Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing clearly are the class of the field in the NASCAR Xfinity Series this season.
For RCR, Tyler Reddick has won three times, including Saturday at Michigan, and sits atop the points standings. JGR has a series-leading six wins, three coming with NXS regular Christopher Bell and three more coming with Cup star Kyle Busch behind the wheel.
But this past weekend, a couple less-familiar names appeared on the entry list for the two flagship organizations. Gibbs entered Riley Herbst for just the third time this season and only the fourth NXS appearance of his career while Joe Graf Jr. was set to make his NASCAR debut with Childress.
To call the weekend disastrous for the ARCA regulars would be an understatement.
Herbst, driving the No. 18 Toyota that carries the banner for JGR, wrecked in practice on Friday, forcing him to a backup car. Then in qualifying on Saturday morning, Herbst could only muster the 30th-fastest speed, placing him behind teams with only a small fraction of the operating budget JGR can boast. Later that afternoon, Herbst wrecked just 12 laps into the race, finishing the weekend 37th in the 38-car field with two torn-up race cars.
Things were even worse for Graf. He was 17th and 16th in Friday’s practice sessions, but inexplicably timed in 35th in qualifying in RCR’s No. 21 Chevrolet, a part-time team. Without owner points to fall back on, Graf was the lone driver to fail to qualify for the race.
For NASCAR and its teams, the two young drivers’ struggles over the weekend highlight a bigger problem.
Both just 20 years old with very little NASCAR experience between them, Herbst and Graf have been shuttled up to the sport’s No. 2 series in top-tier equipment because of the financial backing they are able to bring. Herbst has connections with the energy drink company that makes Monster and NOS while Graf has support from apparel company Eat, Sleep, Race.
I don’t blame the young racers for taking advantage of the opportunities this cash flow brings, because I’d drive a race car for a living, too, if I had the chance.
But while things add up in the checkbook for them, the math doesn’t work out on the stat sheet.
Herbst is coming off two fulltime ARCA campaigns with Gibbs, and is in the midst of a partial slate in the series again this year. But in 44 career ARCA races in some of the best equipment the series has to offer, he has just one win and a ninth-place average finish in a series that sometimes fields fewer than 20 cars in a race, with half or less of those actually being competitive.
Graf, driving for an organization that won an ARCA title in 2016, has been even worse. His lone win in 28 career starts came courtesy of controversially wrecking the leader on the last lap and his average finish is just outside the top 10.
It’s hard to defend those results in a lower series translating to big-time NASCAR opportunities in winning-caliber race cars, but the money makes it happen. Neither Herbst nor Graf are at fault, but instead the focus should fall on a modern-day NASCAR environment where only millionaires really can afford to compete and the independents are largely left in the cold.
Still yet, some of those small-time, family-owned teams put drivers in the top half of the field on Saturday — JD Motorsports’ Ross Chastain (14th) and B.J. McLeod (19th), Jeremy Clements (15th) and Ryan Sieg (17th) in self-owned equipment, and Tommy Joe Martins (18th) driving for McLeod among them.
In fact, Sieg has six top 10 finishes and currently sits in a playoff spot this season.
“Cost-saving measures” typically are a dubious term in NASCAR, but something needs to give. Stock car racing needs a playing field where true talent can shine above money.
Justin Epley is a sports writer for The News Herald. He can be reached at email@example.com or 828-432-8943.