A Big Step
By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR reporter
Anthony Alfredo knows he only has 32 career NASCAR national series starts and he could use more time to get prepared to race full-time in the NASCAR Cup Series.
But racing isn’t exactly a sport where the path is conveniently paved. So instead of taking more time to learn in a developmental series, he will learn from the top with a Front Row Motorsports organization that was looking for a driver with potential and some sponsors.
The 21-year-old Alfredo had that, making his lack of experience an acceptable risk.
Alfredo will compete in the Front Row No. 38 Cup car for the 2021 season, as he brings some of his partners to join existing team sponsors (all to be announced later) for the full season.
It is a somewhat risky proposition on both sides. But sometimes risks are necessary for drivers to continue careers and for organizations to field cars.
"I know it’s a big step," Alfredo said. "I’m not going into it with some sort of unrealistic expectations. I know I’m going to have to learn and there’s going to be a lot to learn.
"But I’m excited for the challenge."
He joins a rookie class that could be just him and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe, both of whom don’t have a Cup start. NASCAR also could add Ross Chastain (79 career Cup starts but never having earned points in the series) to that group, as NASCAR no longer has specific parameters to determine who competes for Rookie of the Year honors, making the decision on a driver-by-driver basis.
Briscoe and Chastain would be 1-2 in the "newcomer" rankings for 2021. They both are racing for organizations that frequently make the playoffs. Briscoe, with his nine Xfinity wins last year and 11 in his career, likely would rank ahead of Chastain, who has two career Xfinity wins in 191 starts, but does have that somewhat extensive Cup experience, albeit in primarily underfunded equipment.
The 21-year-old Alfredo doesn’t have the wins nor the experience. He will learn as he goes, as he fights for respect on the Cup side.
"It’s going to be a big learning curve no doubt," Alfredo said. "I’m just going to go out there and be patient and learn every week and get better."
It is evident that Alfredo could be biting off more than he can chew, but with the funding he had, he believes this is the best opportunity. He drove part-time in the Xfinity Series last year for Richard Childress Racing, with two top five finishes and nine top 10 finishes in 19 races. He has a base in internet racing and hasn’t run a full national series season. His last full season came in 2018, where he competed in all 14 races of the ARCA East schedule in 2018, with one win, nine top-10s and a fifth-place finish in the standings.
Now, he faces a grueling, 36-race Cup season that can be merciless on a driver who struggles, giving little time to regroup. The 2021 season will have only eight events where drivers will get to practice, with the 28 other races as show-up-and-race.
While it would seem that Alfredo should have landed at least another part-time Xfinity ride with whatever funding he had, he indicated that he didn’t have a ride lined up when John Hunter Nemechek announced in late November that he wouldn’t return to Front Row Motorsports and instead would race at truck for Kyle Busch Motorsports.
"It was the best opportunity that presented itself," Alfredo said. "Some of those [part-time] rides weren’t available. We definitely didn’t settle.
"I have people who believe in me, and I feel like that’s the first step to success, people who believe in each other."
Nemechek’s departure sent the organization into a little bit of a scramble. It had not signed Nemechek but was hoping to do that in November. Now, it has another rookie, but it also has a fleet of cars that is deep enough with several new cars from the last couple of years.
Front Row Motorsports general manager Jerry Freeze said they talked to "pretty much everybody you could imagine who didn’t have something set up."
Freeze said what Alfredo has done in limited opportunities shows promise and Freeze is interested to see how it goes.
"It was kind of tough because John Hunter had some sponsorship that he had brought to the table, so that was going to be gone once he was gone," Freeze said.
"We were having some challenges with some of our partners, so you really had to find a good fit – somebody the partners we had remaining would embrace. But if [the driver] had some partnerships to bring the table too, that would help."
Nemechek had a feast-or-famine kind of year with 13 top-20 finishes, but also five races where he failed to finish, ending up 27th in the Cup standings, four spots behind teammate Michael McDowell.
"We’re planning on being no worse competitive-wise than we were last year and hopefully better," Freeze said. "Hopefully he’s up to the challenge for that, too ... There probably won’t be the flashy, shiny moments we had with John Hunter.
"There’s probably not going to be as many of the low, low moments with the car coming in on the hook – and probably will be somewhere very close to the same proximity in the point standings at the end of the year."
Alfredo figures he can learn about Cup racing – especially road courses – from McDowell, and when the new car comes in 2022, have a little bit of a foundation.
"I’m not going into this to go out there and ride around," Alfredo said.
"As it’s always been, I’m going to give it my best effort and try to be as competitive as possible ... I want to make everybody proud and let them know we made the right choice."
Stat of Note
Alfredo will start his rookie season at 21 years old, while Chase Briscoe will be 26. Ross Chastain is 28.
They Said It
"Jill was the best candidate hands down for the job. That’s why we chose her ... Her skill, her leadership ability, and her great ability and insight was important for us." – Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith on hiring Jill Gregory as Sonoma Raceway GM