Christopher Bell, Cole Custer, and Tyler Reddick have put on show in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2019. Each was on the Cup Series radar before the season started, and none of them have done anything to hurt their prospects at the next level.
The question is: as their stars continue to rise in the sport, where are the seats they’re going to fill moving forward?
The numbers among the three are staggering. They’ve combined to win 13 times in 18 races, including a three-month stretch where they won nine consecutive times. No driver is dominating either. During that run, each nabbed three checkered flags, and in those nine starts all three finished in the top-five three times.
Just to hammer the point home, it’s even tough to tell which has been the most consistent in their dominance:
Factor in that they’re each doing it for a different manufacturer (Bell – Toyota, Custer – Ford, Reddick – Chevrolet), and it seems even more improbable.
It’s clear that none of the three should spend much more time in the sport’s second level, but for various reasons that’s a lot easier said than done.
We start with the points leader, Reddick. It appears he has the clearest path to the next level through his current team, Richard Childress Racing. He’s already run the 31 in the Cup Series twice this year, finishing 9th at Kansas. The question is if the funding exists for RCR to expand to three cars for the first time since 2017. Paul Menard left and took his family’s funding with him for the 27. That’s why RCR ran with just Austin Dillon and Ryan Newman last year and Dillon and Daniel Hemric this year. It’s unlikely either Dillon or Hemric is moved out at this point, so is there a path for Reddick to get in the 31 full-time?
If not, Reddick has already shown he’s not afraid to make his own move, leaving JR Motorsports after winning the Xfinity Series championship with them a year ago. Right now he says he’s focusing on just getting another Cup Series one-off with RCR, and that his sights will shift to his 2020 plans a little later. But who will be waiting with open arms if he’s ready to jump ship? If Kurt Busch calls it a career a Kyle Larson-Reddick partnership at Chip Ganassi Racing could be entertaining.
Christopher Bell has been the biggest name in this “will he or won’t he” carousel the past two years. He’s spent his entire NASCAR career in the Toyota family, is fiercely loyal to them, and last month he signed for one more year with Joe Gibbs Racing. That basically leaves him three options.
The first option would really be a shame. Bell is widely considered one of the future faces of NASCAR, and he’s proven he’s ready to make the jump to the Cup level. To his credit, he’s said he’s opened to being in either series, but he should be in the Cup Series.
The second option means a highly regarded driver is looking for a new job. Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. won’t be leaving JGR unless they do so on their own, which is unlikely. That leaves Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones.
It was speculated at the beginning of the season that Hamlin was on the hot seat following his first winless season since 2005. Then he won the Daytona 500 and the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, and he’s 4th in the points standings. He also has been partnered with FedEx for 15 years so it would be foolish to think they wouldn’t have a say here.
The case of Jones could be settled soon if Jones has any say. He told reporters last week that he feels he and Gibbs are very close to finalizing an extension that would keep him at JGR through next season. He also said that at the end of May so we’ll have to see how that plays out. Jones hasn’t got off to the start he hoped to in his Cup career, winning just once in three seasons, but he has finished in the top-10 seven times in the past 10 races to put himself in good standing to make the playoffs for the second straight year.
That leaves the option of being farmed out to Leavine Family Racing for at least one year. Whether that would mean taking the ride of Matt DiBenedetto, who’s finished in the top-five twice in the past month, or taking over a new ride at LFR is up in the air. That last option might be the most likely. Erik Jones raced the 77 at Furniture Row Racing in 2017 after being farmed out by JGR, and with Furniture Row’s demise, LFR has moved into that spot next to Joe Gibbs.
The only hang up in this plan might be Bell. He’s been very clear that he only wants to race in a car that he thinks is good enough to win. Will he feel that way about a second LFR entry, or would he rather put on a show in the Xfinity Series in 2020?
Custer might have turned down a chance to get in the 41 at Stewart-Haas Racing last year, but it might not matter. When Kurt Busch left SHR, rumors swirled that the young Haas driver would go to the next level and start his Cup career. Custer, though, was vocal about his opinion that he wasn’t ready and needed more seasoning. It seems like he was right as his results this year are exponentially better than his already strong 2018.
So why could Custer’s “pass” a year ago not matter? SHR might have a ride opening up this year too if the rumor mill has anything to say about it. Some in the industry are musing that Clint Bowyer might step out of the car and into the booth to replace Darrell Waltrip at FOX, leaving the 14 open for business. If that happens it would be a shock if Custer doesn’t get the call this time around. On top of that, Bowyer has been one of the most vocal critics of the current Cup Series car package so it wouldn’t be a shock to see him pack it up.
Now, if it really is just a rumor and Bowyer stays put, that’s when things get interesting for Custer. There likely won’t be a ride available at SHR, and it’s unknown if he’d be willing to leave that stable given his family ties. It’s possible that a team like Front Row Motorsports would take a shot on him like they did Matt Tifft this year, but it feels unlikely that Custer would leave SHR.
So where will each driver be in 2020? It’s tough to bet against any of them preparing to compete for Cup Series Rookie of the Year when Daytona rolls around, but a lot needs to happen still for any of the trio to get the call. For now, just enjoy the show.
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