Compared to the 2018 NASCAR Xfinity Series season, part-time drivers didn’t fare as well in 2019. Regardless, some made the most of their opportunities this past season.
Filled with veterans, drivers who have talent but can’t find the funding to put a whole season together and fresh faces, the Xfinity part-timers showed promise against some of the series’ elite drivers. However, just two of them ended up in victory lane. One was AJ Allmendinger, his win coming on a road course at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, his specialty. The other? Ross Chastain, who drove most of the season and won at Daytona International Speedway, often a crapshoot for part- and full-time teams alike.
The Xfinity Series was extremely top heavy in 2019, and if any of these drivers were able to put a full season together, it’s quite possible they stole a victory away from one of the series regulars. After all, we’re talking about drivers running for some of the sport’s goliaths: JR Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Kaulig Racing, etc.
Of all the part-time drivers this season, it was one car that remained among the hottest comodities in the series: the No. 8 for JRM. Zane Smith, Jeb Burton, Ryan Truex, Chase Elliott, Ryan Preece, Brett Moffitt, Regan Smith, Sheldon Creed and team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. all made at least one start in the Chevrolet. Working with nine drivers, rookie crew chief Taylor Moyer had his work cut out for him.
Combined, the nine drivers had 23 top-10 finishes, better than two of JRM’s full-time drivers (Noah Gragson with 22; Michael Annett, 19). In 10 starts, Zane Smith had seven top 10s, the most of the group, with an average finish of 10.3, and his five laps led were the most by the plethora of drivers.
However, Burton had a renaissance year, rejuvenating his career by having a couple of his best outings to date in Xfinity, always a threat for a top-five finish. The NASCAR journeyman showed emotion after posting top fives at both Texas Motor Speedway (his debut in the No. 8 car) and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he pushed Kyle Busch to the win on a late-race restart. His six top-10 finishes in seven starts proved to himself and others that he can get the job done. Next season, he’ll pilot the No. 8 car for 11 races.
The best finish of the season for the No. 8 Chevrolet came in the fourth race of the season at ISM Raceway when Truex finished runner-up to Busch. In five additional starts, Truex had three top 10s with an unfortunate engine failure in his last race at Kansas Speedway. As of late December, the New Jersey driver doesn’t have any 2020 plans.
Fitting the throwback weekend moniker, Earnhardt placed fifth in his only race of the season at Darlington Raceway. Next year, his annual Xfinity start will come in March at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Speaking of Earnhardts, at Daytona in February, things looked promising for Jeffrey Earnhardt. Come the beginning of July, his best season to date was over, making just seven starts.
In the season-opening 300-miler at Daytona, Earnhardt led 29 laps. In his prior 66 starts, he had led a total of seven. With top 10s at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Texas and Charlotte, the 30-year-old finished his tenure with Joe Gibbs Racing with three top 10s, finishing a best of third. At Daytona in July, XCI Racing (aligned with JGR) withdrew from the event, only for Earnhardt to part ways from the Toyota camp in early August. He didn’t make a start the rest of the year and told Frontstretch he’s trying to put something together for next year.
Riley Herbst started a total of nine races in 2019 for JGR, recording three top-10 finishes, though no finish better than ninth. Underperforming? Maybe. But he will be full time in 2020 driving the No. 18 car, basically the equivalent to the No. 48 car in the NASCAR Cup Series.
Harrison Burton‘s nine Xfinity starts in 2019 was about getting experience, as he was competing full time in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series. Finishing the year with five top-10 finishes and a best effort of fourth at Iowa, the hyped teenager lived up to expectations for the most part, having bad luck and run-ins in a few of the races. Will we be saying the same thing next season, as he takes over the No. 20 Toyota, the same car that’s seen nothing but success the past two years with Christopher Bell?
Kaulig Racing had a couple of recognizable part-time drivers this season. Allmendinger, who had spent the past decade focusing on his Cup efforts, came back to Xfinity and ran five races in the No. 10 car. Had the team been able to pass post-race tech inspection at Daytona and Watkins Glen International, his numbers would look really nice.
Regardless, Allmendinger won at the aforementioned ROVAL while finishing third at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. He was in position for a good finish at Road America before wrecking on the final restart, resulting in a 24th-place finish. At both Daytona and WGI, he took the checkered flag inside the top five, only to get credit for finishes of 37th and 38th, respectively.
After announcing in August 2018 that it was his last full-time season, Elliott Sadler returned to the series for two races with Kaulig. In his first outing at Richmond Raceway in April, he placed 12th. At Vegas in September, he drove the No. 10 Chevrolet to a 10th-place finish, never really being a factor in either race. However, he announced Vegas was his last NASCAR race, so cheers on a solid career, pal.
Almost three years ago, Kaz Grala was standing tall in victory lane at Daytona in the Truck Series as the youngest driver to win a national touring race at the famed track. Since making the jump to Xfinity, it’s been a battle for the New Englander.
In 2019, Grala made just five starts, posting a best finish of fifth at Road America — his last outing. In the other four races, he was average at best, recording three 14th-place finishes and an 18th. Grala confirmed to Frontstretch he’s putting all the pieces together for next year, likely returning to Richard Childress Racing for a similar amount of races as this year.
Though he didn’t have a ride for the opening four months of the season, Shane Lee and startup team H2 Motorsports showed up at Iowa Speedway in June, hellbent on being the next Toyota team. It got a seventh-place finish at the second Iowa date.
After making it through Bristol just two months later, H2 had a short-lived stint in Xfinity, as Lee was released in late August, only for the team to not compete in a race the rest of the season. Multiple sources have confirmed to Frontstretch that the race shop’s doors was locked up by sheriffs.
DGM Racing has made it a staple of giving drivers opportunities in underfunded equipment, and over the past two years Alex Labbe has made the most of said opportunities. Despite only running in 10 races in 2019, the Canadian driver had an average finish of 18.6, recording a sixth-place finish at the ROVAL.
Labbe ended the season with six consecutive top-20 finishes, the best career streak by a DGM driver in seven years as a company.
In terms of drivers who overachieved for DGM, both Dillon Bassett and Ronnie Bassett Jr. come to mind. Only competing in six races, Dillon Bassett had three top-five results, including a season-best 13th at Richmond in September. Ronnie, doubling up on Dillon’s starts in the series, had a pair of top 15s at Texas and Indy. The statistics, though, aren’t always an indicative of how these drivers, specifically Ronnie, performed during a given race.
Austin Hill made just one start for a Hattori Racing Enterprises/MBM Motorsports effort, but made the most of it, finishing ninth at Indianapolis. Don’t be surprised to see the team roll out the No. 61 more frequently in 2020.
For BJ McLeod Motorsports, Stefan Parsons showed out in just five starts for the team (and also made one start for JD Motorsports with Gary Keller). With three top 20s (as most as one of the team’s full-time drivers) and a worst finish of 22nd for BMM, on paper the North Carolina native deserves more opportunities.
The only other driver to score a top-10 finish in Xfinity this season was Chris Cockrum, finishing 10th at Talladega Superspeedway, with an average finish of 20th in the three superspeedway races.