As the 2016 NASCAR season comes to a close, the driver line-ups for each of the top three divisions are falling into place.
For the XFINITY Series, 2017 will feature plenty of changes, including a handful of rookies advancing from the Camping World Truck Series. Among the new names in the will be Cole Custer and Daniel Hemric, who make the jump with fresh teams after spending several seasons in each of their current situations.
While there are changes coming for the XFINITY Series, it means the Truck Series will also have a few new drivers. However, the focus is on the XFINITY Series, with several drivers in the running for an eventual job in NASCAR’s premier series.
Speaking of Sprint Cup, Carl Edwards is on his way to competing for a title. The 27-time Cup Series winner has more top 10s through 29 races this year than he’s had in any season since 2013.
For Edwards, the move to Joe Gibbs Racing started off as one that was quite difficult. The veteran had an up and down start with the Toyota organization, barely topping results from his final season with Roush Fenway Racing. However, he is settling in quite well with the team, and instead of over-driving, he is consistently qualifying well and leading laps.
Q: There are going to be some new XFINITY Series drivers next year, but who stands out? – Martha C., Los Angeles.
Custer officially makes the move to Stewart-Haas Racing after spending spending the majority of the past three years with JR Motorsports. The partnership with JRM occurred due to Custer’s father, SHR Executive Vice President Joe Custer, convincing team co-owner Gene Haas to invest in his son. Evidently, the investment has been a risky one.
Custer’s career highlights thus far include a pair of Truck Series victories, along with a wonderful tackle on John Hunter Nemechek in Canada earlier this year. With high expectations while competing with JRM, he missed the Chase, going winless thus far in 2016.
Though Custer is not racing for a title in the Truck Series, he made three XFINITY Series this year as he prepares to go full-time next year. In his first two contests at Richmond International Raceway and Charlotte Motor Speedway, he started outside of the top 10. However, throughout the race, he methodically piloted his No. 5 car through the field, taking advantage of late cautions during both races to earn a sixth-place finish and a fourth-place result, respectively.
As he moves to SHR finally, the pressure will be quite high considering the team is hiring extra employees and creating a developmental program essentially dedicated to him.
As Custer leaves JRM, the team is picking up current Truck Series points leader Byron, who has six wins this season. The young hotshot moves to Chevrolet after getting a chance with Kyle Busch Motorsports. However, since Toyota has plenty of prospects, he made the move to jump ship and go to Chevy with Hendrick Motorsports, giving him a clear path to the Cup Series.
However, Byron has yet to step into an XFINITY Series car in race conditions, making it quite interesting to see how he will perform with JRM next year.
For Hemric, the move to Richard Childress Racing comes as a shocking one considering it seemed like he would stay in the Penske family, following in Ryan Blaney’s footsteps. But that isn’t the case.
The former Late Model standout earned an opportunity with Brad Keselowski Racing this season after a solid rookie year with NTS Motorsports, which featured four top 5s and 13 top 10s. But like Byron, he hasn’t competed in the XFINITY Series, making it highly unknown how he will perform. However, he fills a seat that was rumored to go to Nemechek, taking advantage of the sponsorship he finally has after years of desperately searching for partners.
Finally, there’s the unknown of the second Team Penske car. The team has yet to name a driver for the car, but it could go to either a rookie driver or a current Sprint Cup one who might drop down to the XFINITY Series.
But the problem is: The only Sprint Cup drivers without a ride for 2017 as of now are ones who either have limited funding or will likely re-sign with their current teams. There is also the possibility that one of the current XFINITY Series drivers could jump ships and land at Team Penske, giving it an established driver who can compete for a title.
Q: Will Carl Edwards stay with Joe Gibbs Racing, or is it possible he could one day switch teams? – Zach C.
A: Edwards, 37, could be entering the prime of his career just like Matt Kenseth did when he departed Roush for JGR.
The veteran has an average finish of 12.6 this year, the best he’s been since finishing runner-up in the 2011 title battle to Tony Stewart in a tie-breaker. With the exception of the past five races, he has consistently been running in the top 10 and competing for wins.
However, after dominating early in the season, Edwards has slowed down quite a bit. 551 of his 773 laps led came in three straight races during the spring at Texas (124 laps led), Bristol (276 laps led) and Richmond (151 laps led).
But this season is different for Edwards, who is showing he has settled into a JGR team that made room for one of NASCAR’s most popular drivers. His relaxed mentality fits perfectly within the JGR quadruplet, which has gone from a team that has high tempers to one that is quite relaxed.
While Edwards has a long way to go in order to get back to his 2007-2011 self, there is potential for him to not only win more races at JGR, but possibly a championship.
He’s signed with JGR through 2017, along with primary sponsor ARRIS. While JGR has a full stable as of now, one of the drivers will have to eventually leave to make room for prospects Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones.
The goal for Edwards to compete for JGR for the rest of his career. However, anything could happen. Who thought he would actually leave Roush after he became a star because of the organization?
Anything can happen, but don’t expect to see him leave, if at all, for quite some time.
Have a question? Email me at Joseph.Wolkin@Gmail.com or message me on Twitter at@JosephNASCAR and make sure to check back next week when we’ll answer your questions on all things NASCAR.
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