Set to kick off at Daytona International Speedway on February 17, the 2024 NASCAR Xfinity Series season will undoubtedly produce its share of surprises over the next nine months.

Just don’t expect those surprises to come in the form of the drivers who are winning races and battling it out for the championship.

Of the drivers who finished in the top seven of the 2023 Xfinity Series standings, six are back as full-time Xfinity Series competitors in 2024, and the one driver among that group who isn’t — John Hunter Nemechek — is running a part-time Xfinity Series schedule for Joe Gibbs Racing in combination with his new role as a full-time NASCAR Cup Series driver.

This means that reigning Xfinity Series champion Cole Custer returns in Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 00 Ford, as does championship runner-up Justin Allgaier in the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet. Also back is Allgaier’s JR Motorsports teammate Sam Mayer, who finished an impressive third in the standings in his second full season of Xfinity Series competition.

Nemechek registered a series-high seven wins a season ago and finished last among last year’s quartet of championship finalists, but three of the four drivers who competed for a title in the season finale at Phoenix Raceway are not only back in a full-time capacity, but they’re back with the same team.

Needless to say, you don’t have to look very long or very hard to find the drivers who are likely to go trophy hunting in 2024. Allgaier — voted the series’ most popular driver four times in the last five seasons — has reached the Championship 4 in six of the last eight years, only to come up short each time. In the two years over that stretch when he missed the Championship 4, the veteran driver still qualified for the Round of 8.

That’s consistency at its best. As for whether Allgaier will once again be in the thick of the title hunt, he’s not inclined to make any bold predictions.

“I don’t know how many more opportunities I’m going to have to come make a Final 4,” said Allgaier, who went to Victory Lane four times in 2023 and has won at least one race in each of the past seven seasons. “I’m six (Championship 4 appearances) in, without getting one. Odds-wise, I’m not doing real great, so don’t bet on me this year, I guess. I don’t know. But on the other side of it, to do it six times, to put ourselves in the Final 4 six times, there’s nothing like it.”

Custer, the driver who edged Allgaier for the 2023 Xfinity Series title, is hoping to become the first back-to-back series champion since Tyler Reddick in 2018 and 2019. Custer’s road to last season’s title was an unconventional one, as he was essentially demoted by Stewart-Haas Racing to the Xfinity Series ahead of the 2023 season after struggling in three seasons as a full-time Cup Series driver for the organization co-owned by three-time Cup Series champion Tony Stewart and Gene Haas.

To come out and win the championship after taking what was for all practical matters a step back on the career ladder spoke volumes of Custer’s willingness to be a team player and swallow his pride for the betterment of both himself as a driver and the organization as a whole.

“You get kind of knocked down a little bit,” said Custer, who triumphed three times last year in the Xfinity Series but owns just one win in 117 Cup Series starts. “When you go to the Cup level, it’s so competitive. Things can just not go right for a few years. It’s just how it is, how tight it is. I worked with a great group of guys up there, but how it all works out, sometimes it just doesn’t work.

“Winning the Xfinity Series championship with these guys at Stewart-Haas Racing was a very proud moment. I wouldn’t want to do it with anybody else.”

If Custer it to repeat as champion, he’ll have to beat a talented cast of both Xfinity Series veterans and youngsters alike. One of those youngsters is a teenager, 19-year-old Sammy Smith, who has joined returning drivers Allgaier, Mayer, and Brandon Jones to complete the four-driver lineup for JR Motorsports — a perennial championship-contending organization.

Smith, who finished sixth in the standings and earned one victory in one full season with Joe Gibbs Racing, is replacing Josh Berry in JRM’s No. 8 Chevrolet as Berry moves to the Cup Series full time as a replacement for Kevin Harvick at Stewart-Haas Racing.

A two-time ARCA Menards Series East champion and 15-time ARCA race winner, Smith brings no dearth of driving ability and accomplishments to his new role.

“Sammy is a great fit for our program and will mesh well with our other drivers,” said JRM team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr., a 26-time NASCAR Cup Series race winner whose resume includes two Daytona 500 victories. “He’s a young, talented racer who’s willing to learn and carries himself with a lot of professionalism. He has a bright future ahead. I’m excited for our team to help him continue his journey.”

Smith is likewise excited to get started as the driver of the No. 8 Xfinity Series car, which Berry drove to three wins and a Championship 4 appearance in 2022.

“The opportunity to race for JR Motorsports is one I am looking forward to, and I cannot wait to see what we all accomplish together,” Smith said.

Two other up-and-coming drivers with a new team are 26-year-old Sheldon Creed and 21-year-old Chandler Smith, who spent last season at Richard Childress Racing and Kaulig Racing, respectively. Creed is the 2020 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion and competed for the last two seasons in the Xfinity Series with RCR, where he didn’t win a race but jumped seven spots in the standings — from 14th to seventh — from Year One to Year Two. Chandler Smith recorded Xfinity Series career win No. 1 at Richmond Raceway and finished ninth in points in 2023 as a series rookie after finishing third in points and winning three races as a Camping World Truck Series driver the previous year.

Both Chandler Smith and Creed are joining Joe Gibbs Racing to compete full time for the Xfinity Series crown and race as teammates alongside NASCAR veterans Nemechek and Aric Almirola, a newcomer to JGR, who are sharing a ride. Ryan Truex, William Sawalich, Joe Graf Jr. and Taylor Gray will each campaign a fourth JGR car in a number of races.

“Our 2024 roster has a great balance of experience, youth, wisdom, and talent,” said Steve DeSouza, EVP NASCAR Xfinity Series/Development at JGR. “We believe the veteran drivers will continually benchmark our program, compliment, and challenge each other, as well as assist our younger drivers to further develop their skill set.

“We are also excited about our crew chiefs and the teams they have assembled. We take a lot of pride in not only our program’s on-track success but also in the opportunity to develop and promote our team members.”

Back at RCR, the vacancy left by Creed has been filled by 2023 ARCA Menards Series champion Jesse Love, a 10-time ARCA winner last season. Love will be a teammate to returning RCR driver Austin Hill, who won four Xfinity Series races for the company in 2023 on the way to a fifth-place points finish.

Absent from full-time Xfinity Series competition in 2023 but hardly a stranger to NASCAR’s No. 2 division is AJ Allmendinger, who spent 2023 competing full time for Kaulig Racing in the Cup Series.

Allmendinger ran the entire Xfinity Series schedule in 2021 and 2022, scoring a total of 10 wins over the two seasons and finishing fourth in points in 2021 and fifth in 2022. Allmendinger also made a pair of trips to an Xfinity Series Victory Lane last year despite entering just five Xfinity events.

Allmendinger hoped to remain in the Cup Series full time this year, especially after going to Victory Lane for Kaulig in last fall’s Cup race on the Charlotte ROVAL, but he looks forward to giving the organization a better opportunity to win an Xfinity Series championship.

“To Kaulig Racing, AJ is much more than the trophies he’s won or the banners he’s hung in our shop,” team owner Matt Kaulig said. “AJ has always embraced what we are trying to do as an organization, and his contribution to the culture at Kaulig Racing is what truly makes him forever a part of our family.”

By going back to the Xfinity Series in a full-time role, Allmendinger will also have the opportunity to serve as a mentor to incoming Kaulig Xfinity Series driver Josh Williams, who boasts far less experience and far fewer motorsports accomplishments.

“My plans for 2024 have always been whatever Matt Kaulig and Chris Rice think is best for the team,” Allmendinger said of the organization’s team owner and president. “We’ve got work to do on both our Xfinity and Cup side as we continue to grow, but I think we are putting ourselves in the best position to keep improving. With Josh Williams coming on board, it’ll be fun to learn each other’s driving styles and work together as teammates on Saturdays.”