NASCAR rookie rundown leading into Michigan/Texas race weekend

It’s past the halfway point in the 2019 NASCAR regular season, and so far the rookies across the three national divisions have been engaged in tight battles to be the supreme rookie in their division.

In the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Daniel Hemric and Ryan Preece have been neck and neck with each other, even if their results haven’t exactly wooed the NASCAR world. In the NASCAR Xfinity Series, the rookie class is a lot deeper, as Chase Briscoe, John Hunter Nemechek, Justin Haley, and Noah Gragson have been posting some serious results on a regular basis. The 2019 Gander Outdoor Truck Series rookie class is in a similar vein, as Tyler Dippel, Sheldon Creed, Harrison Burton, and Gus Dean (among others) are also in a heated contest for rookie of the year honors.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series

The Cup Series rookie race hasn’t been as deep as the other divisions this season. That said, Hemric and Preece have left fellow RotY contender Matt Tifft behind and are currently battling among themselves as Preece sits 25th in points with one top-five and two top-10s while he tails Hemric in 24th, who just has one top-five and one top-10. Tifft sits 31st in points with two top-20 finishes and three top-25 finishes yet hasn’t finished on the lead lap in 2019. Tifft managed to lead a lap at Kansas, where he finished 21st, but in this day and age leading laps even on strategy doesn’t account for much. Still, he’s a rookie with a new team and if there’s anything Bob Jenkins knows how to do with his Front Row team, it’s giving his drivers a solid foundation.

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Prior to Daytona, it was all but a given that Hemric would run away with the RotY battle. Richard Childress Racing is an established championship team who has managed to put several drivers in Victory Lane, while the sole Cup victory for JTG Daugherty Racing came in 2014 at Watkins Glen with AJ Allmendinger. However, despite the RCR Chevys having had issues for years, it isn’t that Hemric is failing in his expectations or anything. It’s that Preece has managed to take his No. 47 Chevy and get more out of it than originally expected. He’s shown he’s a solid superspeedway driver, scoring a career-high of third at Talladega (the same race where Hemric got his first top-five).

Still, Preece holds three lead-lap finishes to Hemric’s two. But Hemric’s consistency has been his strength, as he holds six top-20 finishes to Preece’s four top-20 finishes. They’re both remarkably steady for Cup Series rookies, with both of them usually lingering in the upper mid-pack positions. That shouldn’t change at Michigan on Sunday, so expect these two to loiter around 15th-25th position during the race.

NASCAR Xfinity Series

Noah Gragson. Photo by Joseph Shelton

The rookie race in the Xfinity is a lot deeper and happen to be more viable threats for the win, aside from rookie Matt Mills, who is currently in the midst of trying to help his team gain traction in the garage. But one of the impressive underdog rookies happens to be Gray Gaulding, whose Bobby Dotter-owned race team scored a runner-up finish at Talladega, which was Gaulding’s career-best. Aside from that Gaulding has managed to put his No. 08 in the top-20 in 10 out of 12 starts this season, so if he’s able to maintain this it could be the start of something good for his team. They’re not going to contend for wins soon, but they will be knocking on the door to the top-10 sooner than later.

Meanwhile, drivers such as Briscoe, Haley, Gragson, and Nemechek are running at the front weekly, and it’s been fun watching to see who would gain the edge over the others. Right now it’s Briscoe, who sits sixth in points with six top fives and nine top-10s. He has a win to his credit, like Nemechek, but it came a year ago, also like Nemechek. This could prove to be a valuable psychological edge for Briscoe and Nemechek, as both have managed to establish themselves as championship threats. Nemechek holds a runner-up (Las Vegas) to Briscoe’s season best of third (Pocono), but he also sits seventh in points with two top fives and seven top-10s, a tally that he’s also short on compared to Briscoe. Still, Briscoe proves to be strong everywhere while Nemechek has yet to prove himself on other tracks. Unlike Briscoe, Nemechek has shown to be lacking on some of the faster tracks, but at the rate he’s going it’s something he can overcome soon.

Haley and Gragson are the only actual rookies in this class, and they’ve shown it. Gragson sits eighth in points with two top fives and five top-10s. In true JR Motorsports fashion, he’s a consistent front runner, but it’s the smaller tracks where he needs more work, as 22nd at Richmond and 19th at Dover. Otherwise, when he isn’t in the top-10 he’s running in the top-15: 11th at Daytona, Phoenix, and Talladega, 12th at Fontana, and 13th at Texas (pictured).

However, Haley’s proved to big a big rookie surprise. He sits in 10th in the points, but while he’s earned a solitary top-five (fifth at Charlotte), he holds nine top-10s. It’s a testament to his Kaulig Racing team, who although isn’t as high funded as other teams, holds an affiliation with RCR. That affiliation isn’t the sole reason Haley’s been near the front, but with their driver Tyler Reddick a consistent front runner and race winner, it’s obvious the affiliation isn’t hurting the team at all. Haley’s top-10s have come on a variety of tracks, so don’t be surprised if he manages to score another top-five or be a threat to win before the season is up.

NASCAR Gander Outdoor Truck Series

Rookies Sheldon Creed (No. 2) and Harrison Burton (No. 18) go three-wide with Grant Enfinger. Photo by Brad Keppel

The rookie race in the truck series isn’t as impressive as the Xfinity Series, but that’s not to say that the racing isn’t impressive in its own right. Rookies Creed and Burton are currently leading the charge in the division, as they have both shown the most strength with their teams, who also happen to be the strongest teams in the Truck Series (Creed with GMS Racing, Burton with Kyle Busch Motorsports). They have yet to translate their runs into wins, but it isn’t for lack of trying. Burton has posted the best results with two top-fives and four top-10s, which places him in the ninth spot in the standings at the moment. Three of his four top-10s have come on 1.5-mile tracks, which are the bread-and-butter for KBM drivers.

What’s surprising about Creed is that although he holds a single top-10 (sixth at Las Vegas) and sits 10th in points, he’s actually led 92 laps over the span of three races (21 at Daytona, where he earned a stage win, 59 at Dover before a crash put him in 27th, and 12 at Kansas before finishing several laps down in 19th) and has shown to have a strong truck more often than not. However, his luck isn’t the greatest as a rookie: Despite having a season average starting spot of sixth, he has five finishes outside of the top-15 in eight starts this season. Patience would go a long way for Creed, and after a little more experience he’ll soon be posting finishing stats that equal his qualifying efforts.

Young Motorsports driver Dippel isn’t far behind Burton and Creed, as he sits 11th in points, also with a single top-10 (eighth at Texas). It’s been hit or miss for Dippel in 2019 though, as outside of that top-10, he only has three top-15 finishes. Otherwise, he’s been a solid mid-pack driver, with a 17th at Las Vegas, an 18th at Dover, and a 23rd at Martinsville. His DNF at Daytona where he finished 29th was his only one so far of the season, so it does seem like he takes good care of his equipment.

Dippel’s teammate Gus Dean has had a rough go of things though. The two-time ARCA race winner has yet to break the top-10 in a Truck race this season, but he holds four top-15 finishes in eight starts this season. Aside from troublesome finishes at Las Vegas and Charlotte where he finished 22nd and 26th, respectively, his DNFs at Martinsville and Texas where he finished 32nd and 29th respectively were nothing more than growing pains for the Young Motorsports organization. They’re steadily improving, so before too long Dippel and Dean could end up improving on their rookie season start soon.

The David Gilliland Racing stable has definitely been hot and cold in 2019. On the hot side, there’s Tyler Ankrum, who has earned two top-10s in five starts so far in 2019, with a season-best of sixth at Texas. He’s held strong runs regularly; his DNF at Charlotte where he finished 27th was his first time outside of the top-20. Otherwise, he’s very stout on the faster tracks. His run at Martinsville resulted in a 19th-place finish but considering it wasn’t any different from his 18th-place run there during his series debut it’s safe to say short tracks should provide a learning experience for him, one that he’s sure to accomplish.

The pairing of Anthony Alfredo and Chris Lawson is still in its infancy, but that’s not to say it hasn’t had its ups; Alfredo earned his first top-10 in his fourth start when he finished eighth at Charlotte. Considering that his last start before that ended up in a fiery crash at Texas, anything above that should be considered a success. He’s only made four truck starts, but he’s solidly been in the top-20 in every start he’s made with the exception of Texas. He still has several starts to go before he becomes established, but with that said Alfredo is a very capable driver.

The lone bust happens to be Natalie Decker. Granted, she’s made limited starts in her DGR Toyota, but she’s also been in a few easily avoidable incidents such as Kansas and Charlotte. Her DNF at Daytona was truly an incident beyond her control, and considering it’s Daytona she looked to build on her promising start of 11th. But running over debris which ended her day was not any fault of hers. The crashes and issues since are a little harder to justify. She’s a rookie, sure. But DGR Toyotas are very solid race cars, and she should have more promising results other than her 13th at Las Vegas.

She had a lot of hype following last year’s ARCA season where she finished seventh in points after scoring two top-fives and five top-10s, but that hasn’t translated so much in the truck series. She needs to stop being afraid of her truck and afraid of the competition if she is to learn like she’s supposed to be doing. Decker has proven capable in race cars before this year; she needs to re-establish just how capable she truly is.

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