#BobsBigBoard: As clear as a Bell

NASCAR

Christopher Bell didn’t win the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship, but it’s hard not to keep him atop this list of prospects who could make it (and star) at the NASCAR Cup series level.

A driver who won seven Xfinity races during the season — including two companion races that included Cup drivers — as a series rookie shows he has what it takes to make it to the next level.

He won’t race much in Cup next year as Joe Gibbs Racing wants him to continue to develop in the Xfinity Series and didn’t want him to lose any confidence running for Leavine Family Racing as it switched to Toyota after a frustrating year in 2018 with Kasey Kahne and Regan Smith.

Bell’s final numbers in 33 races: seven wins, 18 top-5s and 759 laps led — all series highs. But he had “only” 20 top-10s — fifth overall in the series and six fewer than Cole Custer and three fewer than Daniel Hemric, who follow him on this list.

Bell also had six races in which he failed to finish.

“Moving forward into next year, I’m just going to focus on controlling my DNFs,” Bell said. “A lot of them have been outside my control, but just make sure that I don’t make any mistakes that cause DNFs.”

The 23-year-old Bell (he turns 24 in a few weeks) will look at his seven-win season and smile. He just won’t look at Homestead, where he led 11 laps, and grimaced.

“We won a lot this year, so that’s really special,” Bell said. “If we want to win a championship, we need to get a little bit better here next year.”

This will be the last time for some drivers on this list, as the list at the start of the 2019 season won’t include Preece nor Hemric, who will be full-time Cup drivers.

Previous 2018 prospect rankings: Aug. 29 | May 29 | Feb. 28

The top 20

This top 20 list is composed of 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. We will update this list periodically throughout the year.

1. Christopher Bell (age 23) (Last ranking: first): The only thing he didn’t do this year was win the championship. It’s somewhat of a shame he’s not in a Cup car next year. He’ll run for JGR in Xfinity next year.

2. Daniel Hemric (27) (fourth): It’s a tossup between Hemric and Custer for the second spot. Hemric’s 16 top-5s (two more than Custer) give him the edge. Hemric had 12 finishes of second or third this year. He’ll run full time in Cup next year for RCR.

3. Cole Custer (20) (third): The win at Texas was big. Custer’s 26 top-10s led the series this year. That shows just how consistent and solid he was. He’ll be back in an Xfinity car at SHR next year.

4. Tyler Reddick (22) (eighth): He didn’t just win the Xfinity title to make this jump. Head-to-head against Hemric, Custer and Preece since Darlington, he had as many finishes ahead of them as he did in which he was beaten by him. So he deserves to make this big of a jump.

5. Ryan Preece (28) (third): He had three top-5s in the nine-race stretch to finish the season but didn’t lead a lap in that span. Preece will drive for JTG Daugherty Racing in the No. 47 Cup car next year.

6. Todd Gilliland (18) (second): He led 13 laps at Talladega and finished 20th after getting caught up in an accident. He led 39 laps at Martinsville and ended up 12th. He led 60 laps at Texas before running out of gas on the final lap and finishing fourth and ended the season with two finishes outside the top-10. So what if he drops on this list? He’s only 18 years old. He’ll win next year. His plans haven’t been announced, but I would be surprised to see him leave KBM.

7. John Hunter Nemechek (21) (seventh): He has done nothing to hurt his standing. He finished the season with five consecutive top-10 finishes, including the win at Kansas. That’s solid, especially when the pressure was on following Ross Chastain’s stellar performance in the Ganassi car. Expect to see him back in the Xfinity Series next year, most likely in the GMS Racing No. 23 car.

8. Harrison Burton (18) (eighth): He has done nothing flashy, but three top-10s in his final four truck starts is certainly respectable. He will drive next year for Kyle Busch Motorsports.

9. Justin Haley (19) (13th): He finished the year in trucks with 13 top-10s in the final 14 races, including three wins. He didn’t lead many laps, but he showed the ability to take care of his equipment and post solid results. Wouldn’t be surprised to see him in an Xfinity ride next year.

10. Ben Rhodes (21) (ninth): Rhodes had three top-5s in the final six races of the truck season but also had two finishes outside the top-10. He got knocked out of the first round of the playoffs and finished last among the playoff drivers in points.

11. Noah Gragson (20) (14th): Gragson led laps in 19 of the 22 truck races this year. So he knows how to go fast. He ended the season with a second at Phoenix and a third at Homestead. More of those types of finishes would have him higher on the list. He heads to JR Motorsports next year to compete in the Xfinity Series.

12. Sheldon Creed (21) (12th): The 2018 ARCA champ drove in five truck races this year and had one top-5 and two top-10s. Not great, but he’s got a full-time truck ride with GMS Racing already set for next year.

13. Chandler Smith (16) (11th): He was second in the Winchester 400 last month and won the ARCA race at Salem in September. Still need to see him on a bigger track, but he continues to post good results when he can run major events.

14. Derek Kraus (17) (15th): He has five K&N wins and 13 top-5s this year in 22 starts. He was eighth in his truck debut at Phoenix. Yes, he has been inconsistent, but he’s fast and not afraid of a little contact.

15. Hailie Deegan (17) (19th): She earned the historic win at Meridian. The next two races she started second and first, respectively, and finished seventh and sixth. She finished fifth in the K&N West standings. Next year, which is expected to be another full season of K&N racing, will be pivotal for her development. Some want to see her in a truck right away; considering her limited asphalt experience and her engaging personality that should attract sponsors, there’s no rush, and it’s better to make sure she’s ready rather than push her too fast.

16. Tyler Ankrum (17) (NR): Ankrum captured the K&N East title thanks to four wins. He made two truck starts and finished sixth at Phoenix.

17. Zane Smith (19) (10th): He was impressive in his truck debut at Gateway, where he finished fifth driving for DGR-Crosley, but he didn’t get another truck race in the rest of the year and didn’t have a great finish to his ARCA season, where his four wins earlier in the year propelled him to second in the standings.

18. Logan Seavey (21) (20th): He won the ARCA race on the 1-mile dirt track at DuQuoin. Can he please run a big asphalt race so we can see how he does?

19. Austin Cindric (20) (NR): Four top-5s in the final six Xfinity races show Cindric’s growing pains are showing progress. He’ll race full time in Xfinity for Team Penske next year.

20. Chase Briscoe (23) (17th): Briscoe won the Xfinity race on the Charlotte road course and then his final three Xfinity starts were more of the season of just not being able to crack the top-10. However, he is expected to get a full Xfinity season next year. Many believe he has great potential, and there have been plenty of other examples of drivers just kind of having a lost season.

Dropped out: Kyle Benjamin, Tanner Thorson

Ten to watch

(In alphabetical order; *joins overall list since last rankings)

Kyle Benjamin

Travis Braden*

Tyler Dippel

Christian Eckes

Ruben Garcia Jr.*

Riley Herbst

Jesse Little

Myatt Snider*

Matt Tifft*

Tanner Thorson

Five second-chance prospects

(Past Cup experience or current Cup driver outside top-30 or a driver older than 28)

1. Brett Moffitt

2. Ross Chastain

3. Justin Allgaier

4. Parker Kligerman

5. Grant Enfinger

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