NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Eyes on XFINITY: Are Matt Tifft and Cole Custer the Latest Names Made Here?

The XFINITY Series will have a couple of relatively new faces in new places this weekend at Richmond International Raceway.  Matt Tifft will be making the first of 13 scheduled starts in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 car.  Additionally, Camping World Truck Series regular Cole Custer will be making his first ever XFINITY start, racing for JR Motorsports in the No. 5 car.

Saturday’s race at Richmond will be a great opportunity for both drivers to showcase their talents.  In Tifft’s case, this race is neither his first ever start with JGR, nor is his first XFINITY race of the season.  Tifft made his NXS debut with JGR at Kentucky last fall, finishing 10th.  He also ran three races with JGL Racing earlier this year, scoring a best finish of 20th at Texas.  While the driver schedule for the year has not been completely determined for the No. 18, expect Tifft to split most of the remaining races with Kyle Busch.  Tifft will also get to run three Truck Series races with Red Horse Racing at Kansas, Dover and Charlotte.

Meanwhile, Custer’s Truck Series season has gotten off to a rocky start with the young driver crashing out of two races.  Yet he has still shown a lot of potential, having won twice in 22 starts.  Custer is currently scheduled for three races with JRM’s part-time car, the other two being Charlotte and Homestead in the fall.

2015 Martinsville I CWTS Matt Tifft truck credit Amy Henderson
Matt Tifft will hope last weekend’s action at Martinsville will help him at Richmond (credit: Amy Henderson)

Tifft and Custer should both have a good chance to land top-10 finishes at Richmond.  The pair will be two of the most intriguing drivers to watch on Saturday because of how little seat time they actually have.

Also expect both drivers to feel a little pressure.  Tifft will be looking to distinguish himself among JGR’s already-deep driver development group.  If he does well this year, could he be next in line for a full-time ride with JGR?  Also, what if Erik Jones goes Cup racing next year?  Remember that JGR supposedly has a plan in place for Jones’ development.  Tifft’s presence in the XFINITY Series may give fans some clues about how JGR’s driver development puzzle will fit together.

Custer’s primary concern throughout the year will continue to be his Truck Series duties, but this year could be pivotal to his future in NASCAR.  Stewart-Haas Racing’s switch to Ford next year will end the alliance between that team and Hendrick Motorsports.  Custer has often been sponsored by Haas’ company but races for the Hendrick-supported JRM.  So what happens to that arrangement in 2017?  Thus far in his career, it has worked well for Custer to establish ties with both teams.  Yet with Hendrick and SHR set to go their separate ways within the next year, will he have to make a decision between his sponsor and his current team?

Hopefully, the futures of Tifft and Custer will be settled on the race track with their performances.  For the time being, the biggest takeaway from their presence at Richmond is the assurance that the XFINITY Series has not totally abandoned the concept of driver development.  It is a crucially important aspect of the second-tier series that NASCAR must protect.

Fans may recall how, roughly five to 10 years ago, the practice of “Buschwhacking” had gotten particularly out of control.  With Sprint Cup drivers able to compete for the championship in the XFINITY Series, there were far fewer opportunities for up and coming drivers to really exhibit their talents.  There were a lot of drivers in a similar position to where Tifft and Custer find themselves now: Danny O’Quinn Jr, Brad Coleman, Erik Darnell, Todd Kluever, Stephen Leicht and Kelly Bires, just to name a few.  It was hard to get a good read on how talented those drivers were.  All of them had results typical of developing drivers, flashes of success but inconsistently so.  A few of them, particularly Darnell and Leicht, probably deserved to have longer careers than they did.  But they were afforded so few opportunities to showcase their abilities because the focus in NASCAR’s second-tier series had turned too much toward building a program around Cup drivers.

In recent years, Cup drivers continue to dominate the win column in the XFINITY Series, but there has been a renewed focus on developing drivers for the future.  Fans were treated to a good Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year battle in 2014, and there is another strong one shaping up this year.  Aspiring drivers have gotten more opportunities to perform, and the XFINITY Series has started to really become the place where “names are made” once again.

Future success is not guaranteed for Tifft or Custer, nor should it be.  Not every young driver who shows some potential will have a long NASCAR career.  Yet there is good reason to believe that Tifft and Custer will have a better chance at succeeding than some of their predecessors.  The next step of their development could very well begin at Richmond, courtesy of teams that have ties to Sprint Cup programs.  Cup Series involvement in the XFINITY Series is going to remain a hot topic throughout the year, yet it is worth acknowledging the Cup teams that facilitate driver development.  Hopefully, the second-tier series will always be the place where “names are made.”

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