The waving of the green flag next Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway will mark the official start of the 40th season of NASCAR’s Xfinity Series. Hoping to be on the front row and leading the series into a brave new era will be Riley Herbst in the No. 18 Monster Energy Ford Mustang of Stewart-Haas Racing.
Launching what will be his sophomore season in the Xfinity Series, the 21-year-old from Las Vegas will be seated in one of the strongest cars in the entire field – a car that recently-graduated Chase Briscoe raced to nine victories in 2020.
Herbst is fully aware that the expectations placed upon him by the Stewart-Haas outfit are extremely high. “Being on a team with such a strong run of success is the kind of opportunity every driver wants,” Herbst told the NASCAR media when word broke that he was making the move from No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry over to the Stewart-Hass racing outfit. “Expectations are definitely high, but the highest expectations are the ones I’ve set for myself.”
Having raced into the top five on four occasions and slotted into the top 10 in 17 additional Xfinity races in 2020. The numbers were satisfactory for Herbst last year, but he knows much more will be expected out of the No. 98 car and its driver come Daytona next Saturday night.
Q: I’m assuming you’ve been doing a lot of Daytona International Speedway simulator work in recent months. True?
RILEY HERBST: Yeah, there has been a bunch of simulation, but no testing. We’re nor allowed to test. But yes, you are right, we’ve just been wearing out the simulator.
Q: And Richard Boswell will be your crew chief in 2021. Have you guys spent a lot of time together?
RH: Yeah, we’ve been getting to know each other pretty good over the last couple of months, and we’ve been building our chemistry. We’ve really done all we can to try and work together. We’ve tried to minimize the phone calls and try to visit each other in person, because it’s the best way to communicate. We’ll sit in conference rooms with safe spaces between all of us and try and plan and communicate amongst each other in person.
Q: The move you made from Joe Gibbs Racing over to Stewart-Hass racing was a big one on multiple levels. New team, crew chief, manufacturer – everything. You ready?
RH: Yes, I went over to Ford and Stewart-Haas Racing. I’m really looking forward to all of it. That’s where Kurt Busch was a couple years ago, and it’s a really good program. I’ll be driving in the No. 98 car this year. Chase Briscoe was in the car last year and won a lot of races, so the car is really fast and I’m looking forward to driving it this coming week. Yes, this is kind of what you live for. You live for a moment like this and you try to capitalize on it, that’s for sure.
Q: Much like the Cup schedule, the 2021 Xfinity Series went through a pretty significant schedule shakeup. Still, Daytona will fire everything off come next Saturday. Do you like the place?
RH: Daytona is fun. It’s always cool to go back there. It’ll be the first race back and everybody is anxious and ready to get down to racing, Everybody looks forward to Daytona. They bring the best car that they can because they’ve been working on it all winter. We’re going to try and go down there and see if we can win a race.
Q: A week later you’ll compete in the 52-lap Xfinity race on the Daytona road course. Thoughts?
RH: It’s cool. I wish we were going out to Fontana, California for the second race like we were scheduled to, but it changed now because of the COVID deal. I like the Daytona road course. We had some success there last year and we were pretty fast. Hopefully, we can go down there and pull off a two-for-two in Daytona.
Q: Do you like the shifting of gears and all the braking and the turning left and right that the road course will bring?
RH: I think so. It’s definitely a different aspect of racing. I feel like it’s a lot of fun. I didn’t really think I was going to like it, but I do enjoy it quite a bit. It’s way different.
Q: Then comes Homestead-Miami for you guys.
RH: Homestead is fun. You’re running right against the wall. It’s kind of crazy how the first three races for us are all in the state of Florida. Yeah, Homestead is a cool mile and a half that’s kind of worn out and you just have to be up on the fence. It’s a lot of fun to drive.
Q: Round four will take you back home to Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
RH: Oh yeah, I’m really looking forward to that race. I think we’ll be really, really fast and have some good success. At least that’s what we are planning for! The No. 98 won that race last year, so I’m looking forward to going back home to race that one. I just think we kind of need to work through the first four or five races and see where we are, because it’s a new team and everything like that. For the first five races we’ll just kind of judge everything, and hopefully after that and after the first quarter of the season, we can hopefully be in contention for wins and be racing up front.
Q: How cool is that you guys will race at the Circuit of the Americas this season?
RH: I’ve never been to a Formula 1 track in my life before. I think it’s cool that we’ll be racing on the same track as Formula 1. That kind of puts me in awe, because those guys are the top of the motorsports echelon worldwide and to get to share the track that they race on is pretty cool. For the fans it is going to be way different than watching a Formula 1 car or a MotoGP bike. Hopefully, it will be really cool for the fans, and hopefully we’ll put on a good show.
Q: There were a lot of comings and goings across the Xfinity Series during the off-season. When you look at competition roster leading into 2021, what do you think?
RH: The champion is coming back and that’s Austin Cindric. He’ll be my Ford teammate. There will be some new faces in the series out there as well, which is going to be good for the series – it’s going to make it a deeper series. It’s going to be difficult to win races this year, but it’s going to make it all that much better.
Q: 2020 marked your first year in the Xfinity ranks. How was it doing 33 races in one season? Some younger racers have told me that can take some getting used to…
RH: It definitely is kind of crazy your first year doing it, but I loved it. I live for it. It’s so much fun to go to a new track each weekend and try to perform at your very best. Your off-season is small, but we enjoy all of this. Yes, the competition is really stiff, but I guess that’s how it should be when you’re racing one level below the Cup Series.