By Cole Cusumano
Everyone has their opinions on Riley Herbst.
Since breaking into the NASCAR scene with Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing in 2018, the 22-year-old has been living under a microscope. Critics are quick to point fingers when things aren’t going perfect for the Las Vegas native, but you can almost hear the echoes of silence once the results come.
After much misfortune, Herbst is finally getting acclimated to his new team at Stewart-Haas Racing and it couldn’t come at a better time. He’s riding back-to-back top-fives and capped off the regular-season finale at Bristol Motor Speedway with a season-best third-place finish as he looks to carry momentum into his home of ‘Sin City.’
Herbst has been a polarizing figure in NASCAR’s developmental series, as one could imagine when competing for Busch. Early on, he fed into a playful villain role with his competitive prowess on track and bold personality on the airwaves.
Fast forwarding to 2021, we’ve seen a more composed and reserved version of Herbst, who has one goal in mind that’s weighed heavily on him since competing full-time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series — to win. He’s come close on numerous occasions, posting two runner-up efforts in 2020, and a podium finish last weekend, but what’s the biggest obstacle he has to overcome?
“I don’t really know,” Herbst told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “I’ve thought about that a long time for a few different races and I like to think that we’re close, but it’s hit or miss, to be honest with you. It’s so hard to win these races. I think we’re closing in [on winning] and I think we just have to put the whole race together, honestly.”
Public perception may spell disaster for Herbst’s young career thus far, but it’s mostly surface level scares with too much emphasis on winning. After all, in 78 National Series starts, he has 32 top-10 finishes.
Speaking on 2021 specifically, he’s on pace for what could be his best campaign yet. He just matched his top-five record in a single-season with four and speed has been evident. He won his first career Xfinity Series pole at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May and he’s led more laps this year than ones prior.
Herbst could be hitting his stride at the perfect time. He’s set to begin his second postseason bid at a place he’s called home since eight years old: Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“I used to go out on motorhome hill on the backstretch, so it was pretty cool — pretty surreal to race there for my first time a few years ago: kind of full circle,” Herbst said. “It’s always fun to go home and see friends and family, and there’s nothing like racing in front of the hometown crowd, for sure.”
Like most drivers, Herbst treats his bi-annual homecoming to Nevada as a way to unwind and reconnect with family and friends. Currently living in Charlotte, North Carolina, he doesn’t get to see certain people or go to his favorite restaurants as much as he’d like.
Herbst takes lots of pride being from Las Vegas, so he uses this time to take a step back and familiarize himself with his roots. Although, home is never too far away from the 22-year-old, as his childhood friend, Noah Gragson, remains a huge presence in his life.
The young Xfinity Series drivers have forged similar paths. Growing up in the same neighborhood, Herbst and Gragson competed in Legend cars together while remaining classmates from elementary all the way to high school.
Both Vegas natives also began their NASCAR careers driving for Busch, until going their separate ways in which they would go on to race for Hall of Famers; Gragson for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Herbst for Tony Stewart.
“It’s kind of cool how we both came out to Charlotte and are racing in the Xfinity Series,” Herbst said. “I don’t know, it’s cool to see him win, but I’m also kind of a little jealous as well, because I really want to get some wins for myself and for our team.”
Another commonality shared between Herbst and Gragson is that neither has won at their home track in a National Series race. With his counterpart securing victories in two of the last three races and the driver of the No. 98 posting his best finish of the season last weekend, anything is possible in Vegas.
Herbst will need a strong day at his home track, as he begins the postseason 11th in the standings and seven points back in the opening Round of 12. This includes forgetting what happened earlier this year, where he finished last after getting involved in a wreck at the start of Stage Two.
With two top-10s in four Xfinity events in ‘Sin City,’ Herbst has a firm grasp on his home track and knows what he must do to form a path into the Round of 8.
“The speeds are pretty high [at LVMS],” Herbst said. “It’s starting to age a little bit as well, so the bumps are starting to become more persistent over in turns one and two. “I think just execution from top to bottom [is key] and I think if we do that, then we’ll be in a really good spot and hopefully be able to move on.”
Herbst doesn’t have anything set in stone for 2022, but he hopes a successful postseason push helps sort things out. He knows his future is in his hands, and they will be gripping the steering wheel with his foot mashing the accelerator as he competes for his career at Stewart-Haas Racing.