NASCAR tried to promote the Xfinity Series on the same day as the Cup series race at Bristol Motor Speedway, and it turned into an impromptu Silly Season discussion.
Part of the purpose of the Xfinity Series is to help drivers advance up the NASCAR ladder, so that's not necessarily a bad thing.
When Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Daniel Hemric were sitting onstage before the Bristol Cup race in mid-August, the interest in them centered on as much as what they are doing next year as on their attempts to win the Xfinity Series championship.
They are among the top five drivers in this latest big board of NASCAR Cup prospects from the ESPN list done in late May.
The driver with the biggest interest might very well end up running full time in the Xfinity Series next year. Bell admitted he felt he didn't need another year of Xfinity to be ready to start a Cup career.
"If the opportunity comes to go Cup racing next year, I definitely don't want to waste another year in my prime, so to speak, of not learning and not getting that experience of Cup racing," Bell said earlier this month.
The plan is for Bell to run in the Xfinity Series next year for Joe Gibbs Racing in the second year of a two-year deal. The question for Toyota, which has groomed Bell through his transition from sprint cars to stock cars, is whether to potentially put Bell with a team that doesn't have the best equipment if Toyota adds a Cup team to its lineup. With Martin Truex Jr. not yet signed at Furniture Row Racing, that theoretically could be an option as well.
"I've got great race cars at Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota support," Bell said on Aug. 16. "Right now, that's the only thing I've got is that I'm finishing out this year and then next year I'm going for the Xfinity championship again with all of our same partners."
Hemric said his future is "very cloudy" as he talks to teams. He has some funding from personal sponsors he has cultivated, and he has done a solid job the past couple of years at Richard Childress Racing.
"It's obviously good to be part of the conversation," Hemric said. "You hope in life you have opportunities to do your part and make sure that you make it tough for people to figure out what they want to do with you. ... I feel like I have done everything I can to prove I can take that next step."
Most see Custer, who is the son of Stewart-Haas Racing executive Joe Custer, as an eventual Cup driver in the SHR stable. The only question is when. If Kurt Busch doesn't re-sign, does Custer fill that role even if it might be a little early in some people's view to make that jump?
"Right now, we're trying to focus on the Xfinity deal and we'll see what happens," Cole Custer said.
Now, on to the updated list of prospects.
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. Also, see the new list of five drivers who have Cup experience or are over 28 years old who might be considered potential hires by Cup teams depending on their progression and success. We will update this list periodically throughout the year.
1. Christopher Bell (age 23) (Last Ranking: 1st): He has four wins and ranks second in the Xfinity standings. With 13 top-5s in 23 races, he has lived up to all the hype.
2. Todd Gilliland (18) (2nd): Yes, he missed the playoffs after missing four races prior to turning 18. And maybe he has not been as amazing in the Truck series as some would have expected. But he would have had three consecutive top-5 finishes without the mess at the end Sunday at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.
3. Ryan Preece (27) (4th): He has only six Xfinity starts but has four top-5s and one win. It appears a Cup ride is in his future. The big question will be whether he can handle the grind and frustration of not running with a top team.
4. Daniel Hemric (27) (5th): He would be second on this list, but he doesn't have a national series win. He has nine finishes of placing in second or third this year and has done enough to get a chance in Cup.
5. Cole Custer (20) (3rd): He's ahead of Hemric in points but his three top-3 finishes put him behind Hemric. He could be in Cup next year and that wouldn't be a bad thing for him, but it would be nice to see some of the races in which he leads many laps turn into wins, as he did last year at Homestead.
6. John Hunter Nemechek (21) (7th): He's done nothing to hurt his standing. He has a Truck win, and when starting in the Chip Ganassi Racing Xfinity car, he has three top-5s and six top-10s in just 12 starts.
7. Harrison Burton (17) (8th): He won an ARCA race at Pocono, was second in the K&N race at Loudon and was third in the Truck race at Iowa. That's enough to keep him moving up on this list, partly because those below him have been too inconsistent.
8. Tyler Reddick (22) (6th): The past three months have not been kind to Reddick, who has no top-5s since a fifth at Dover. He has only two top-10s in the past nine races, including three races ending with accidents.
9. Ben Rhodes (21) (12th): Rhodes is one of the toughest drivers to pinpoint as far as prospects. He'll have races, such as his win at Kentucky, where it looks like he will make it to Cup, but he's led laps in just three of the past nine Truck races. The fact he has outrun teammate Matt Crafton helps his cause on this list.
10. Zane Smith (19) (11th): Four wins and second in the ARCA standings, Smith has 11 top-5s in 16 starts this year. He was impressive in his Truck debut at Gateway, where he finished fifth driving for DGR-Crosley.
11. Chandler Smith (16) (16th): Smith has a win, four top-5s and seven top-10s in his seven ARCA starts with an average finish of fifth. Can't wait to see what he can do once he's old enough to run full time on the national level.
12. Sheldon Creed (20) (15th): The ARCA points leader has three wins this year, 13 top-5s in 16 starts and an average finish of 4.2.
13. Justin Haley (19) (NR): He's already advanced to the semifinal round of the Truck playoffs and has eight consecutive top-10s in the series.
14. Noah Gragson (20) (10th): He has 10 consecutive top-10 finishes in the Truck series and he drops four spots? Fair or not, he shows the ability to go fast, but the question is how many of these races should he have won or at least finished better?
15. Derek Kraus (17 on Saturday) (18th): He has four K&N wins and nine top-5s this year in 16 starts. That's stout for a 17-year-old.
16. Kyle Benjamin (20) (9th): Benjamin has shown promise every time he gets in a car. But that's been way infrequent, so it's hard to judge him on consistency.
17. Chase Briscoe (23) (13th): His Xfinity results (average finish of 18.8 in 11 starts this year) should drop him off this list even with a Truck win at Eldora. But he finished in the top five in 10 of 23 Truck races last year. So he stays on the list. For now.
18. Tanner Thorson (22) (14th): A former USAC midget national champion, he needs to show more promise in his limited Truck starts.
19. Hailie Deegan (17) (19th): After a second-place finish at Douglas County, she has crashed out of two of her past three races and finished seventh in the other. That happens. She is young and new to stock-car racing, so she will get some benefit of the doubt.
20. Logan Seavey (21) (20th): The national midget leader is one of the drivers Toyota is looking to get into stock cars. We're waiting.
Dropped out: Ty Majeski
Ten to watch
Presented in alphabetical order (*-- joins overall list since last rankings):
Five second-chance prospects
Drivers who have past Cup series experience but are not current full-time Cup points drivers:
5. Ryan Truex