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Truckin’ Thursdays: Looking Back at the 2016 Rookie Class… So Far Part I

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The 2016 rookie class has been all but overshadowed by William Byron’s success so far this season. In fact, it’s almost hard to call him a rookie, given how well he’s run, until he makes a rookie mistake, something that’s few and far between. But with that said, there are six other drivers reaching for the spotlight this year, hoping to make their move up the NASCAR ladder.

poses for a photo at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida.
(Photo: NASCAR)

Cole Custer
No. 00 JR Motorsports Chevrolet

Starts: 18
Wins: 0
Top 5s: 5
Top 10s: 10
Average Start: 11.3
Average Finish: 11.1
DNFs: 3

Custer made 19 starts across the 2014 and ’15 seasons before joining full-time competition for this year, mainly because he was not yet old enough to compete at all of the tracks on the schedule. After finishes of 24th, 17th and 29th to open the season, the 18-year-old found himself in a deep hole to dig out of to try to put him in position to join the inaugural Chase, and as the regular season wound to a close, it became apparent that the No. 00 team would need a trip to Victory Lane to move forward in the championship battle. Well, that’s exactly what Custer had in sight as he led the final lap at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, however John Hunter Nemechek had other ideas when he pinned Custer to the wall and crossed the finish line first, denying the rookie a shot at the title.

Despite the disappointment he walked away with after Mosport, Custer has performed well in the first two races of the Chase, tallying finishes of sixth and third. Though he doesn’t get a shot at the championship this year, it’s become apparent that Custer is maturing behind the wheel and does have a bright future ahead of him. Next season, he will move to XFINITY Series competition to pilot the new Stewart-Haas Racing machine.

(Photo: NASCAR)
(Photo: NASCAR)

Christopher Bell
No. 4 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota

Starts: 18
Wins: 1
Top 5s: 8
Top 10s: 13
Average Start: 9.4
Average Finish: 10.1
DNFs: 3

Moving into the ride vacated by 2015 Champion and Rookie of the Year, Erik Jones, all eyes were on Bell to perform as well as Jones did. But instead, this season has been a bit of a roller-coaster ride that has seen him overshadowed by teammate William Byron. Coming into the year with a victory under his belt from Eldora last season, Bell’s first race ended with him – literally – flying across the finish line at Daytona, and it didn’t get much better for a couple races. He finished 26th (crash) and 19th at Atlanta and Martinsville, respectively, leaving Bell at a deficit – and outside the top 20 in points – just three races into the year. A missed shift at Texas resulted in his failure to complete a single lap before retiring to the garage, but since then, Bell has finished outside the top 10 just once (24th after a crash in Michigan).

A win at Gateway Motorsports Park proved that Bell could finish off a solid race and make it to Victory Lane, however the good news for the No. 4 team is that it would have made the Chase, even without the win, because Bell had run well enough to point his way into the field. Since the Chase began, finishes of second and sixth have him inside the top 6, ahead of the cutoff line, but given that Talladega looms, there is no breathing easy for this team. Bell has the people and the resources in place but needs to avoid trouble to move forward in the championship battle.

(Photo: NASCAR)
(Photo: NASCAR)

William Byron
No. 9 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota

Starts: 18
Wins: 6
Top 5s: 10
Top 10s: 12
Average Start: 6.1
Average Finish: 8.8
DNFs: 2

What more is there to say about the driver who has exceeded everyone’s expectations, including his own family? Byron has six wins this season and is the only Chase driver who can go into the third and final race in the Round of 8 without a concern about whether his championship hopes continue. In fact, the No. 9 team has asserted itself as the favorite to hoist the big trophy at Homestead-Miami Speedway next month. While there are still five more races to go this season, Byron has proven that he can perform, even when the truck isn’t quite handling to his liking.

The bad news for Truck Series fans – but good news for the competition – is that Byron will being moving to the XFINITY Series next season to compete with JR Motorsports, a move that many looked at as shocking since many expected Toyota would want to keep such a talented driver in its stable.

Author’s Note: Look next week for the remaining four full-time rookie contenders in Part II.

Truckin’ Tidbits:

“I have high expectations for Martinsville but I have a lot of confidence in my No. 10 team,” White said. “I think it’s very special to have a Marine in NASCAR. NASCAR, as is, is a very patriotic sport and I don’t see how much better it could get! When I spoke with Jennifer [Jo Cobb], she explained that success in NASCAR is dependent on quality of equipment and that she would give me this opportunity and put any sponsor money I could raise into my effort. I feel like this is a place where I can gain experience and be of help to the entire organization.”

  • Ben Rhodes picked up a new sponsor ahead of Martinsville Speedway. ThorSport Racing announced Wednesday that Texas Roadhouse will adorn the rookie’s No. 41 Toyota when the series returns to the short track in a few weeks. Rhodes, who will be making his third start at Martinsville, has a best finish of eighth in his debut in 2014; he finished 16th earlier this year.

“I’m honored to carry the Texas Roadhouse colors onboard my Toyota Tundra for the Texas Roadhouse 200 presented by Alpha Energy Solutions at Martinsville Speedway later this month,” said Ben Rhodes, driver of the No. 41 Toyota Tundra for ThorSport Racing. “Not only are they headquartered in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, but they have been a partner of Alpha Energy Solutions for several years now, so this is a natural fit. I look forward to an action-packed weekend for all the race fans at home and in the grandstands at one of my favorite race tracks. We had some success there in the spring, and I hope to build on that success this fall.”

(Photo: ThorSport Racing)
(Photo: ThorSport Racing)

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