The final act of the 2018 NASCAR Xfinty Series season was a good example of a playoff format not crowning the most deserving driver. It was a perfect storm for Tyler Reddick, who rode the wall to perfection on his way to the win and the title. It was Reddick’s second win of the year, which hardly compares to Bell’s seven, but that’s the type of drama playoff format provides.
Bell would probably tell you this too — they simply weren’t good enough to win on that final Saturday night of the year.
Somewhat surprisingly, Bell is back for another season of full-time Xfinity competition. There wasn’t any room for Bell at the cup level with Joe Gibbs Racing, especially with the addition of Martin Truex Jr. That leaves Bell looking to rack up more wins as he tries to secure a title this time around.
If you thought last year was good, this year could get downright dominant. Two of Bell’s main competitors, Ganassi’s No. 42 team and Daniel Hemric, won’t be competing in the Xfinity Series this season. Ross Chastain was set to serve as Bell’s main threat in 2019, until Ganassi’s operation folded following an FBI raid into DC Solar, the primary sponsor of Chastain’s No. 42 car.
Allgaier (JR Motorsports No. 7)
Who does that leave? Justin Allgaier for one, who is certainly nothing to scoff at. His five wins were second only to Bell last season, but Allgaier’s season came up short after some bad luck at Kansas and Phoenix. Can Allgaier challenge Bell on a consistent basis in 2019?
On paper, the two are close. Each ranked in the top two in terms of green flag speed. But Bell turned it on late, putting up an average GFS ranking of 3.5 against Allgaier’s 5.5 in the playoffs. That’s significant. While Allgaier can challenge Bell, JR Motorsports has a touch of speed they’re going to have to find first.
Custer (Stewart-Haas Racing No. 00)
The other proven significant threat to Bell should be Cole Custer, who is heading into his third full season of Xfinity competition. Custer didn’t close out races very well, letting two wins slip by at Miami and Iowa. He and his team have flashed big time speed at times, but nothing consistently on par with Bell.
Custer will have a new crew chief atop his box for 2019, losing Jeff Meendering to Joe Gibbs Racing. Stewart-Haas will also run the No. 98 full time with Chase Briscoe, which should lead to more data and perhaps more speed.
As long as Custer can get to Miami, he’s going to be a threat for the title. He probably should have the trophy from 2018, but a botched strategy call from Meendering left him empty-handed.
Reddick (Richard Childress Racing No. 2)
Tyler Reddick will move over to the RCR stable, driving the No. 2 car that Matt Tifft vacated. Fresh off a title, Reddick may have a little bit of work to do to get back to finding that championship speed. Tifft was unable to run up front on a weekly basis with this team last year. Will the addition of Reddick change that?
Reddick certainly knows how to create speed, but this is a lateral move at best — perhaps even a bit of a step down. RCR will focus on just two cars this year, so maybe added support and focus will have this team running better in 2019.
Gragson (JR Motorsports No. 9)
Noah Gragson will join the Xfinity Series full time, taking over the seat that Elliott Sadler vacated. Gragson will run the No. 9 for Dale Jr., looking to become the latest rookie to capture a title for the organization.
Gragson impressed in limited time with Gibbs last season in the No. 18 entry. However, he left a little to be desired in Truck Series competition last year, winning just once in one of the best trucks in the field. Gragson’s performance will be very interesting to follow.
Cindric (Penske No. 22)
Austin Cindric had a fascinating 2018 season, bouncing back and forth between Penske and Roush to run the full season. Now Cindric gets a full time shot in perhaps the best car in the field — Penske’s No. 22 machine. No pressure, but the entire NASCAR world knows what that car can do, thanks to countless wins by Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney.
I’m not sure Cindric is ready to threaten to lead week in and week out, but you can never count this team out. Austin will be the favorite at each of the four road course events in 2019, which could lead to multiple victories. Can he catch up on the intermediates? That will determine his fate this season.
Nemecheck (GMS Racing No. 23)
John Hunter Nemechek sure dodged a bullet with Ganassi, didn’t he? Ross Chastain swooped in a stole Nemechek’s full time ride out from under him last year, but things certainly played out in favor of the second generation racer.
Nemechek will compete full time with GMS Racing, driving the No. 23 entry. That car ran well in spurts with Chase Elliott behind the wheel at various track, but never really showed enough speed to lead. Now with a strong technical alliance with JR Motorsports, it’s possible we could see a jump in performance with this team. Nemechek proved capable of leading — and finally winning — late last season.
Briscoe (Stewart-Haas Racing No. 98)
As mentioned above, Briscoe will run full time in the No. 98 car with Stewart-Haas Racing, following his win last year at the Roval. Briscoe recorded just one top five last season, which was his win in October. He competed for much of 2018 running in pedestrian Roush-Fenway equipment, however, so he’s got a chance to really shine in 2019.
Briscoe recorded 10 top five finishes for Brad Keselowski Racing in 2017 in the Truck Series, winning the final race in Miami. With a dirt background similar to Tyler Reddick’s, you’ll probably want to watch out for this guy if he makes the final four.
The Xfinity Series will get their 2019 season underway on February 16th at Daytona.