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Images from the Xfinity Series race Desert Diamond Casino West Valley 200 in Phoenix, AZ.
NEWS

Riley Herbst: Turn on the Bright Lights

Feb 092021

The unfurling and waving of the green flag at 5 PM this Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway will fire off the Beef. It’s What’s For Dinner 300, and with it, the official start of the 40th season of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing Xfinity Series.

Hoping to be up on the front row and leading the Xfinity Series into a brave new era will be Riley Herbst in the No. 18 Monster Energy Ford Mustang of Stewart-Hass Racing. Launching what will be his sophomore season in the Xfinity Series, the 21-year-old from Las Vegas, Nevada will be seated in one of, if not the strongest, most feared car in the entire field. A car that recently graduated Xfinity pilot Chase Briscoe raced to nine victories during the 2020 Xfinity Series, Herbst is absolutely and fully aware that the expectations placed upon him by the Stewart-Haas outfit are, well, extremely high.

“Being on a team with such a strong run of success is the kind of opportunity every driver wants,” Herbst pointed out in 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-in the top 10 in 17 additional Xfinity races in 2020, the numbers displayed on the performance scoreboard were both consistent and satisfactory for Herbst last year, but he knows and SHR knows much more will be expected out of the No. 98 car and its driver come to Daytona next Saturday night. And so with all this in mind - and with the siren song of Daytona Beach, Florida calling us all – Monster Energy sought out Herbst on Saturday afternoon and got him talking.

Okay, Riley. It’s Tuesday afternoon in Charlotte, North Carolina, and in just a few days, you’ll be climbing into a race car in Daytona Beach, Florida to begin the 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series. What do you think, my friend?

Yeah, it is one week from today and I’m getting ready for it. I’m excited. It’s something to get us back to normal.

 

I’m assuming you’ve been doing a hell of a lot of Daytona International Speedway simulator work in recent months. True?

Yeah, there have been a bunch of simulations, but no testing. We’re not allowed to test. But yes, you are right, we’ve just been wearing out the simulator.

 

And Richard Boswell will be your crew chief in 2021. Have you guys spent a lot of time together?

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.

 

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. Are you ready?

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 of 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.

 

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 2.5-mile trioval and its 31-degree banks?

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.

A week later you’ll compete in the 52-lap Xfinity race on the Daytona Road Course. Thoughts?

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 kind of pull off a two-for-two in Daytona.

 

Do you like the shifting of gears and all the braking and the turning left and right that the Road Course will bring?

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.

 

The comes Homestead-Miami for you guys.

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.

 

Round four will take you back home to Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

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 upfront.

 

How cool is it that you guys will race at the Circuit of the Americas this season? Watching Formula 1 car and MotoGP bikes go around that place in just beyond cool. And to see the big and lumbering stock cars you guys race go around that place is going to beyond cool. What do you think?

Exactly. We get to go to the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas which is pretty cool. 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 at 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.

 

In looking at the racers and race teams of the Xfinity Series there were a lot of comings and goings during the off-season. When you look at the competition roster leading into 2021, what do you think?

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.

 

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…

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. 33 races out of 52 weeks in a year are quite a lot. Your off-season is small, but we enjoy all of this. it’s kind of surreal to think it, but we are just one level beneath the Cup Series, which is pretty surreal to think about. 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.

 

Right on, Riley. Thanks for doing this and just when will pack everything up and head on down to Daytona?

We’re heading out on Friday morning and we practice on Friday afternoon and we race Saturday night underneath the lights. I’m excited. I’ve been waiting for this moment now for the last couple of months and I’m ready to get down there to go see what we’ve got. We’re definitely ready for it.

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