Daniel Suarez #19 – Joe Gibbs Racing
MENC: 0 Starts
Xfinity: 68 starts, 3 wins, 27 top-fives, 47 top-10s; 2016 champion
CWTS: 27 starts, 1 win, 10 top-fives, 16 top-10s
Suarez was pressed into service unexpectedly when Carl Edwards shocked the world with his sudden retirement. The officials at Joe Gibbs Racing say they are not worried about his performance and even though he was not scheduled to join the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series for a while, they expect him to make a smooth transition.
The situation is eerily similar to another Young Gun who was promoted early when Tony Stewart decided to leave Gibbs in 2009 instead of 2010. The same things were said about Joey Logano then as are being said about Suarez now. After four years of modest results, Logano was dismissed in favor of Matt Kenseth.
One suspects that the organization has learned some lessons since then and they will not make all of the same mistakes. Suarez is certainly talented as he enters the season as the defending Xfinity series champion. Odds are good that he will earn top rookie honors and score a high number of top-10s because he is in the best equipment of this year’s four rookies and racing for the team with the most experience.
Erik Jones #77 – Barney Visser
MENC: 3 starts, best finish-12th at Texas Motor Speedway
Xfinity: 59 starts, 6 wins, 28 top-fives, 40 top-10s
CWTS: 41 starts, 7 wins, 19 top-fives, 34 top-10s
There was no room at the JGR Inn when they decided to promote Jones, so they took advantage of their partnership with Furniture Row Racing to get him to the senior division. Before Edwards’ retirement, Jones was easily most experts’ pick to win the 2017 ROTY honor—and this week, Jones was still a popular choice in an @FantasyRace twitter poll. Jones is going to do well. He and Suarez are going to have the kind of battle Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney experienced last year only with fewer top-10 results.
One wishes Jones would have gotten a few more starts at the senior level to be truly predictable. He filled in for the injured Kyle Busch at Kansas Speedway in 2015, and then for two races for Matt Kenseth when he was sidelined for intentionally wrecking Logano at the end of that year. Jones finished 12th at Texas and 19th at Phoenix International Raceway, but for some reason the team did not put him in a fifth entry last year for a limited run.
Jones is going to have to learn to race with a new organization, but on some tracks Furniture Row and Martin Truex Jr. were better than Gibbs last year. There will be less pressure on Jones than Suarez and as a member of a two-man organization, he will get more attention from the team. Jones is going to make a race of the rookie battle and with a little luck, he could take top honors.
Ty Dillon #13 – Germain Racing
MENC: 18 starts, best finish-14th at Michigan International Speedway
Xfinity: 111 starts, 1 win, 29 top-fives, 70 top-10s
CWTS: 53 starts, 3 wins, 19 top-fives, 35 top-10s
Dillon has the most experience of the freshmen by far and that is going to make it possible for him to compete at a high level and earn top honors in several races this year. It seems most likely that he will land third in the battle, however, because the success of both Germain Racing and their partner Richard Childress Racing has not been as great at JGR or Furniture Row.
In addition to his track time, the younger Dillon brother has the benefit of learning from Austin’s experience as a rookie three seasons ago. His clash with Kyle Larson was one of the best in several years and is part of a series of strong rookie battles in the past four seasons. Those two classmates continued to challenge one another into the 2016 playoffs. Ty will also be spurred by competition with his brother.
Dillon has five top-20 finishes in the Cup series; two of these were top-15s. Anything in the teens will make him a good fantasy value. Moreover, all of those solid runs came on unrestricted, intermediate speedways of one-mile or greater in length. They were not on short bullrings or wild card restrictor-plate, superspeedways and that suggests Dillon has a superior ability to communicate what he needs to his team.
Gray Gaulding #23 – BK Racing
MENC: 2 starts, best finish-37th at Phoenix International Raceway
Xfinity: 2 starts, 0 wins, 0 top-fives, 0 top-10s
CWTS: 13 starts, 0 wins, 1 top-five, 2 top-10s
Gaulding is a late entrant to the 2016 ROTY battle and he is competing for the most lightly-funded team. Not much is expected of him, but that could play into his favor on wild card tracks. BK Racing should have a good set of notes from which to work after having David Ragan and Matt DiBenedetto behind the wheel last year.
This team scored two top-20s in 2016 and quite a few results in the low-20s. They came on drivers’ tracks like Dover International Speedway, Darlington Raceway, Bristol Motor Speedway, and Martinsville Speedway—and while it is unlikely Gaulding will match Ragan’s average, anything in the top 25 will be counted as a success.