The Top 75 Cup Series Prospects of 2017 (1-15)

By David Smith (on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA)
January 19, 2017


Welcome to MotorsportsAnalytics.com’s ranking of the top 75 NASCAR Cup Series prospects prior to the 2017 racing season.

This is my sixth prospects list for this website, but I have been chronicling prospect development since 2004, when I was operating in solitude out of my college dorm room, and have been a paid scouting consultant to the NASCAR industry since 2006. What you see in the rankings below is a marriage of statistical analysis and old-school evaluation. Though both concepts seem like opposites, and are often portrayed that way in pop culture, they actually complement each other quite well.

The list is what I would call “three-fourths objective,” with each ranking based on Cup Series preparedness—on the strength of items such as weighted driver production (Production in Equal Equipment Rating), pass efficiency and crash rate, among others—and not on the height of a driver’s “ceiling,” something important for NASCAR team decision makers, but not always quantifiable. This list is not meant to be mean-spirited or self-serving. It is a ranking, hopefully of high quality, that one should come to expect from a stat-conversant website.

Here are the guidelines:

  • Slots 1 through 60 are limited to drivers with less than 15 starts in a single NASCAR Cup Series season prior to 2017, with NASCAR developmental ladder experience as recently as the 2016 season. I define the developmental ladder as the NASCAR Xfinity Series, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, the NASCAR K&N Pro Series (East and West divisions) and the ARCA Series.

  • There is an age cutoff in the ladder divisions. The age ceilings are as follows: 29 for the Xfinity Series, 27 for the Truck Series and 24 for K&N and ARCA. The ages listed are the ages each driver turns in 2017; thus, a 17-year-old in January who turns 18 the following December is listed as an 18-year-old prospect.

  • Drivers that competed in Late Model divisions, Legend Cars or open-wheel divisions (Modifieds, Sprint Cars and Midgets), and not in any of the ladder divisions, during the 2016 season are not included in the 1-60 ranking. They are, however, eligible for inclusion on the 15-driver “Watch List,” which is ordered alphabetically.

  • As always, I don’t care about marketability or how much funding a young driver has. This is a list for those who take competition seriously.

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Click here for: Prospects 1-15 | Prospects 16-60 (Premium) | 15-Driver Watch List (Premium)
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1. Erik Jones
Byron, Mich., Age 21

Jones, the 2015 Truck Series champion, leaps to the Cup Series this year with Furniture Row Racing after a championship push in the Xfinity Series came up empty. Despite the lack of hardware, Jones’s talents unequivocally shined in NASCAR’s top developmental division. He scored the highest adjusted pass efficiency among Cup prospects (52.27 percent) and displayed an affinity for restarting—he ranked fourth in preferred groove retention (89.09 percent, trailing only Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick and out-retaining Joey Logano and Kyle Larson). These traits offset some of his youthful bad habits, which currently include crashing; he averaged 0.42 crashes per race in 2016, the highest rate among Xfinity regulars. His initial Cup season is likely to be accident-filled, but there is reason to believe it won’t affect him too long in what should be a highly productive career.


2. William Byron
Charlotte, N.C., Age 20

By virtue of his seven victories last season, Byron is the most successful rookie in Truck Series history. Statistically, it seems Hendrick Motorsports has its own version of Erik Jones in its pipeline. Byron’s 3.587 PEER in 2016 compares favorably to Jones’s Truck Series production rating in 2015 (3.478), as does his pass efficiency (53.73 percent to 53.69), which ranked first in the series last year among full-time Cup prospects. His versatility should not go unnoticed; he is the first former champion of the bias-ply tire-using K&N East division since Kyle Larson to also excel on radial tires on much larger racetracks. This knack for quick assimilation bodes well for his rookie season in the Xfinity Series.


3. Daniel Suárez
Monterrey, Mexico, Age 25

Save for maybe Todd Gilliland, no prospect enhanced his or her stock last year as much as Suárez, who snagged a 3.030 PEER (ranked seventh overall and first among series regulars) and the Xfinity Series championship one year after notching the 26th-best PEER, a sub-serviceable 0.803 rating. This production jump was a result of more fluid, effective movement through traffic. His passing efficiency improved from a below-par 49.95 percent to an above-par 51.69, and his restarting retention grew from 50 percent in the first five races of 2016 to 87.8 percent for the remainder of the regular season and 80 percent in the seven Chase races.


4. Todd Gilliland
Sherrills Ford, N.C., Age 17

Gilliland will contend for both divisional championships, East and West, in the K&N Pro Series in 2017. It’s reasonable to assume he’ll be a heavy favorite for both. Last year, he captured seven victories across both divisions, ranked first in PEER in each and won the K&N West championship in convincing fashion, leading at least one lap in all but three races. His 4.833 PEER through six races against K&N East competition was the highest of any driver in the last four years, a sample that includes William Byron, Daniel Suárez and 2015 Cup Rookie of the Year Brett Moffitt.


5. Christopher Bell
Norman, Okla., Age 23

Bell suffered from a similar syndrome as fellow hard-driving youths Kyle Larson and Erik Jones during his rookie season in the Truck Series; he averaged 0.52 crashes per race, a frequency that directly impacted his ability to score better finishes. His 2.043 PEER was only the 12th-best production rating overall and seventh best among series regulars. Despite his struggle to close out races, he still scored a plus passing efficiency for the season (52 percent) and his first pavement win, at Gateway. His ARCA moonlighting rewarded him with the best overall production rating in the series, 7.100 through a five-race sample size.


6. Tyler Reddick
Corning, Calif., Age 21

Reddick’s most intriguing asset is his age. He just turned 21, and considering he already has a 63-race portfolio of Truck Series accomplishments that include three wins and a season (2015) that witnessed his PEER clock in at 4.565, the future appears bright. He moves to the Xfinity Series for 2017 after an encore season in Trucks resulted in regression—2.913 PEER, 0.52 crashes per race, 49.97 percent pass efficiency. Reddick is currently slated for an abbreviated schedule with Chip Ganassi Racing, so no holds will be barred, for the sake of point racing, for an aggressive driver whose exploits typically show well on a spreadsheet.


7. Daniel Hemric
Kannapolis, N.C., Age 26

Richard Childress Racing made the call to Hemric to fill its new full-time Xfinity Series ride, and the situation has almost no downside for the driver. Hemric performed better than his truck’s strength in 2016, recording a 3.217 PEER without the aid of a victory and finishing inside the top 15 a healthy 16.5 percent more often than he should have, per his top-15 running rate. Based on this statistical output, he should be RCR’s best threat for a series championship this season, which, if it manifests, would help earn him consideration for open Cup rides at what is now considered an advanced age for a top prospect.


8. John Hunter Nemechek
Mooresville, N.C., Age 20

Nemechek’s Truck Series production regressed in 2016—1.783, down from 2.861 in 2015—as did his average finish, which worsened by 2.6 positions. Furthermore, his late-race touch—a series-best 93.75 percent base retention percentage—cooled to a 61.9 percent mark that falls below the series average. The good news is that Nemechek’s three years in Trucks indicate an above-average career is on the horizon, currently with a career production rating of plus-0.472 over the average driver. He also recorded his third consecutive season of positive passing, ranking fifth among series regulars with a 52.1 percent efficiency mark.


9. Cole Custer
Ladera Ranch, Calif., Age 19

2016 was a tale of two seasons for Custer; he averaged a 15.6-place finish in his first seven Truck Series races before a crew chief swap—from Joe Shear, who ironically went on to win the series championship with Johnny Sauter, to Marcus Richmond—elevated his team in the remaining 16 races, when his 9.7-place average finish ranked as the sixth-best finishing average among all driver-crew chief combinations with at least 10 starts. Custer’s production (1.870, ranked 11th) didn’t meet lofty expectations, and he failed to make the Chase, but at age 19 there is still plenty of time for polishing.


10. Ty Dillon
Lewisville, N.C., Age 25

Dillon enters the Cup Series at a time when his stock is arguably its lowest to date. That doesn’t mean he is “bad,” just that his growth as a driver has stalled. His 1.167 PEER wasn’t just the 19th-best production rating in the Xfinity Series last year, it also represented the second-straight season of decline following PEERs of 2.227 in 2014 and 2.076 in 2015. Still, he is a clean driver, with crash frequencies below 0.12 each of the last three years, and for the long haul, an able passer, notching 51.18 percent efficiency last season and restart retention numbers that hovered above the series average.


11. Darrell Wallace
Mobile, Ala., Age 24

Wallace is doing all he can to sift through heavy Xfinity Series traffic in his Roush Fenway Racing equipment. He is an above-par passer (51.13 percent) and an above-average restarter—he ended 2016 with a rare net positional gain of plus-10 on 115 total attempts from inside the first seven rows—but failed to score finishes worthy of his typical running whereabouts last season, per his top 15 efficiency (minus-12.4 percent, the fourth-worst mark in the series). Wallace’s crashes last season were particularly harmful—his 0.33 crash frequency translated into the third-highest DNF rate among full-time competitors. Avoiding a similarly sized fate in 2017 would do wonders for his stat line.


12. Ryan Preece
Kensington, Conn., Age 27

Preece is slated to return to the Whelen Modified Tour in 2017, but he is available—and would make an apt addition—to any NASCAR national series team that would have him. In one year of Xfinity Series racing with the budget-conscious JD Motorsports, Preece pitched in serviceable production (1.136 PEER), above par passing (51.58 percent efficiency) and strong restarting out of the preferred groove (80 percent retention, ranked above the likes of Daniel Suárez, Austin Dillon and Brad Keselowski). His advanced age—he’ll turn 27 in October—is likely an issue for big organizations, but it shouldn’t hinder his ability to positively impact a race for struggling teams.


13. Ross Chastain
Alva, Fla., Age 24

Chastain has been, for the last handful of years, a top prospect not universally viewed as a top prospect; however, his ability is inarguable considering his numbers. He ranked 16th in Xfinity Series PEER last year (1.364), a rating better than the production of more notable drivers like Ty Dillon and Darrell Wallace. He emerged as one of Xfinity’s most reliable closers (89.66 percent red zone retention rate), a late-race acumen that helped him supplement poor passing (47.2 percent efficiency) and restarting (23.08 percent non-preferred groove retention) in JD Motorsports equipment. Returning to JD in 2017, he’ll continue to put in his work in the shadows of better-publicized drivers.


14. Cameron Hayley
Calgary, Alta., Age 21

Hayley, albeit quietly, had a productive sophomore season in the Truck Series in 2016, one that earned him a 2.239 PEER and pushed his career production rating over average to plus-0.259. Per average green-flag speed, he was the second-fastest driver out of an imbalanced ThorSport Racing stable, but he is still a raw prospect in need of repetitions on the racetrack. His minus-16.8 percent top 15 efficiency indicates that his results failed to reflect his running whereabouts and his passing—above par on soft intermediates and two-mile-plus, non-plate tracks and below par on short tracks and fast intermediates—isn’t yet a reliable tool.


15. Corey LaJoie
Concord, N.C., Age 26

LaJoie turned the industry street cred he earned in the K&N East in 2012 into a bevy of spot starts for various teams over the last four years. His most recent efforts came with JGL Racing in the Xfinity Series. His 0.700 PEER through 10 races last year didn’t excite in the superficial sense, but his 23.4-place average finish was hard earned, indicative by his plus-7.2 percent top 15 efficiency mark (he recorded top-10 finishes at Bristol and Dover). An opportunity for a marquee Cup ride closes for him with each passing year, but if his past portends his future, his scrappiness could still carry him a long way.

 

Click here for: Prospects 1-15 | Prospects 16-60 (Premium) | 15-Driver Watch List (Premium)
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David Smith is the Founder of Motorsports Analytics. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA.