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NASCAR’s 2020 rookie class faced challenges unlike any other

Cole Custer reflects on being named Rookie of the Year in the NASCAR Cup Series and overcoming hurdles and adversity in a tough season in the middle of a pandemic, growing his experience and looking forward to 2021.

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.