Back in February, Noah Gragson didn’t puff out his chest and say he should be on this top-20 ranking.
“I just want to make the best of the rest,” he said a week after his victory in a truck series race at Kansas Speedway.
But Gragson now finds himself in the top-20 of my latest prospect rankings. With racing about to pick up for many of these drivers during the summer, it seemed like the right time to adjust the rankings for the first part of 2018.
Gragson didn’t make the initial list (top-20 or others to watch), based on stats from last year. He noted that stats only tell part of the story — but this is a results-oriented business — and the Kyle Busch Motorsports driver said he used to put more stock in lists such as this one (there are many others, such as those done by Speed51 or by motorsports analytics guru David Smith) than he does now.
“When 15 or 16, … [I] haven’t raced these guys and not a lot of people know who I am still, and I have to try to make a name for myself,” Gragson said. “That’s when you’re super aware of your surroundings and what people are saying about you.
“As I’ve gotten older in the last year or two, I kind of know who I am personally and I know what I am capable of. I think it transitions to that ignoring factor of just trying to be the best I can be and the rest will take care of itself.”
There was a time last year when Gragson wasn’t sure if he would be on this prospect rankings list. Kyle Busch talked with him in August to tell him he needed to improve.
“Kyle sat me down in his office and I was like, ‘Oh s— I’m done, he’s going to tell me after this year you’re not coming back,'” Gragson said. “He sat me down and said, ‘Listen man, you’ve got to get your s— together. You’ve got to start running up front, you’ve got to start maintaining and leading these race and not giving these races away.’
“That was a rude awakening for myself. I need to take a look in the mirror real quick, figure out who I am, what I need to do. That helped me a lot.”
Gragson won Martinsville later that year in 2017. And he’s thriving so far in 2018.
Notes: These are drivers who could eventually make it to the Cup series, but aren’t currently there. This list does not include anyone with more than 10 races in Cup, which means drivers such as Ryan Truex and Brett Moffitt aren’t on it. We will update this list periodically throughout the year.
1. Christopher Bell, age 23, (Last Ranking: 1st): With one Xfinity win and third in the standings this year, there’s still no reason to doubt Bell or his talent.
2. Todd Gilliland, 18, (2nd): He won both his K&N East starts and has two top-10s in trucks already this year. Now that Gilliland can be full-time trucks at 18, the key will be to improve on those finishes.
3. Cole Custer, 20, (3rd): He’s sixth in the Xfinity standings with one top-5 finish. Maybe not the best start, but we’ll keep Custer in this spot.
4. Ryan Preece, 27, (4th): He has one win and three top-10s in three Xfinity starts. Preece is old by prospect standards, but if he continues to run top-5 in Xfinity races, he could have a shot.
5. Daniel Hemric, 27, (6th): He has four top-5s in 10 Xfinity starts and is fourth in the standings. Hemric’s age and maturity helps.
6. Tyler Reddick, 22, (7th): He won at Daytona and ranks second in Xfinity points. Reddick would like more than two top-5s.
7. John Hunter Nemechek, 20, (10th): He has a win in trucks and one top-5 in six Xfinity starts. The fact Ganassi was willing to have Nemechek sub for Kyle Larson when Larson was out means the team has liked what it has seen.
8. Harrison Burton, 17, (5th): He dropped in the rankings because he just hasn’t raced as often as many of the others. He has a top-5 and a top-10 in his two truck starts and two top-5s in East races.
9. Kyle Benjamin, 20, (8th): He hasn’t raced much, but Benjamin has an eighth-place finish in his one Xfinity start and placed second in the truck race at Martinsville.
10. Noah Gragson, 19, (new): He has two top-5s and an average finish of 4.3 in three Xfinity races, plus a truck win at Kansas.
11. Zane Smith, 18, (new): He has three ARCA wins and leads the standings in that series.
12. Ben Rhodes, 21, (18th): Three top-5s and five top-10s in trucks has Rhodes fourth in the series. He looks to be improving and much more consistent.
13. Chase Briscoe, 23, (9th): He’s had a rough start to 2018 with an average finish of 18.2 in five Xfinity races. Still like this former ARCA champ’s rĂ©sumĂ©.
14. Tanner Thorson, 22, (17th): This sprint-car driver has two top-5s in CARS Late Models as he learns to drive on the asphalt. Thorson’s also getting a shot in a truck for select races.
15. Sheldon Creed, 20, (16th): He has five top-5s in six ARCA starts; he’s second in that series.
16. Chandler Smith, 15, (12th): He has two top-5s and two poles in three ARCA starts. He’s fast, but can Smith finish? He has plenty of time at such a young age.
17. Ty Majeski, 23, (11th): He hasn’t finished any of his three Xfinity starts for Roush Fenway.
18. Derek Kraus, 16, (new): He won the K&N West opener and has three top-5s in four West starts. Not afraid to use the bumper.
19. Hailie Deegan, 16, (new): She will get every chance and has impressed for being relatively steady.
20. Logan Seavey, 20, (new): He leads the USAC national midget points and apparently wants a shot in stock cars.
Note: Presented in alphabetical order; *-new to overall list