Youth is in the air. NASCAR’s future continues to show signs of fresh faces, along with a new generation of fans entering the sport.
With so many drivers working through the rankings, opportunities have presented themselves for a select few to race against some of the best racers NASCAR has to offer.
The elusive Sunoco Rookie of the Year race is tightening up in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Entering this season, it appeared Darrell Wallace Jr. would run away with the award.
However, entering the 10th race of the season, that is not the case.
Wallace, who moved over to Roush Fenway Racing in a Hail Mary-type deal after not getting enough sponsorship to run a full season with Joe Gibbs Racing, has run well over the first few months of the season. His adjustment to the Xfinity Series has seen an average finish of 11.9, with two top 10s. Obviously, Roush’s struggles are well-documented, and the team has fallen after a hot start within the first five races. With that, Wallace has slowly fallen out of the championship hunt, which was expected considering it is his first full season with Roush.
Though he sits third in points, Wallace is just one marker ahead of his toughest competitor, Daniel Suarez. Racing the No. 18 car for Joe Gibbs Racing, the 10-time NASCAR Mexico Series winner has made great strides over the past few weeks after a tough start in the sport’s second-tier division. Suarez finished runner-up at Bristol and has an average finish of 16th. But his three top 10s have led him to close the gap in the Rookie of the Year race, and if both drivers continue their current pace, Wallace will drop multiple spots in the championship standings, with Suarez moving right by him.
Moving forward, these two young guns are expected to contend for a championship next year – given they return to their respective teams – as they prepare to move up to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Both have a chance to be role models after working through NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, and their success thus far in the Xfinity Series is just a small sample of what will come in this intense battle.
Preceding Wallace and Suarez, reigning champion Chase Elliott and Ty Dillon highlighted the rookie class last year, with Kyle Larson and Parker Kligerman doing so in 2013. Since 2000, all but one driver (Danny O’Quinn Jr.) have made it to the Cup Series. Winning the Rookie of the Year award in the Xfinity Series might not mean immediate success, but it is a glance at what is to come in the future for a young driver.
Let’s take a look at this year’s Xfinity Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year class:
Darrell Wallace Jr.: Wallace got off to a hot start with Roush Fenway Racing. He has finished inside of the top 15 in every race except for Talladega, so consistency has been strong for the No. 6 team. What has not been consistent, however, is the team’s speed, or lack thereof. He has unloaded very well off the truck, but struggles to make the correct adjustments during events.
Wallace has shown speed at the beginning of races, but in situations where he is running up front – like at Fontana – the 21-year-old has slipped back. Roush is struggling, especially at the short tracks. He finished 15th at Phoenix and 12th at Bristol and Richmond, which should have been top 10s with how strong of a car he had at both events. Moving forward, he will need to start contending for wins if he wants to stay in the top five in the standings. His chemistry with crew chief Chad Norris is slowly getting better, and he is expected to compete for wins with teammates Chris Buescher and Elliott Sadler as the season rolls on.
Daniel Suarez: Suarez was abysmal when the Xfinity Series season started. At Daytona, he was a moving chicane, but now has steadily adjusted to the No. 18 team. Eric Phillips and he have run well over the past three races, and there are plenty of reasons for JGR to be excited of what is to come for the Mexico native.
Suarez’s runner-up result at Bristol was quite impressive considering it was his first time at the short track. When he has a car that handles well, he has run around the top 10. But when the handling is off, Suarez drops near 20th, and struggles to get back on pace with the leaders, which is what has happened at the intermediate tracks. Racing in the Truck Series for the majority of the season appears to be helping him, and he needs to record more laps to become more consistent.
Ross Chastain: One of the pleasant surprises this season has been Ross Chastain. He is outrunning veteran teammate at JD Motorsports Landon Cassill and sits inside the top 15 in the championship standings. Entering this season, he had just seven starts in the Xfinity Series, but he has settled in with crew chief Gary Cogswell.
Starting with a top 10 in the season-opener at Daytona, Chastain has flexed some muscles with this small team. He has four top 20s this year, and has an average finish of 20.6. If he continues to race at the team’s full potential with minimal mistakes, he could see himself near the top 10 in the standings by the end of the season.
Cale Conley: Cale Conley has struggled with TriStar Motorsports to start his tenure with the team. Driving the No. 14 car, the former Richard Childress Racing driver has just two top 20s this year. Fontana and Bristol were his strongest events this year, but that has been the lone bright spots of his season. Conley has an average finish of 25.6 and sits 19th in the standings.
Harrison Rhodes: Driving a third car for JDM, Harrison Rhodes is slowly getting better as the season rolls on. He’s been close to scoring top 25s on a weekly basis, and capitalizing on some solid runs could bring the No. 0 team additional funding.
Peyton Sellers: Making a rather random return to the Xfinity Series, Peyton Sellers is still considered a rookie since he never ran more than nine events in a season. When he was named as the driver of the No. 97 car for the newly formed Obaika Racing, he had to adjust to the rapidly different cars since he had not raced in the Xfinity Series since 2010. He is helping a small team right now, and averaging a finish of 29.5 is a major help.