“Darlington is super-difficult,” pointed out 21 year-old NASCAR Xfinity Series rookie charger Riley Herbst from Harold Brasington’s Track To Tough to Tame in Darlington, South Carolina. “It’s one of the most difficult tracks in the entire series. For a rookie like me to go there and race on Saturday with no practice or anything is going to be a huge challenge, but I’m looking forward to it and we’re going to go give it a shot.”
Currently 10th in points with only three venues and four races remaining on the 2020 NASCAR Xfinity series schedule – Darlington, Richmond and Bristol – before the playoffs kickoff at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on September 26, Herbst has posted up three top five and 13 top 10 finishes thus far in 2020, his average finish boiling down to a 15.0. Having climbed in and out of machinery in ARCA, Trucks, Xfinity and K&N throughout 2019, Herbst has enjoyed his full-time gig in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Supra and making a run at Rookie the Year honors in what has been an abnormal year of living dangerously.
“Oh yeah, it’s been good this year in the Xfinity series, but like you said, the year has been anything but normal!” laughed Herbst from just outside the cement walls of the 1.365 mile Lady in Black. “We finished second at Fontana in March, but from there and Phoenix on out, we’ve had no practice and no qualifying at these races. It’s been limited track time for us rookies. Speaking for myself, I’ve been going to these racetracks and I’ve never been there before and we just have to race, so it has been a big challenge, but it’s been really fun and we’ve had some good speed, with that being said. We’ve had some good results. We’re looking for that win, but it’s definitely coming when we go back to places that I’m more used to.”
Although experienced in the Xfinity Series – he made his debut in the series at Iowa Speedway on June 17, 2018 – lining up every weekend in NASCAR’s premier development series has been akin to being thrown into the deep end of the local cement pond.
“Yeah, absolutely, it’s a huge jump up!” agreed Herbst of his current full-time job. “The competition is insane. It’s made me a better race car driver. When you drive around with better drivers, it makes you better. You become better with the people you surround yourself with. Racing the big names makes me a better race car driver. It’s challenging at some times, but at the end, it’s a lot of fun.
“And the car, the car setup, the racecraft in Xfinity… All of that is different. It’s pretty crazy. It’s hard to put into words, but like I said before, the biggest thing is the competition and that comes with the racecraft. You need your racecraft to be better and to develop to go beat these really good guys competition-wise. It’s crazy to tell the difference between the Xfinity series and the ARCA series. ARCA is good to get your skills up and to get more repetition in the racecraft area, but it’s to drop down and get a little confidence boost and get a trophy and go back up to the Xfinity series.
“You know, back before the Xfinity Series season started in February, I didn’t really know what to expect, to be honest with you. I had a few ideas. After getting a few races under my belt, though, it’s all definitely what I expected in some sense with just how difficult it all is. Many of the guys who have been in the series for a few years are really good, and that has come from all the competition and racing against each other. A lot of those guys have quite a bit of experience compared to me, so once I get that experience and a little more track time, it’s going to be game over for them.”
In what was his 88th career NASCAR touring series start, Herbst, who has earned two runner-up finishes in the Xfinity Series this season, found time to drive the No. 18 Toyota to victory in the VizCom 200 ARCA race at Michigan International Speedway last month. That mission complete, the young man from Las Vegas is now keen to roll into Xfinity Series victory lane as quickly as possible.
“I think we’re really, really close,” offered Herbst of chasing down his very next career accolade. “Honestly. I think we can do it, especially when the series goes back out West and towards home for me. We’re always fast out at Vegas and those tracks, and I’m looking forward to all of that, for sure.”
And the plan for the rest of 2020 and beyond?
“I think we’re going to get all of our Xfinity races in this season, so that’s a huge hats off to NASCAR,” he said.
“I don’t really know if I would have expected that all we would get all of our races in back in early April, so NASCAR has been working really hard and I’m really proud to be a part of it all. I don’t know about the fans not being at the races. I really hope the fans can come back here later in the playoff rounds, but NASCAR has to do whatever is right to keep us on the racetrack. Its quiet at the races without the fans. Super, super quiet. Hopefully, we get the fans back because they’re such a huge part of the sport. It just gives the events more atmosphere.
“I want to be competitive at each level, so I want to a regular winner here in this series before we move up, and the end goal would obviously be to be a Cup champion one day. That’s why I started this, and to be one of the greatest divers in America would be pretty cool. I’m looking forward to it, and I’m just enjoying the journey right now. Right now we’d love to make it into the playoffs, go a few rounds into the playoffs and try to sneak by with a win or two. I’m looking forward to ending the season on a high note and hopefully we get that win. Hey, maybe it’ll even come this weekend.”