There’s no hiding it, Riley Herbst’s rookie season in the NASCAR Xfinity Series last year was “rough,” as he recalls it. And the first four races of the 2021 campaign haven’t suited him much better, either.
Herbst, 22, transitioned from Joe Gibbs Racing to Stewart-Haas Racing over the offseason, taking over the No. 98 Ford from Chase Briscoe, who won nine races in 2020. While driving the No. 18 Toyota for JGR last season, the Las Vegas native earned four top-five and 17 top-10 finishes, noting his lack of experience as a contributing factor to his inconsistency.
With limited time on the racetrack in 2020 — just four races were held with practice last year — it made Herbst’s adaptability an uphill battle.
“I don‘t know if I would have signed up for it if I knew I wasn‘t going to get any practice at all, so I think we made the best of it,” Herbst recently told Jayski.com of his 2020 season. “It was rough results wise, but at some points, we showed speed and it just didn‘t pan out.”
Even so, Herbst was destined to return to Xfinity for the 2021 season. After all, he’s fully supported by primary sponsor Monster Energy and his family‘s company, Terrible Herbst.
Come last fall during the playoffs at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, the NASCAR industry got wind that Briscoe could possibly be moving to the Cup Series to replace Clint Bowyer in the No. 14 car. Earlier in the week, Bowyer announced his retirement from full-time competition via a tweet.
But at the time, it didn’t mean anything to Herbst.
“I thought I knew what I was doing [for 2021], Herbst said. “I thought I was going back to Joe Gibbs Racing for the upcoming year. I didn‘t know any of the talks until the ROVAL weekend. That‘s when they hinted to me that Chase Briscoe was moving on.”
Fast forward to Nov. 12, less than one week after the Xfinity season concluded; JGR announced Daniel Hemric would be piloting the No. 18 car full time in 2021. But it didn’t take long for SHR to acquire Herbst.
“I didn‘t leave JGR on bad terms at all,” Herbst added. “A lot of people think I got asked to leave, or kicked out of that ride. Everyone was expecting me to be back in the [No.] 18 car this year, but things just didn‘t pan out that way.
“I feel like it was the best step for myself to rejuvenate my career and give it another jump start to see if we could make it happen.”
Until 2021, running for JGR and Toyota was all Herbst knew. After running the full 2016 K&N Pro Series West slate with Toyota team Bill McAnally Racing, he hopped up to the ARCA Menards Series in 2017. He flew across the country to reside in North Carolina, winning once at Pocono Raceway with JGR.
Herbst ran the full 2018 ARCA Menards Series season, finishing third in points, before running part-time schedules in ARCA, K&N East and West and the Camping World Truck Series in 2019. That prepared him for what was to come in 2020.
But ultimately, Herbst believed he needed a change.
“Change is sometimes a good thing,” he said. “[JGR] made me feel comfortable there for the last four years. I didn‘t really have anyone out here at 17 years old. “At the same time, things were getting kind of stale, and I needed to rejuvenate my career. I needed to go try to prove myself and contend for wins and win races.”
Executives from Ford Performance and Stewart-Haas Racing welcomed Herbst with open arms, believing the best is yet to come for the young driver.
“[Herbst] showed great potential with the equipment he was in last year,” Mark Rushbrook, Ford Performance’s global director, said. “It is a good benchmark that he is going into the same car that Chase Briscoe was in with, basically the same team around him that [Briscoe] had. It is a great opportunity to see what he is truly capable of in that equipment and environment.”
Tony Stewart, co-owner of SHR echoed Rushbrook’s thoughts, hoping to celebrate Herbst’s first triumph in the near future.
“We built the Xfinity Series program to develop talent and ultimately win with that talent,” Stewart said in a statement to Jayski. “It‘s a proven path to the NASCAR Cup Series, and we feel that Riley has the ability to win and grow within our race team.”
Aside from Cole Custer, Herbst said he didn’t have a relationship with much of anyone from SHR prior to making the jump. But so far, the transition is “seamless.”
And even though Briscoe won nine times with the same crew just last year, Herbst doesn’t believe that puts additional pressure on himself.
“When you come over to a team like this, you know what you‘re supposed to do,” he said. “I‘m not going to tell you I‘m going to go out and match Chase Briscoe from last year, just because that‘s Chase Briscoe and I‘m Riley Herbst. I‘m trying to be the best Riley I can be, and I think it all starts race by race.”
But from a personal standpoint, Herbst must win.
“Not because of the fact Cole and Chase did, but the fact that I need to [win],” Herbst stated. “For myself, personally, I need to be competitive week in and week out and put myself in contention to win.”
Through four races with SHR, Herbst’s 29th-place average finish isn’t all that impressive. However, take that with a grain of salt, as his three DNFs were no fault of his own.
In the season opener at Daytona International Speedway, the No. 98 car paced the field for 12 laps, but was caught up in one of the many multi-car incidents and finished 26th. The next weekend on the Daytona road course, Herbst was running well inside the top 10 when Austin Cindric and AJ Allmendinger got together on the final lap of the opening stage. While trying to avoid the spinning No. 16 car, Herbst drove through the grass where his splitter was destroyed. End result: 39th.
At Homestead-Miami Speedway, Herbst finished a respectable 11th. But most recently at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the No. 98 car was in the wrong place at the wrong time when Ty Dillon spun on the backstretch, collecting Herbst. The No. 98 team finished last.
Because of the inconveniences, surely Herbst is seeing hate on social media, just like he has in years past. But he noted he has thick skin and that distaste doesn’t affect him.
“It‘s kind of hysterical at this point,” Herbst said of the negative fans on social media. “I‘ve gotten to the point where I regularly open up my Twitter app [or] go on Facebook just to post a photo and then log back off because those people mean nothing to me. Most of the people don‘t even put their name in their username, it‘s just NASCARFan062005.
“When people like that come at me, it doesn‘t bother me at that point. It used to, but now I‘ve moved on and I‘m trying to be the best I can be and focus on the [No.] 98 team and try to be competitive.”
Even after it was announced he would be the driver of the No. 98 in 2021, Herbst said he didn’t check social media because, “There‘s no reason to read the congratulations because all that does is give you jacked up, and there‘s no reason to read the negative comments because that brings you down.”
Despite the tough start to the year, Herbst sits 19th in the championship standings, just nine points outside the playoffs.