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William Byron, driver of the #24 AXALTA Chevrolet, speaks with the media during the Daytona 500 Media Day at Daytona International Speedway on February 14, 2018 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

David Smith’s Top NASCAR Cup Series Prospects of 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:

  • The entire list is limited to drivers with less than 10 NASCAR Cup Series starts.
  • The top 60 are limited to drivers competing in a NASCAR pipeline series—the Xfinity Series, Truck Series, K&N Pro Series or ARCA—as recently as 2017.
  • Each series has an age cutoff; the ceilings are 29 for Xfinity, 27 for Trucks and 24 for K&N and ARCA.
  • Ages listed refer to the age of the driver for the majority of the 2018 racing season.
  • Marketability and personal wealth are not considered; this is purely a list populated by talent and results.
  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.

  1. Todd Gilliland
Todd Gilliland became the first driver since 2005 to win back-to-back NASCAR K&N Pro Series West titles. (Bob Leverone/NASCAR via Getty Images)

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.

RELATED: Todd Gilliland Edges Harrison Burton In A Win For The Ages

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1.  John Hunter Nemechek

Age 21 (06/11/1997) | Mooresville, N.C.

Nemechek gets the Xfinity call in 2018 after spending three seasons in Trucks, where he acquitted himself well as a results-getter—he ranked ninth, 16th and 11th in PEER in subsequent seasons—and, in his final year, established himself as a plus passer and restarter, scoring the second biggest net positional gain (plus-57) from preferred groove restarts. Additionally, he left room for improvement. He finished in the top 15 nearly 17 percent less often than the percentage of completed laps in the same whereabouts.

  1. Darrell Wallace

Age 24 (10/08/1993) | Mobile, Ala.

Wallace’s abbreviated 2017 Xfinity Series season resulted in 1.404 PEER, which ranked 14th among 60 series regulars, a positive surplus passing value, the sixth best preferred groove restart retention rate and the fourth highest crash rate. After his sojourn in the NASCAR pipeline that saw a bevy of crests and troughs, Wallace earns a promotion to the Cup Series with Richard Petty Motorsports in 2018. At worst, his statistical profile forecasts similar production to the driver he is replacing, Aric Almirola.

  1. Daniel Hemric

Age 27 (01/27/1991) | Kannapolis, N.C.

At 27, Hemric is old for a Cup Series prospect; however, if a performance leap similar to his improvement in the second half of 2017 occurs, he’ll make himself an attractive hire in the eyes of Cup teams. He shaved more than seven positions off of his average finish—from 15.88 to 8.73—during the back half of the Xfinity season and established himself as the best passer among series regulars on intermediates Atlanta, Charlotte and Texas, where he bagged 35 positions more than expected.

  1. Ryan Preece

Age 27 (10/25/1990) | Kensington, Conn.

The appeal of Preece, who won a NASCAR Modified Tour championship at age 22, finally resonated with the Stock Car community thanks to his quality-not-quantity approach to the Xfinity Series. In four races with Joe Gibbs Racing, he never finished worse than fifth and scored his first win at Iowa. He’ll receive a fuller slate in 2018, answering whether his plus-4.5 percent surplus passing value—greater than any full-season mark in 2017—extrapolates proportionately.

RELATED: Heavy crash and recent woes aside, Ryan Preece still pursuing dreams in 2018

  1. Kyle Benjamin
Kyle Benjamin won the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East finale at Dover last year. (NASCAR via Getty Images)

Age 20 (11/03/1997) | Easley, S.C.

Benjamin has all but maxed out what he can accomplish on the nation’s short tracks, a winner in four of his final six K&N East starts if he never makes another attempt. His 1.6-place average starting spot in five Xfinity races with Joe Gibbs Racing, which included two poles, was the best in the series last year among drivers with multiple starts. His 66.67 percent retention rate on non-preferred groove restarts ranked sixth among those with at least 10 attempts.

  1. Harrison Burton

Age 17 (10/09/2000) | Huntersville, N.C.

Burton’s 2017 was a reminder to not discount talent during formative years. The 17-year-old went from zero wins and a 12.4-place average finish in 2016 to five wins, a 3.2-place average and a K&N East championship. His PEER, ranked last in the series in ’16 (minus-1.536), ranked first (4.571) last season, the best full-season mark since Kyle Larson in 2012. Similar improvement is necessary for Burton in the Truck Series, where his minus-0.083 rating in six starts ranked 47th among 48 drivers.

  1. Chase Briscoe

Age 23 (12/15/1994) | Mitchell, Ind.

Briscoe’s Truck Series exploits flew below the radar but culminated in a season finale victory and a 3.630 PEER, good for seventh best in the series. The 2016 ARCA champ was an effective restarter, ranking inside the top 10 for retention in both the preferred and non-preferred grooves. Additionally, he was a plus passer on all but one track type (short tracks). While a partial season in Roush equipment isn’t ideal for cultivating his talent, it’ll keep him in the prospect conversation for which he’s deserving.

  1. Ty Majeski

Age 23 (08/18/1994) | Seymour, Wis.

Majeski’s reputation as an ace Late Model driver precedes him, and against stiffer competition with more reliable measurements, he has so far proven formidable. Under the Roush Fenway development banner, he competed in five ARCA Series races, where his 3.700 PEER ranked third, and three Xfinity events in which his 87.5 percent retention rate on preferred groove restarts ranked eighth best among those with at least eight attempts. His 9.3-place average starting spot bested those of fellow Roush drivers Darrell Wallace (14.0) and Ryan Reed (14.2).

  1. Austin Theriault

Age 24 (01/23/1994) | Fort Kent, Maine

A year removed from quietly landing the sixth best PEER in the K&N East, Theriault finally completed a full season of racing in a NASCAR pipeline series, leading him to an ARCA championship. Seven wins in 20 races and the top production rating in the series (6.525) put to rest doubts about his ability across limited starts. His 0.05-per-race crash frequency was the cleanest among series regulars. His 4.2-place average finish was ARCA’s best full-season rate in 33 years.

  1. Ben Rhodes

Age 21 (02/21/1997) | Louisville, Ky.

Rhodes grew to a fringe title contender in 2017, scoring a 2.348 PEER, nearly double what is expected from the average 21-year-old Truck Series driver. He ended the season with a positive surplus passing value, ranking fifth and sixth in SPV on 1.5-mile intermediates and 1-milers, respectively. Ultimately, he’ll need to shrink his 0.48 crashes-per-race rate, which led to four DNFs last season, but on the whole the 2014 K&N East champ is rounding out well.


NASCAR K&N PRO SERIES PROSPECTS

  1. Ronnie Bassett

Age 22 (12/21/1995) | Winston-Salem, N.C.

Wherever Bassett goes, excitement tends to follow, and after four full years in the K&N East, it’d be nice to see him travel higher up the NASCAR pipeline. 2017 was his most productive in racing by far, in which he secured a 3.321 PEER that ranked third in the division and included his first win, coming in the season opener at New Smyrna. He scored PEERs better than average for his age in three of his four seasons in the K&N East.

  1. Derek Kraus
Derek Kraus impressed as a rookie in 2017 and is ready for a larger role with BMR. (Jonathan Moore/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Age 16 (09/01/2001) | Stratford, Wis.

It’s early, but Kraus has the potential to matter in this sport, if his 2017 numbers are to be believed. He scored just one win in the K&N West—his Bill McAnally Racing stable mates Todd Gilliland and Chris Eggleston, who combined to win 10 of the division’s 14 races, are to thank—but scored a 1.714 PEER at 15, an age at which drivers are their most inefficient and unproductive. With Gilliland graduating to Trucks, Kraus is BMR’s focal point and championship favorite in 2018.

  1. Rubén García

Age 22 (11/21/1995) | Mexico City, Mexico

2017 was pivotal for García, who proved a better producer than the average 21-year-old K&N East driver. His three top-5 finishes (and 11 top-10 scores) in 14 tries might not sizzle on the stat line, but considering the mixed-bag nature of Rev Racing’s on-track program it shouldn’t be counted against the four-time NASCAR Mexico Series race winner; he earned a 3.000 PEER, trailing only Harrison Burton (4.571), Todd Gilliland (3.571) and Ronnie Bassett (3.321).

  1. Chase Cabre

Age 21 (02/07/1997) | Thonotosassa, Fla.

Cabre quietly finished inside the top 10 in half of his K&N East starts in 2017, topping out with a second-place finish in Memphis—the middle part of three consecutive top-4 results. He ranked eighth in PEER, with a 2.393 rating, and earned a relatively clean crash rate (0.07) for a 21-year-old rookie. Pending a competitive uptick in his surroundings at Rev Racing, he could compete more regularly for wins in 2018.

  1. Kody Vanderwal

Age 17 (01/19/2001) | LaSalle, Col.

Prospects with low-key results in the K&N West tend to have short shelf lives. Vanderwal’s 12.6-place average finish in his rookie season in the West likely impressed no one, but his 1.607 PEER, ranked fifth out of 24 qualified drivers, is worth mentioning here. For a 17-year-old, that’s something on which to build, but considering the nondescript nature of his team, owned by Kevin McCarty, there is no guarantee of a long-term career plan.

  1. Dillon Bassett

Age 21 (04/02/1997) | Winston-Salem, N.C.

Bassett regressed each year following his 2.292 PEER in the K&N East in 2015. Last year, his 0.786 PEER ranked 15th out of 22 qualified drivers and equaled half the production expected from the average 20-year-old K&N East driver. His two best performances of the year—104 laps led in Greenville and 94 laps led at Virginia’s Langley Speedway—culminated in finishes of eighth and 13th, respectively. He’s capable of better production, and a more result-driven focus would inflate his prospect stock.

Watch List: Anthony Alfredo

Age 19 (03/31/1999) | Ridgefield, Conn.

As an 18-year-old newcomer to big-time Late Model racing, Alfredo drove a JR Motorsports entry to two victories and eight top-5 finishes in 13 CARS Late Model Stock Car Tour starts, ultimately finishing second in points to stable mate and veteran Josh Berry. He has since parted with JRM, but intrigues as a prospect moving forward. An ideal next step for the Connecticut transplant would be tackling some national competition in heavier cars.

David Smith is the founder of MotorsportsAnalytics.com, a hub for auto racing statistics and analysis. For access to his entire 75-driver prospects list, click here.