The NASCAR Xfinity Series was a melting pot of talent in 2021. It featured drivers from different corners of auto racing in equipment of varying competitive levels. In some cases, these drivers offered mere glimpses of what they could do with more starts under their belts.
One of the biggest yearlong stories was Ty Gibbs establishing himself as a consistent win threat despite making just 18 starts. He’ll contend for the series championship in 2022. With other part-timers making a dent in their cameo appearances, he won’t be alone in this quest. Four other drivers have statistical strengths that require more cultivating.
Josh Berry, Santino Ferrucci, Preston Pardus and Sage Karam also made the most of part-time Xfinity Series opportunities this season. Positives for each of them can be quantified and another year with more frequent appearances could lead to bigger and better things.
It seems everyone who encounters Berry comes away smitten. It’s one way to explain his employment, albeit some of it temporary, with seven different teams across NASCAR’s three national series this season. He earned return calls after short-notice substitutions in two instances — for Spire Motorsports in the Cup Series and filling in for injured JR Motorsports stable mate Michael Annett.
But beyond an endearing personality is a driver who proved himself as a standout long-run passer. His +5.44% surplus passing value ranked in the 99th percentile of a group containing the 12 most statistically productive Xfinity Series talents. Berry also was a restarter on par with Gibbs and AJ Allmendinger, two drivers who combined for nine wins this season:
Berry’s year contained some discernible weaknesses, though most weren’t entirely his doing. His average running position after one competitive lap (or initial position, as noted on the above graph) was around 19th, the worst initial position of this group. That’s in part due to a kink of the metric qualifying procedure utilized in 2021. If he wasn’t in a specific car the week prior, he’d start toward the rear of the field.
This made track position a consistent need for Berry. He satisfied some of the need with his long-run passing — he secured a pass differential 203 positions better than his statistical expectation. A full-time effort for JR Motorsports will eliminate this hurdle altogether while also supplying him a more consistent brand of speed and, potentially, a pit crew with a faster median four-tire box time (noted as “YF Pit Defense”), both areas for concern in his 22-race piecemeal campaign.
One other area he’ll have to address is his crashing. Wrecking or spinning 0.41 times per race this year, his crash rate fared as one of the worst of this talented group, unbecoming of a driver with championship aspirations.
Certainly, those aspirations are legitimate as the majority of his peripheral stats indicate. But given his age — he turned 31 last month — what he’s able to do right now in the Xfinity Series might not be indicative of future growth. His formative years were spent competing for championships in Late Model stock cars while a slew of younger drivers became winners, champions or top-tier producers in the Cup Series. He’s more than a few steps behind his would-be competition, if he ever reaches NASCAR’s top level on regular basis.
But for Berry, the Xfinity Series provides permanence in 2022 and that’s more than what most former part-timers ever receive. He has the quantifiable chops to make the most of this opportunity and should seriously contend for the series championship in a ride capable of such success.
The Connecticut-born 23-year-old with experience competing in IndyCar and Formula 2 says NASCAR was always where he wanted to end up. After his stock car debut this year, a pleasant surprise for Sam Hunt Racing in the Xfinity Series middle tier, it seems his fit with the fendered form of auto racing is natural.
Among drivers with six or more starts, Ferrucci’s 1.536 Production in Equal Equipment Rating ranked 13th, just ahead of Berry, Brett Moffitt, Ty Dillon and Harrison Burton. Ferrucci also flashed signs of potential short-run stardom. Among drivers with at least six restart attempts from inside the first seven rows, only Kyle Busch submitted a better position retention rate than Ferrucci’s 83.33% clip, the entirety of which came on choose-rule tracks.
And he did it all without a single practice lap.
“It’s really hard to do this without any track time,” Ferrucci told The Associated Press in July. “Every single one of my laps in NASCAR has been race laps.”
Nevertheless, Ferrucci demonstrated some tantalizing potential. In a revolving-door ride — seven different drivers took two or more turns behind the wheel of the Andrew Abbott-led car — his average best lap ranking of 18.0 was the second fastest of the group. That trailed only John Hunter Nemechek (11.5), a 13-time winner in NASCAR’s national levels. Of the seven drivers, Ferrucci was the lone NASCAR neophyte in advance of this season.
While no concrete plans are in place for 2022, both driver and team have publicly stated their desires for a continued pairing.
Having championship bona fides at the grassroots levels of racing and a father who once competed in the Cup Series tends to work out well in a sport that’s far from a straightforward meritocracy. But Pardus, son of Dan, has yet to benefit from this seemingly tried-and-true path.
A national title-winner in the SCCA, the 24-year-old Pardus pounced on the Xfinity Series’ robust road course schedule in 2021 and took advantage given the resources at his disposal. Driving for independent owner Mario Gosselin, Pardus placed seventh on the Charlotte Roval, 14th at COTA and 16th at Road America before finishing 18th, and on the lead lap, in his maiden oval start at Martinsville.
Dating back to his efforts in 2020, which included an eighth-place finish at Road America, Pardus has secured five of the six best finishes for a team led by veteran crew chief Tony Furr.
Such result-getting is present in his PEER, a 1.625 mark ranked 10th and just below the 1.636 of Noah Gragson. Amazingly, Pardus pulled this off despite crashing once every two races and producing negative surplus passing values on the tracks he visited.
Whether he’s able to duplicate the rating — or expand on it, if he chooses to add ovals to next year’s curriculum — is a question worth asking. A positive answer could yield future opportunities and unearth a quality driver who developed outside of NASCAR’s traditional prospect ladder system.
As a lark, Jordan Anderson Racing entered Karam, a part-time IndyCar driver and 2013 Indy Lights champion, into August’s race at Indianapolis. The result wasn’t ideal — he finished 26th after pulling off of the track with an electrical issue three laps from the finish — but his performance led to more chances.
Once hailed as “the new face of IndyCar racing” by The New York Times, the 26-year-old Karam competed in three more Xfinity Series races, two of them on ovals. He turned in a 52.16% adjusted pass efficiency (a top-20 clip) and ended his limited run with a pass differential nine spots beyond his statistical expectation. His 50% position retention rate across six non-preferred groove restarts was above average within the series, besting rates by Gragson, Burton and series champion Daniel Hemric.
To the team’s credit, Karam was slotted into two events containing practice sessions in the buildup, but to get up to speed in stock cars, more seat time will be required. Such a notion could result in a fun addition to the Xfinity Series and more permanent housing for a driver who’s had just two full seasons of racing across all motorsport disciplines in the last eight years.
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Analysis: Four part-time Xfinity Series drivers deserving of regular rides in 2022 originally appeared on NBCSports.com