The day is March 6, 2020. This column posits that the NASCAR Xfinity Series is off to its best start in six years when it comes to debuting drivers, thanks to an influx of newcomers that saw six racers make their first Xfinity starts in the first four races of the 2020 season.
“…it’s a fairly good indication of what could be to come in 2020 when it comes to new blood in NASCAR’s secondary series,” the naive little baby who wrote that column said. “2020 is currently trending well ahead of 2019’s debuts, and that was a year that saw 24 between February and November, the highest count since 2015’s 25.”
Oh, seven months ago. What a time you were.
Since then, just seven drivers have added their names to the list of Xfinity debuts, making for 13 entering the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL this weekend, with five races left in the 2020 season.
What was formerly a potentially record-setting season for new blood in the series instead now may very well be the lowest count, well, ever.
Since the Xfinity Series began in its present iteration in 1982, the lowest count for debuts in a season was 18, achieved in 2013. In only one other season — 1990 — did that number dip below 20, with 19 debuts that year.
Unless the series pulls off five debuts between now and the season-ending race at Phoenix Raceway, 2020 will set a new record. And given that no one’s currently scheduled to debut at Charlotte and there are no announced debuts in the series through the end of the season, things aren’t looking good.
Make no mistake, it’s not like the new driver pool has been shallow in 2020 in terms of sheer talent and/or potential. This year, Myatt Snider and Anthony Alfredo have both made their series debuts, and road racing ace Earl Bamber appeared for the first time as well. While none of the pure newcomers have made a crazy splash this year, there’s reason to believe that quite a few of them will continue on in the sport for years to come.
And it’s not just Xfinity, either. Next weekend at Kansas Speedway, Hailie Deegan will become just the eighth driver to make her first start Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series in 2020. That’s a staggeringly low count that is vastly smaller than the previous lowest, 2017, when 19 drivers debuted.
Yes, just eight. And the first didn’t even occur until well past the start of the pandemic, when Ryan Huff strapped in for Reaume Brothers Racing at Kansas in late June. Two of those — Trevor Bayne and Conor Daly — are also drivers who had raced in series higher on the totem pole than the Truck Series pre-2020.
While one can’t provide a definitive reason as to why this has happened in 2020, there does seem to be a clear hypothesis: the COVID-19 pandemic decimated budgets for would-be newcomers. I mean, look — despite both the Xfinity and Truck series raising field counts to 40 in order to accommodate more teams during a trying time, the numbers are down, and oftentimes it seems that those who already had a foot in the door are the ones able to continue coming to the track each week.
To an extent that makes sense. Sometimes these new deals for up-and-coming drivers materialize midway through or later in the season rather than at its start. Sponsors may be even less willing than ever before to chance their money on a potentially unproven talent when there’s less money to go around anyway due to a global pandemic. Self-funded drivers, too, may hit roadblocks for the same reason, the leftover funds to go race being needed elsewhere instead.
Similarly, there are less teams around to even accommodate these drivers. In Xfinity alone, there are virtually just 46 different teams that have attempted a race in 2020, when one accounts for number sharing, changes and the like. That’s even less than the Cup Series has been able to pull this year. And the Truck Series is better, but not by much, with 52.
There have been times in both series’ histories that races have had single-race entry counts larger than what these series have been able to accumulate throughout a single season.
Without an end to this pandemic on the horizon, chances seem to be that both series will experience all-time lows in 2020, while 2021 may not be much better — though Sam Mayer has already been announced for an Xfinity debut sometime in 2021, and Austin Cindric should make his first Cup start at some point as well.
(One final note. Speaking of the Cup Series? Just four debuts all year thus far. But that isn’t as irregular; both 2009 and 2016 saw the same amount. It is, however, a far cry from 2019’s count of 10.)
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