The NASCAR Cup Series featured a trio of rookies in 2020 who entered the season with high expectations. Cole Custer and Christopher Bell were projected to flirt with the playoffs and score top finishes, not only because of their success in the Xfinity Series, but also because they were driving for elite teams that contended for championships every year.
It was easy to overlook Tyler Reddick — not because of his past performance, which includes two Xfinity titles, but because he drives for mid-tier Richard Childress Racing, a team that had struggled in 2019 and overall just doesn't put the same level of cars on the track as some bigger teams. But overlooking him was a mistake.
Reddick, with the worst equipment among the rookie rivals, put together the best season. Custer won a race and made the playoffs, earning Rookie of the Year (those honors are now awarded to the highest-finishing rookie in points), but Reddick outperformed him and Bell almost across the board. He led the rookie pack in top 5s, top 10s, laps led, and average finish.
And Reddick did something more: He elevated RCR. The organization didn't crack the top 20 in driver points in 2019 with Austin Dillon or Daniel Hemric. But after Reddick took over for Hemric, the No. 8 team saw an uptick and brought the No. 3 along with them. Dillon won at Texas and made the playoffs, while Reddick led rookie performance one year after winning an Xfinity title for RCR. Three top-5 finishes in 2020 were the most for his new team in three years.
RCR made the right call in moving Randall Burnett, Reddick's 2019 Xfinity championship crew chief, to the Cup Series. Burnett had just one-plus year of Cup competition previously as a crew chief, but he and Reddick jelled so well that he was the logical choice. The pair communicates well, and Burnett, like his driver, has untapped talent. While the learning curve might have been steeper without a veteran guiding Reddick, Burnett clearly understands his driver and makes the right calls for him.
Backing is a bit of a question mark. Reddick's potential is something a sponsor should want to get behind. His personality adds to his appeal.
Reddick's rookie campaign wasn't without bumps. He crashed out of five races and wasn't a playoff contender. All of which is perfectly okay. While the Cup Series has seen some first-year drivers post wins almost out of the box, that shouldn't be an expectation — it's icing, but the cake comes from learning.
Reddick has learned how other drivers in the series race him, and he has learned what his team needs to do to make their cars better. This year, he can take that knowledge and improve on it. He needs to learn to race consistently in the top 15 and top 10, as well as when to temper his aggression a bit to curb mistakes.
There should be no question that Reddick can win at the Cup level. RCR isn't likely to be a weekly contender, but they certainly can compete for top finishes. Reddick may have a bit of added pressure because it's now his second year, and because owner Richard Childress hasn't found a seat for his grandson Ty Dillon yet, but Reddick is capable of rising to that occasion. And really, if Childress wants to position his team for the future, Reddick may be exactly the driver to build around.
Will Reddick make the playoffs this year? He can, but in order to secure a spot based on points, he'll need to be consistent and avoid the mistakes he made in 2020 that sometimes hurt his finishes. A win would put doubts aside. Reddick got overlooked last year because of his equipment. He shouldn't be overlooked again.
Vegas Betting Odds to win 2021 Cup Championship: 70/1 (per Sportsbook.ag)
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)