)
Top-10s: 53 (63.1%)
Reddick has fewer wins than Bell, but he’s made the most of them. Winning the last two Ford 300s at Homestead, he enters the Cup series as a defending two-time champion of the Xfinity Series. He climbs into the car that won the 2019 ROTY honors with Daniel Hemric.
Reddick won only two races in 2018. He took the season opener to lock into the playoffs and then waited the entire season before getting his second win for the championship. Along the way, he scored only seven top-fives, but made up for that with consistency and 20 top-10s.
Still, Reddick’s average finish of 12.9 made him an unlikely contender for the top spot in the finale. He won the 2018 Ford 300 with determination and by placing his car inches from the wall for much longer than anyone thought was possible. One key to Reddick’s success is going to be that intense concentration.
Reddick was determined to prove that his 2018 championship was not a fluke.
Reddick’s strength last year in Xfinity was on the similarly-configured, 1.5- and 2-mile tracks. He won at Charlotte, Michigan, and Las Vegas as well as Homestead with another pair of wins coming at Talladega and Bristol.
Reddick has three wins in the Truck series as well, dating back to his first fulltime season there. With two wins in Trucks in 2015, one in 2016, plus victories in each of his three seasons in Xfinity, he enters the Cup series with a five-year streak.
There have been at least two first time winners in each of the last four seasons for a total of nine and with the Youth Movement receiving an influx of talent, that could easily continue.
Xfinity Starts: 104
Wins: 9 (8.7%)
Top-fives: 39 (37.5%)
Top-10s: 71 (68.3%)
When one thinks of Custer, the first description that comes to mind is ‘aggressive’. Custer attacks the course on every lap and there is little surprise that he would be tapped to race for Tony Stewart.
Custer is not out of control, however. His winning percentage and number of times he’s been in the top five is noticeably lower than his two rookie rivals, but he has taken care of his equipment and scored a higher percentage of top-10s than either Bell or Reddick.
Custer’s first win in the Xfinity series came at Homestead in 2017, but he had unfortunately been eliminated from playoff consideration and finished fifth in the standings. He scored only one win in 2018 as well, but this time he made his way to Homestead with a shot at the trophy. He came up just short of the win and placed second in the points, but he improved his average finish from 13.3 to 9.0.
Last year was pivotal. As the season progressed, rumors began to circulate that Custer would take over the No. 41 from Daniel Suarez. While under that scrutiny, Custer did his best to impress the SHR management with seven wins and a career-best 17 top-fives.
Custer’s reputation as a tough guy is aided by two of his 2019 wins. He was victorious at Darlington and again at Dover during the playoffs – two of the roughest courses on the schedule. His other victories came at Auto Club, Richmond, Pocono, Chicagoland, and Kentucky – which may well make him the most versatile of the 2020 rookies.