NASCAR's top 20 prospects: Your disputes (plus Dale Jr.'s), my answers

With one top-five finish in three races this season, Noah Gragson is fourth in the truck series standings but nowhere to be found in ESPN's first list of 2018 on NASCAR's top 20 prospects to watch. Robert Laberge/Getty Images for NASCAR

LAS VEGAS -- The social media buzz stemming from ESPN's top 20 prospects to watch in NASCAR had a lot of people wondering, "What were you thinking, Bob?!"

The debate likely won't end -- it never does, especially in a sport in which funding can be just as important as talent. But we plan on doing the rankings periodically as the season goes along.

Here is an attempt to explain what was going on in my brain from those who asked on Twitter. Reminder: The qualifications were drivers who could make it into the Cup series but aren't currently there, and the list did not include anyone with more than 10 races in Cup.

Enter at your own risk.

Noah Gragson. He (and Riley Herbst) were two who were on my original list and kept getting bumped down the list and eventually off. Gragson certainly has the fan base pushing for him.

What was I thinking? Gragson had that great win at Martinsville, but when I started looking at drivers outside the three national series (the goal was to have a list of people with diverse talents who might be able to make it to Cup), I took a deeper dive into his stats from 2017. The fact that he finished 10th in the standings with an average finish of 11.6 (ninth overall among the truck regulars who ran the majority of the races) while in the best equipment made me question whether he should be on the list. Plus, I wanted a variety of people on the honorable mentions, and I had several truck series drivers who had never been full-time on that list, so I didn't bump anyone to make room for him after I knocked him off the top 20.

As I went back to look at stats, there were only 14 races of 23 in which he finished on the lead lap. In a majority of races, he finished worse than when he qualified. His age (19) and his strong K&N Series results would argue for the view that he will have a breakout year. Obviously, if he shows the ability to be more consistent, he'll be a pretty fast riser on this list. Apparently, many of you are already convinced he will.

Crazy? I can see where you could say Todd Gilliland hasn't run a truck race on a big track yet. But he has been so successful -- and consistently successful -- at a variety of tracks that he is going to get a lot of support to show what he can do in trucks. Included in his K&N wins are two at Iowa that were combo East-West events.

Herbst, as I mentioned earlier, was on my initial list because I like the fact that he is going to get good guidance at Joe Gibbs Racing. I just couldn't get over an average finish of 9.4 in ARCA. Yes, he won Pocono, but that never seems to be a great indicator of success. I'll be surprised if Herbst is off the list for long.

I think Stewart Friesen has potential. But at 34 years old, I didn't feel I could put him on the list.

Grant Enfinger was impressive in ARCA in 2014-15, including winning the 2015 title. But he wasn't strong enough in the trucks last year for me to put him on the list (by the way, his average finish of 9.4 was better than Gragson's). Age (33) also is working against him.

Did I treat Justin Haley unfairly comparing his performance (average finish of 11.2, three top-5s) to that of teammate Johnny Sauter (6.3, 13 top-5s), who has years of experience? We'll see.

Travis Braden has been impressive in the big events at Winchester and other short tracks (he won an ARCA race at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis). He definitely is on the radar with his full ARCA season this year.

John Hunter Nemechek's finish in his Xfinity Series debut at Atlanta showed potential, but it also wasn't the smoothest run to a fourth-place finish. Was inconsistency last year due to talent or equipment? Those answers will come this year.

Spencer Bayston is definitely one of the open-wheel drivers to keep an eye on after his USAC Midget title last year. The 19-year-old was third in this year's Chili Bowl. I just don't know if stock cars are his future.