While the focus during the offseason is on which drivers will fill what seats in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks, there’s also a lot taking place for younger drivers seeking to reach NASCAR’s top levels someday.
Toyota Racing Development spends the end of the year evaluating talent and seeing what roles those drivers can have in the coming season.
“When I look at kind of that 16- to 21-year old group … there’s some pretty fantastic talent in that group,” Jack Irving, whose duties at Toyota Racing Development include overseeing the organization’s driver development program, told NBC Sports earlier this month. “(Also) we’ve literally tested 14- and 15-year olds that I’m extremely excited about in the same way.”
The question is where might that talent go if it remains in Toyota’s pipeline.
Toyota has five Cup seats with three filled by drivers who competed in the championship race this season — 2019 champion Kyle Busch, runner-up Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin, who placed fourth in the points. Toyota’s other two Cup seats are filled by budding stars Erik Jones (23 years old) and 2020 Cup rookie Christopher Bell (24).
Joe Gibbs Racing’s 2020 Xfinity lineup includes Brandon Jones, who turns 23 in February. This will be his third consecutive season with JGR. Joining him is Riley Herbst, who turns 21 in February, for his first full season with the team, and 19-year-old Harrison Burton for his rookie campaign.
Kyle Busch Motorsports will have 18-year-old Raphael Lessard compete full time in 2020 after running five races for the team this past season. The team also will have 19-year-old Christian Eckes, who won the ARCA title this past season, drive full time. He made eight starts in 2019 and four starts for the organization in 2018. A third truck will feature several drivers. Chandler Smith, who doesn’t turn 18 until June and is limited in what tracks he can run before then, likely will run some races for the team.
Then there’s Derek Kraus, the 18-year-old who won the title in what is now known as the ARCA West Series. There’s also 18-year-old Hailie Deegan, who finished third in points in the ARCA West Series and shows signs of climbing NASCAR’s ranks. And Ty Gibbs, the 17-year-old grandson of car owner Joe Gibbs, who won twice in ARCA and once each in what is now ARCA East and ARCA West Series in 2019. Many others are in the pipeline, which stretches to the formidable Keith Kunz Motorsports midget teams.
As each season nears an end, the work increases for Toyota Racing Development to evaluate drivers and where they will race for next year. The competition can be intense.
“I think there is a point here somewhere quickly where you get pushed pretty hard to start winning and competing,” Irving said, “to compete for top five in all the races and not have wrecked cars and do all these things and then also be a good teammate and a good person and all those kinds of things that you don’t necessarily always talk about that are pretty important for what we do from a structure perspective.”
Another key factor can be how a young driver ends a season, even if it doesn’t end in a championship.
“You typically want to see them under pressure, so the end of the season really does matter in the whole scheme of things,” Irving said. “If they’ve had a tough season, how are they finishing? If they’re having a good season, then how are they finishing?
And there’s more that is examined.
“We typically go through an analytics run through with the group,” Irving said. “A few of us will get together and kind of go through … some of the things from the coaches, some of the things from the engineers who work with them and what they’ve done with the team, so we’ll start talking to the individuals in the team, if it’s the team owner, if it’s crew chief, car chief.”
It’s all about seeking to find the next talent for the Cup Series.
2. New Generation
Based on what driver lineups that are set for next year, the 2020 Daytona 500 could see half the field age 29 and younger.
Drivers who will be age 29 and under as of next year’s Daytona 500 (Feb. 16) and have rides announced are:
Age 23: Erik Jones
Age 25: Christopher Bell
Age 28: Matt DiBenedetto
One also can add Corey LaJoie (age 28), Ross Chastain (27), Parker Kligerman (29) with the expectation they will each be in a Cup car for next year’s season-opening race. That would put the list at 20 drivers age 29 and under in next year’s Daytona 500. And there could be even more, including Daniel Suarez, who turns 28 in January, and John Hunter Nemechek, 22.
Compare that to 2015 when there were 13 drivers age 29 and under in that year’s season opener.
3. 99 Club
Five drivers completed at least 99% of the 10,255 laps run this season in Cup, the first time any driver has reached that mark since 2015.
Joey Logano led the way, completing 99.67% of the laps (10.221). That’s the highest percentage of laps completed by a driver since 2010 when Matt Kenseth ran 99.93% of the laps. Kenseth ran all but eight of the 10,778 laps run that year.
4. Ticket deals
With all the sales for Black Friday and Cyber Monday, many tracks also have announced special deals for tickets to NASCAR races this coming season.
NBC Sports’ Daniel McFadin has compiled what deals many tracks have starting today. You can find the information here.
5. Banquet week
The NASCAR Awards Show, which will celebrate Kyle Busch’s championship, takes place next week in Nashville, Tennessee. Festivities will be Dec. 3-5 with the Awards show taking place Dec. 5.
NBCSN will air Burnouts on Broadway at 11:30 p.m. ET on Dec. 4. and replay it at 7 p.m. ET Dec. 5. NBCSN will air the Cup Awards show from 8-10:30 p.m. ET on Dec. 5 with a replay immediately afterward.
The Xfinity Awards show will air from 9-11 p.m. ET on Sunday (Dec. 1) on NBCSN.