The class set to compete for 2020 Rookie of the Year honors on the NASCAR Cup Series is one of the most talented groups of first year drivers the sport has seen in a while. And what’s more, the four young stars seeking that title will be supported by some of the sport’s top organizations.
Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and John Hunter Nemechek have indicted their intentions of collecting the trophy previously earned by the likes of Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch.
While there have been talented classes to seek the Rookie of the Year title before, the quality of this group looks to have greater potential for long-term success than many before them. And part of what leads to that conclusion is the fact that they will be strapping into solid rides when the NASCAR Cup Series field takes the green flag for the Daytona 500 on February 16th.
Tyler Reddick enters the 2020 season having won the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship in each of the past two seasons. The soon-to-be 24-year-old driver will pilot a Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing in 2020 after winning the second of his Xfinity titles for that organization this past season.
Reddick has not only shown that he can win races but he can win big races. In each of the past two seasons the California native has won the season-ending NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway when winning was essentially the only option if a championship was to be achieved.
Reddick’s new ride will be the RCR No. 8 machine that was previously driven by Daniel Hemric.
Reddick will have a familiar voice on the other end of the team’s radio as his Xfinity Series crew chief, Randall Burnett, will lead that team during the 2020 campaign. The hope within the RCR organization is that the chemistry built between their driver and crew chief during their championship run on NASCAR’s second series will continue to grow over the course of the coming season.
Prediction: There is no doubt that Reddick is a talented driver but RCR has not shown the ability to place its cars consistently near the top of the running order. Reddick will score between five and eight top-10 finishes in 2020.
NASCAR championships aside, Bell comes into his first full-time Cup Series opportunity every bit as heralded as Reddick. In 74 starts for Joe Gibbs Racing during the past three years, the dirt open-wheel sensation has won 16 Xfinity Series events. Two top-5 finishes in the final series standings have been the result of his efforts for the team owned by the Super Bowl winning coach.
The 25-year-old Oklahoma native will seek Rookie of the Year honors in a Toyota for Leavine Family Racing in 2020 with the support of powerful JGR. Bell’s Xfinity Series crew chief, Jason Ratcliff, will sit atop the pit box for the No. 95 team in 2020. Like Reddick and Burnett, this duo will hope to bring the magic they have found in the lower series to the top level of the sport.
Bell and Reddick have both shown that they can win at the Xfinity Series level. Another thing they have in common is a background of racing on dirt. Bell cut his racing teeth in Midget and Sprint Cars while Reddick first emerged on the racing scene as the youngest driver to ever pull into victory lane on the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series.
Prediction: Bell is a huge talent with still much upside potential. And while the Leavine Family Racing did appear to gain strength as the 2019 season wore on with driver Matt DiBenedetto, this is still a second tier team with the support of a major team. Bell may sneak into the top-5 on an occasion or two as part of a total of the 10-12 top-10 results he will earn.
As if the talent pool isn’t deep enough with Reddick and Bell in the fray, add Custer to the mix as the winner of nine Xfinity Series races over the past three years will make his first full-time run on the NASCAR Cup Series in 2020 with Stewart-Haas Racing. During this most recent season the California native’s career took off in a major way as he collected seven of those nine wins in 2019.
Custer has finished second to Reddick in the final Xfinity Series standings in each of the past two seasons.
The 21-year-old driver is probably in the best situation of all the rookie contenders as he will be driving for a top tier team rather than for a team simply being supported by a top tier team. While the No. 41 Ford did not find victory lane with Daniel Suarez behind the wheel last season, it did win with Kurt Busch back in 2018.
Just like Reddick and Bell, Custer’s Xfinity crew chief, Mike Shiplett, will join the driver in the Cup Series ranks.
Prediction: Custer is in the best situation of any other rookie contender. The strength of the organization he is with will result in his earning Rookie of the Year honors. He will score three or four top-5 and 10-12 top-10 finishes.
Nemechek has certainly shown that he has the talent to contend for Rookie of the Year honors against the three racers mentioned above. The 22-year-old second generation driver has won six races in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series races and one Xfinity Series event. He also has scored victories in the prestigious Snowball Derby and All-American 400 short track crown jewels.
Nemechek will drive a Ford for Front Row Motorsports in 2020 replacing the recently retired David Ragan.
While that team might not be on the same level as those of the other first year drivers, there are opportunities to succeed with this organization. Michael McDowell placed fifth in last year’s Daytona 500 and Ragan scored a win at Talladega for the Bob Jenkins-owned organization back in 2013.
Nemechek will have to make the most of each race to remain in the hunt with the other contestants in the Rookie of the Year standings.
Prediction: Nemechek faces the toughest challenge of all the rookie contenders being that his team is not a part of one of the power organizations. His best hope for a top-10 will come on the big tracks of Daytona and Talladega.
Richard Allen is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association
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