Xfinity Series Preview: Drivers to Watch Now That Ty Gibbs and Noah Gragson Are Gone
In fact, the combination of returning standouts and new arrivals eager to grab their shares of the 20 victories that Gibbs, Gragson, and Allmendinger scored last season should result in quite the battle to reach the Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway.
Several in particular bear watching in the 2023 Xfinity Series season kicking off at Daytona:
Justin Allgaier and Josh Berry lead the JR Motorsports’ Xfinity Series returnees
To the surprise of no one, the JR Motorsports lineup is stacked once again. The team run by Dale Earnhardt Jr. has scored 27 victories since 2020, including three apiece last year by Justin Allgaier and Josh Berry, who made it to the Championship 4 with champion Ty Gibbs and Noah Gragson, their JRM teammate.
With Gragson having graduated to full-time Cup Series duty, Earnhardt has recruited Brandon Jones from Joe Gibbs Racing. Sam Mayer, seventh in the standings despite not winning a race, returns for his second full season.
All four are clearly capable of big things, but Allgaier and Berry are the two who’ll start the season as the drivers to beat.
Two Cup Series team owners have remade their Xfinity Series teams
Joe Gibbs Racing has produced the past two Xfinity Series champions – Daniel Hemric in 2021 and Ty Gibbs last year. Hemric left before last season to join Kaulig Racing, and Gibbs has earned his promotion to the Cup Series.
However, JGR has done a quality job reloading by giving its full-time assignments to John Hunter Nemechek and Sammy Smith. JHN is a NASCAR veteran of more than 250 starts across the three national series. Smith, 18, won six times in the 2022 ARCA Menards Series and got his feet wet with nine Xfinity starts last summer.
Kaulig Racing, which has fielded strong entries in recent years, is also reshaping its lineup following AJ Allmendinger’s promotion to full-time Cup Series duty. “Dinger,” Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, and Landon Cassill will share an “all-star car” that could easily be the best in the series, even overshadowing Hemric and Kaulig newcomer Chandler Jones, who’s making the jump from the Craftsman Truck Series.
Cole Custer has returned
Of all the remaining candidates to capture the Xfinity Series championship, two stand out.
Austin Hill, 28, paid dues for a long time in the Craftsman Truck Series before going full-time in the Xfinity Series and winning twice last season. Looking at his nine other top-five finishes and the three big names who moved on to the Cup Series, he’s a candidate to win three or four times – and that’s just on superspeedways. His overall body of work could translate into the series title.
The other intriguing competitor is Cole Custer. Demoted from the Cup Series by Stewart-Haas Racing, Custer is coming back to where he won seven times in 2019 and twice placed second in the standings. He has landed in the top 10 in 75 of his 110 career starts. If his confidence isn’t completely shot after two miserable seasons with the SHR varsity, Custer could end multiple upcoming Saturdays by driving onto Victory Lane.
Got a question or observation about racing? Sportscasting’s John Moriello does a mailbag column each Friday. Write to him at [email protected].