NASCAR - Cup - DAYTONA 500 - 2/14/2021

The top 20 up-and-coming prospects in NASCAR

February 12

By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR reporter

Wondering which drivers in the Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series will eventually get to the NASCAR Cup Series?

Here’s a look at 20 prospects from a range of developmental series that Cup teams likely are taking a look at this season and another 25 who should be on the radar.

This list consists of drivers 28 or younger who don’t have more than a handful of Cup races (so drivers such as Daniel Hemric, Jeb Burton and Justin Allgaier are not on the list). It's all subjective and based primarily on talent, but the ability to land sponsorship is also considered, using my research and some input from a few driver scouts.

Here we go:

1. Austin Cindric (age: 22): The defending Xfinity champion for Team Penske already knows he will be in Cup in 2022, driving for Wood Brothers Racing. He has eight wins in the Xfinity Series, with six coming last year. His victories have come on road courses, short tracks and intermediate tracks. 

2. Sam Mayer (17): Mayer won a truck race at Bristol, five ARCA national series races and five ARCA East races last year. The ARCA East champion will start at JR Motorsports in an Xfinity car when he turns 18 in June. As with any driver under 18, it's difficult to know how he will do on tracks bigger than a mile.

3. Zane Smith (21): Smith has two truck victories and drove well in a limited Xfinity schedule with JR Motorsports in 2019, earning two top-5s and seven top-10s in 10 starts. The 2018 ARCA national runner-up, Smith returns to GMS Racing in a truck this year. A driver without significant funding or sponsorship, he knows that landing a Cup ride will require wins.

4. Jesse Love (16): Love has been turning heads for several years on the West Coast and won the ARCA West Series title last year, with three wins and nine top-5s in 11 races. He will defend his series title this year, continuing to run for Bill McAnally Racing.

5. Justin Haley (21): Haley has three wins in the Xfinity Series and has a Cup victory after he won the rain-shortened July 2019 race at Daytona by not pitting when the rain came out. Third in the Xfinity standings last year, he remains at Kaulig Racing eyeing a title. He will also run select Cup events for Spire Motorsports.

6. Sheldon Creed (23): Creed won five truck races last year en route to the 2020 title. He is a diverse driver with rally experience, and he won the Stadium Super Trucks title in 2016. He returns to GMS Racing to defend his truck title this year.

7. Chandler Smith (18): Smith has eight top-5s in 16 career truck starts in a limited schedule the past two years at Kyle Busch Motorsports. With nine ARCA wins in 33 career starts, this Toyota development driver will run a full truck season (now that he is 18) for KBM this season.

8. Harrison Burton (20): Burton, the 2017 East Series champion, bounced back after an uninspiring 2019 to win four Xfinity races last year in his first season at Joe Gibbs Racing. The son of former NASCAR star Jeff Burton, Harrison returns for another Xfinity season at JGR.

9. Noah Gragson (22): Gragson won two Xfinity races last year and has four career wins across Xfinity and trucks. He pledges to continue an aggressive attitude, even if that leads to mistakes. Second in the truck standings in 2018 and fifth in Xfinity in 2020, Gragson is entering his third full season at JR Motorsports. 

10. Ty Gibbs (18): The grandson of Joe Gibbs, Ty Gibbs has won eight ARCA national races in 27 starts the past two seasons. He will run a mix of races this season, including several Xfinity events for JGR.

11. Derek Kraus (19): Kraus, the 2019 West Series champion, had a respectable year in 2020, just missing the truck playoffs and finishing 11th in the standings while driving for a new team co-owned by Bill McAnally. He returns to the team this year.

12. Austin Hill (26): He has six truck wins the past two years and returns to Hattori Racing Enterprises this year for another full season in trucks. He has shown talent, but at age 26, he needs to start moving soon.

13. Hailie Deegan (19): Deegan was the first woman to win a race in the West Series, and she finished third in the standings in 2019. She was third in the ARCA national standings last year, but four top-5s in 20 races is not enough to make her a can’t-miss prospect. She will drive a full truck season at David Gilliland Racing. The Ford development driver and daughter of Moto X star Brian Deegan needs to show improvement on the intermediate tracks.

14. Todd Gilliland (20): Gilliland once was a top prospect but has won just one truck race in three full-time years in the series. Prior to 2020, he moved from Kyle Busch Motorsports to Front Row Motorsports, which has an affiliation with the Gilliland family team. He made the truck playoffs last year. 

15. Raphael Lessard (19): Lessard, a Canadian, won at Talladega last year, finishing 12th in the truck standings for Kyle Busch Motorsports. He moves to GMS Racing for the 2021 truck season.

16. Taylor Gray (15): He’s very young, but he had eight top-5s in 12 ARCA national series races last year. Obviously, he hasn’t been on a 1.5-mile track for a race, but he has shown the ability to get through races without making major mistakes. His grandfather co-owns David Gilliland Racing, and he will drive at a variety of races for the team this year.

17. Corey Heim (18): The winner of the ARCA race at Kansas last year and third in the CARS Late Model Stock Tour, he will run a full ARCA season for Venturini Motorsports.

18. Nick Sanchez (19): Third in ARCA East points last year, Sanchez returns for a second season at Rev Racing, NASCAR’s Driver for Diversity designated team.

19. Derek Griffith (24): Most of the time when Griffith gets in the car, he posts solid results. The problem is he isn’t in a car often enough to provide a good grasp on whether he is the total package. He had seven top-10s in eight ARCA national starts last season. 

20. Ben Rhodes (23): He enters his sixth season in the trucks, and though he has three victories, if he were going to move up to another series full-time, he should have done that by now. But he is still somewhat young, turning 24 later this month.

25 others to watch: Tyler Ankrum, Toni Breidenger, Brandon Brown, Rajah Caruth, Drew Dollar, Christian Eckes, Kaz Grala, Tanner Gray, Carson Hocevar, Brandon Jones, Riley Herbst, Bret Holmes, Carson Kvapil, Alex Labbe, Jesse Little, Ty Majeski, Stefan Parsons, Blaine Perkins, Layne Riggs, Sammy Smith, Myatt Snider, Gracie Trotter, Ryan Vargas, Josh Williams, Kyle Weatherman


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