FOX NASCAR Insider
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The top-five drivers in my preseason prospect list all have one thing in common — you will see them all in the Xfinity Series this year.
Even the driver at the top of the list will get a decent number of races, as Corey Heim will add to a full-time truck schedule with several Xfinity races.
These drivers might not be in the top five for long. Maybe the only reason the drivers in sixth and seventh on the list are that “low” is because they have yet to race stock cars on big ovals because of their age.
Speaking of age, a few parameters: This list consists of drivers 28 or younger who don’t have more than a handful of Cup races and don’t have a full-time Cup ride (so drivers such as Austin Hill, Ty Majeski, Justin Allgaier, Anthony Alfredo, etc. are not on this list). It’s all subjective and based on the age of the driver, talent and results shown and how quickly a driver is moving up into another series. The ability to land sponsorship is also considered. This is from my research and some input from select driver scouts.
1. Corey Heim (age: 21; previous ranking: 2): Heim earned three wins in trucks last year while also leading the series with 12 top-5s and 19 top-10s (in 22 races as he missed one race because of sickness). Another sign of his ability as a driver at a young age: He had just one race where he did not finish. Heim returns to Tricon with hopes of a Championship 4 return this season and will drive select events in Xfinity for Sam Hunt Racing. And he’ll also have a Cup role — as the simulator driver for Legacy Motor Club and reserve driver for Legacy and 23XI Racing.
2. Sam Mayer (age: 20; previous ranking: 9): Mayer earned four victories in the Xfinity Series and it probably could have been more. Just how fast was Mayer last year? He won 13 stages, more than any other Xfinity driver. Just how improved was Mayer last year? He had 13 top-5s in 33 starts (39 percent) in 2023 after just 12 in his first 51 (24 percent) from 2021-22; looking at top-10s, he had 19 in 33 races (57 percent) last year after 23 in the first 51 (45 percent). Mayer returns for a fourth season (third full time) at JR Motorsports.
3. Chandler Smith (age: 21; previous ranking: 4): Smith won three times and finished ninth in the Xfinity standings, but it didn’t come without some drama as things soured some at Kaulig Racing and he had to negotiate his way out of a release so he could sign with Joe Gibbs Racing for this year. He is going to be in solid equipment and the pressure is on to match or do better than he did in 2023.
Chandler Smith reflects on his 2023 performance and his transition to Joe Gibbs Racing this year
4. Sammy Smith (age: 19; previous ranking: 5): Smith won early in his rookie season by capturing the race at Phoenix in the fourth race of the year and then got in a good-but-not-great funk at Joe Gibbs Racing. He managed just six top-5s but did have 15 top-10s for the season in Xfinity. Accidents, though, ended his day five times. He has moved to JR Motorsports for 2024 and if he does well, likely has enough sponsorship to make him an easier sell to Cup teams than some others.
5. Jesse Love (age: 19; previous ranking: 6): Love owned the ARCA Series last season with 10 wins in 20 races on his way to the championship. He parlayed that into a full-time Xfinity ride at Richard Childress Racing. It took him a while to get into the flow of ARCA as he won two races in 28 starts over the three previous seasons. He might need to show that type of patience in Xfinity, too, but now he has a little more confidence after a breakout season.
6. Connor Zilisch (age: 17; previous ranking: 19): As mentioned above, Zilisch probably would be higher except he hasn’t been able yet to race on intermediate and superspeedway ovals. He already signed with Trackhouse during the offseason as a development driver. He was part of the winning team a few weeks ago in his class at the Rolex 24 At Daytona (so he obviously knows how to go fast). He earned several road-racing victories last year in Mazda MX5-Cup and Trans-Am racing. He will drive a combination of CARS tour, ARCA, trucks and Xfinity races over the next two years. With Trackhouse support, expect those rides to come in solid Chevrolet equipment.
7. Brent Crews (age: 15; previous ranking: 10): Crews turns 16 next month and continues his climb in building on his resume which includes being the youngest winner and youngest champion in Trans-Am history. In four ARCA races last year, he earned one win as his first three starts resulted in finishes of third, first and second. He was signed a couple of years ago by Kevin Harvick Inc. and would expect to see him in more ARCA races this year and other stock-car events where his age won’t keep him from competing.
Sammy Smith talks about moving from Joe Gibbs Racing to JR Motorsports in the offseason
8. Christian Eckes (age: 23; previous ranking: 13): Eckes got kicked in the gut after the 2022 season when he was released by ThorSport Racing to make room for Hailie Deegan. He landed a ride at the relatively new McAnally-Hilgemann Racing and promptly delivered a season where he earned the organization’s first four victories, which tied him for best in the series. He finished fifth in the standings (he didn’t make the Championship 4) and he’s looking at 2024 as a championship-or-bust season as he has continuity with another year at MHR.
9. William Sawalich (age: 17; previous ranking: 8): Sawalich won four of his 13 ARCA races — and finished in the top-5 in 11 of those 13 — for an impressive 2023. He still has a learning curve ahead of him as he started six truck races for Tricon with mixed results, including a solid sixth at IRP and a ninth at Martinsville. He will run a similar schedule of a mix of races as well as several Xfinity races for Joe Gibbs Racing after he turns 18 in October.
10. Nick Sanchez (age: 22; previous ranking: 7): This is a pivotal year for Sanchez, who went winless as a rookie in trucks last year driving for Rev Racing. But he did post 12 top-10s, showing he does have some speed while needing a little more race craft. That often comes with experience, and Sanchez will be driving the same trucks he did last year — although they now are built by Spire Motorsports instead of Kyle Busch Motorsports. And he has a new crew chief who is used to working with young drivers as Kevin “Bono” Manion takes over his team.
11. Layne Riggs (age 21; previous ranking: NR): How did Riggs, son of former Cup driver Scott Riggs, go from being off this list to No. 11? He didn’t have a full-time ride in the middle of last year and his career didn’t seem to have any stability. Fast-forward after some strong runs in Xfinity (a 10th at Vegas and 11th at Martinsville driving for Kaulig) and trucks (third at IRP driving for Spire) and Front Row Motorsports tabbed Riggs for its championship-caliber ride. Riggs, the 2022 NASCAR national weekly series champion, knows how to get to victory lane — he has won six CARS Tour late model stock events.
12. Carson Kvapil (age: 20; previous ranking: 12): The son of former Cup driver Travis Kvapil, Carson Kvapil has won two CARS Tour late model stock championships and drives big late model events for JR Motorsports. You shouldn’t be surprised if he ends up in a JR Motorsports car in some Xfinity races this year.
13. Riley Herbst (age: 24; previous ranking: NR): Herbst enters his fifth year in the Xfinity Series and he fell off this list previously because he didn’t win. Well, he won the Xfinity race at Las Vegas late last year and he’s back on this list. If he had made the playoffs, he might have played a big role in the championship as his finishes in the final seven races were eighth, 37th, fourth, first, second, fourth and fourth. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver would easily make the playoffs with those type of finishes. But he does need to lead more laps — he only led in six events last year.
14. Taylor Gray (age: 18; previous ranking: 11): Gray had a little bit disappointing of a rookie truck season with an average finish of 14.6 in his 20 races at Tricon. It’s not rare for young drivers to have an off-year, and he still has great potential as he returns for a second season in trucks. He won three ARCA races in 2022 and finished top-five in two of his three ARCA races last year.
15. Jade Avedisian (age: 17; previous ranking: 15): Avedisian became the first woman to win a national dirt midget championship as her five victories last year carried her to the 2023 Xtreme Outlaw Midget title — in a year that started with her making the Chili Bowl main event as a rookie. Toyota has her under a multiyear deal where she will compete in major dirt midget events this year while also beginning the transition to Cup with the Toyota GR Cup Series on road courses.
Jade Avedisian discusses her national title and the other successes that came with it
16. Katie Hettinger (age: 16; previous ranking: 14): Hettinger earned seven top-5 finishes and finished second in the CARS Tour pro late model division — a solid year but one without a victory. She will return to the series this year but with a family-run team. She has some Chevrolet support and this will be a big season to see how she develops returning to tracks for a second (or third or more) time.
17. Rajah Caruth (age: 21; previous ranking: 17): With just four top-10s, it was a tough rookie season in trucks for Rajah Caruth as GMS Racing was in its final year of operation. He will get another season in the series this season driving for Spire Motorsports with the experienced Chad Walter atop the box. Caruth, one of only two full-time Black drivers in NASCAR national series racing, will need to show improvement now that he has experience at all the tracks on the circuit.
18. Brodie Kostecki (age: 26; previous ranking: NR): With Shane van Gisbergen making the move from Supercars in Australia to NASCAR, does that mean others could make the move as well? If teams start looking over to Australia, Kostecki could be one as he captured six victories last year on his way to the series crown. He made his Cup debut on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course last year driving for Richard Childress Racing. But he also has some oval experience, having run in the ARCA East Series in 2014. Kostecki, who currently is in a dispute and not racing for his Supercars team, could run additional Cup races this year for RCR.
19. Luke Fenhaus (age: 19; previous ranking: 16): Fenhaus won two ARCA East races (including one that doubled as an ARCA national series victory) and finished second in the East standings last year. Despite running well, he hasn’t been able to land sponsorship this year, so likely will run big late-model races when he can. How well respected is his talent among those in the know? He is the only young driver in this top 20 without a full-time contract for this year, something that typically would keep someone off this list.
20. Isabella Robusto (age: 19; previous ranking: 19): Robusto’s 2023 season got cut short because of injuries that included a concussion resulting from a hard crash. Toyota still has big plans and hopes for her, so she keeps her spot on this list as she attempts a comeback racing late models in 2024. She will make her ARCA debut in March at Phoenix.
25 others to watch: Toni Breidinger, Sheldon Creed, Corey Day, Hailie Deegan, Jake Drew, Daniel Dye, Broc Feeney, Jake Finch, Jake Garcia, Tanner Gray, Sean Hingorani, Kaden Honeycutt, Brandon Jones, Conner Jones, Derek Kraus, Caden Kvapil, Treyten Lapcevich, Matt Mills, Andres Perez de Lara, Brenden Queen, Parker Retzlaff, Ben Rhodes, Gio Ruggiero, Lavar Scott and Kyle Weatherman.
Hailie Deegan explains why AM Racing and the Xfinity Series are the best fit for her
Bob Pockrass covers NASCAR for FOX Sports. He has spent decades covering motorsports, including over 30 Daytona 500s, with stints at ESPN, Sporting News, NASCAR Scene magazine and The (Daytona Beach) News-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @bobpockrass.
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