By David Smith Motorsports Analytics
February 13, 2018
Welcome to the Motorsports Analytics list of the top 75 NASCAR Cup Series prospects prior to the 2018 racing season.
For those unfamiliar with my work or me, I’ve been employed as a scouting consultant to race teams and athlete representation agencies since 2006. This is my seventh prospects list for MotorsportsAnalytics.com. The rankings below are predominately statistics-driven; however, I am not what is referred to in industry parlance as a “Google scout.” I’ve watched extensive film on every driver listed and saw 65 of the listed 75 in person within the last 12 months.
I’m ranking drivers based on how their statistical profiles, with age heavily considered, project success over the next 20 years.
Here are my guidelines:
1. William Byron
Age 20 (11/29/1997) | Charlotte, N.C.
After stacking up Legend Car championships, Byron accelerated through Late Models, scoring 11 wins and 24 poles in 56 regional races during the 2014 season, captured the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East title in 2015, scored a rookie-record seven wins (and was a blown engine away from a championship) in the Truck Series in 2016 and won four races and the Xfinity Series championship as a 19-year-old rookie in the eighth fastest car in the series according to timing and scoring data.
Byron is bound for the Cup Series where he’ll take over the iconic No. 24 car for Hendrick Motorsports. No pressure, kid.
Fortunately, there is statistical substance to Byron as he enters America’s most cutthroat racing series. He established himself as an above average restarter during his lone Xfinity season, retaining his running position 78.65 percent of the time from the preferred groove—netting 41 additional positions on 89 attempts from inside the first seven rows—and 50 percent of the time from the non-preferred groove, where in the Xfinity Series, drivers fail to retain their restarting spot more often than not (the series average retention rate was 45 percent). While it might take time to acclimate to the higher level of competition, he’s already seen what the likes of Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski and other Cup regulars offered on restarts. That’s the benefit of allowing Xfinity drivers to compete against Cup regulars, and helps make Byron an obvious choice as the sport’s top prospect.
He was the only series regular to score a Production in Equal Equipment Rating above 2.000 in 2017; his 2.091 rating ranked 10th among 60 drivers with six or more starts.
Outside of the restart window, he struggled to overtake for position, earning negative surplus passing values on all track types, save for facilities 1 to 1.49 miles in length, not coincidentally tracks on which he scored two of his four wins. He isn’t used to 500-mile races or heavy doses of long runs; once that initial shock wears off, good long-run passing, a common stylistic denominator of Hendrick drivers in years past, will be the focal point of his improvement. Eliminating that one weakness could ultimately turn him into a perennial title contender for the next 20 years.
2. Todd Gilliland
Age 18 (05/15/2000) | Sherrills Ford, N.C.
The arguments for who will be the next top prospect begin with Gilliland who, at ages 15 through 17, won 45 percent of his starts in the K&N West and scored PEERs 3.6 and 2.1 points higher than what 16 and 17-year-old K&N East drivers are capable of on average. All-around dominance, it seems, is not an achievement for him. It’s his norm.
Gilliland moves into the national spotlight in 2018, joining the Truck Series on a full-time basis. His six-race cameo in the series last year resulted in a 0.833 PEER, ranked 25th out of 48 drivers, and a pair of top-5 finishes in Kyle Busch Motorsports equipment. Despite the speed advantage, Gilliland was thrust into a higher level of competition in a manner not ideal; he worked with three different crew chiefs during his brief stint, which also included two race-ending equipment malfunctions. His 11.2-place average finish belied his 7.4-place average mid-race running position, a whereabouts trailing only Christopher Bell (5.4), Matt Crafton (6.0) and Johnny Sauter (6.7), all three of whom are series champions.
With position retention rates of 71.43 percent and 64.71 percent, he is already an average restarter from the preferred groove and a top-6 restarter from the non-preferred groove, a revelation that should suit him well in the era of stage racing. How he develops as a long-run passer will be of importance this year; his minus-2.02 percent surplus passing value exclusively on shorter tracks was a mediocre showing, but his ability to navigate intermediates, with more racing room than he’s ever had, could negate his passing on 1-mile tracks if it is indeed a weak spot in his otherwise impenetrable driving arsenal.
3. Christopher Bell
Age 23 (12/16/1994) | Norman, Okla.
There is nothing left for Bell to accomplish in the Truck Series after his decisive championship in 2017. He won five times, scoring a 5.7-place average finish, the best full-season rate since Ron Hornaday earned an identical mark 10 years ago. Both his 4.326 PEER and plus-3.69 percent surplus passing value ranked third overall and first among series regulars. He arrives in the Xfinity Series with Joe Gibbs Racing, a known and speedy quantity that should provide him all the ammunition he needs to make a run for the series title.
How his restarting ability translates to tougher competition could dictate his 2018 win total. He was top-4 restarter from both the preferred groove and non-preferred groove in the Truck Series, earning a 59-position net gain across both lanes. In eight Xfinity Series starts, he retained his preferred groove restarting spot 95 percent of the time, the highest rate among drivers with 20 attempts from inside the first seven rows. As they did in the Truck Series, stage racing’s frequent resets should suit Bell well.
The elephant in the room when discussing Bell is his propensity for crashing. He wrecked 0.52 times per race in 2016, tied for the second highest rate in the series. That rate shrunk in 2017, to 0.43 times per race, but that still ranked as the sixth highest mark among drivers with 18 or more starts. Though young drivers crash more than old drivers on average, this doesn’t mean Bell will shake the habit, and he could remain a more frequent than average crasher for his age.
That lone con is nullified by all his pros. If he wins, his crashing won’t matter. Regardless, he profiles as a driver destined for Cup Series stardom.
4. Cole Custer
Age 20 (01/23/1998) | Ladera Ranch, Calif.
Custer’s clear strength is going fast. That’s not a putdown—Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano built successful careers with raw speed as the core of their repertoire—but when all his other peripherals are bad, it yields inconsistent results. Against Xfinity competition in 2017, his minus-6.83 percent surplus passing value ranked as the second worst, manifesting in a pass differential 253 positions worse than expected. Still, he ranked as the fastest playoff participant and scored a dominant win in the season finale.
5. Tyler Reddick
Age 22 (01/11/1996) | Corning, Calif.
Reddick’s 0.028 PEER ranked 45th among 60 Xfinity drivers. He finished inside the top 15 over 23 percent less often than his percentage of laps completed in the same whereabouts and his 16.7-place average finish was over 10 positions worse than Ganassi seat-sharer Kyle Larson. Fortunately, Reddick ranked 12th in preferred groove restart retention, averaging a playoff-worthy 9.5-place finish in races with nine or more restarts. He could restart his way to title contention in his first complete Xfinity season.