Daniel Hemric is on his way to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, as Richard Childress Racing announced earlier this week that Hemric will drive the No. 8 for the team in his Cup debut at Richmond Raceway in a little less than a month.
There’s a bit to unpack here, some of which has already been done elsewhere, whether via websites, blogs or social media. Hemric at least feels like one of the rare young stars who ground their way to the pinnacle of NASCAR rather than buying their way there, unable to rely on a famous name or a mountain of cash to get there. That’s not to say he hasn’t had help — I don’t profess to know the intricacies of his situation from his career’s start to now — but the appearance, at least, is of a driver getting a shot because of on-track potential and results, something that’s always welcome in 2018-era NASCAR (and at an organization like RCR, which has been faulted for the exact opposite in recent years).
But beyond that — and if you’ve read this space at least semi-regularly for the last two years or so — hey, how many debuts does that make this year?
To catch you up: NASCAR 101 spent a fair amount of time in 2017 following the ebb and flow of debuts on the Cup Series level. After a 2016 season that saw just four drivers start their first Cup race, 2017 ended up with 13. By season’s end, that meant 2017 was the top season for newcomers since 2004, when 16 drivers made their series debut.
Pretty cool, right? Well, don’t look now, but the series may already be on pace to best that mark in 2018.
Five races into the 2018 season, three drivers have started their first Cup race. It began with William Byron, the hot prospect for Hendrick Motorsports who took over the famed No. 24 starting with the Daytona 500. Then came Harrison Rhodes and Cole Custer, who fielded Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 (sometimes with outside help, sometimes not) at Atlanta and Las Vegas Motor Speedways, respectively.
Come Richmond, Hemric will make four, assuming two things: 1) that he makes the field (which, given that a team hasn’t failed to qualify in a Cup race yet this season, seems likely), and 2) that no one pops up in the series for the first time before then. That latter point is certainly possible, given that this weekend’s event at Martinsville Speedway is the sixth of the season and Richmond is the ninth, with two races in between at Texas and Bristol Motor Speedways.
The number 13 may seem like a far-off prospect even with four debuts through nine races, but consider this: at the ninth circuit of 2017 (also Richmond), only two of the eventual 13 had started their first race: Daniel Suarez and Cody Ware. The brunt, instead, came at the midpoint or later in the season, particularly at the road courses.
With four first-time competitors by the ninth race, that puts the 2018 season on pace for 16 debuts given the 36-race schedule, which would tie it with 2004’s lofty mark.
That year, the series had five debuts by the close of race nine. Kasey Kahne, Scott Riggs and Brendan Gaughan had each made their debuts in the Daytona 500, while Kyle Busch came two races later at Las Vegas. The fifth? Eric McClure, who debuted at Talladega Superspeedway, then the season’s ninth event.
By the end of that year, names like Carl Edwards, JJ Yeley, Travis Kvapil and most recent series champion Martin Truex Jr. would show up in the 43-car starting field. Three of those drivers still race today, and a fourth will probably be asked if he’s going to return to racing until the end of time. Not a bad crop.
So 2018 still has its work cut out for it. Barring an additional debut at Texas, Bristol or Richmond, the series will lag just behind the 2004 mark.
But even if it can’t best it, well, that’s still just fine. In 2016, just four drivers — DJ Kennington, Gray Gaulding, Ryan Reed and Dylan Lupton — joined the series’ ranks. To say it’s already about to equal that mark just a fourth of the way in is a stellar accomplishment, especially given that two of the four — Byron and Custer — are on plenty of folks’ shortlists for future stars in the sport, with Hemric oftentimes joining them.
The possible downside? Beyond Hemric, no one else has been announced as newcomers for the 2018 season (minus the rumored emergence of John Graham as part of the lineup of a second Rick Ware Racing car that has yet to materialize). But then, neither were most of the 2017 rookies either, and with three full-time teams featuring no announced permanent driver (the Nos. 00, 15 and 51), there are certainly opportunities.