Xfinity Series Spotlight: Previewing the championship drivers

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No matter what happens over the course of Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300 (3:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the Xfinity Series will have a first-time champion.

Four drivers will have 200 laps to determine the winner.

JR Motorsports’ Elliott Sadler, Justin Allgaier, and William Byron will face off against Richard Childress Racing’s Daniel Hemric.

Here’s a look at each of the candidates to become the 28th different Xfinity Series champion.

Justin Allgaier (Getty Images)

Justin Allgaier – JR Motorsports’ No. 7 Chevrolet

Of the top 10 drivers in laps led this season, Allgaier is one of two Xfinity Series regulars.

Through 32 races, Allgaier has led a career-best 495 laps. His previous high was 222 in 2010. The next highest total belongs to Byron, who has led 262 laps.

The 31-year-old driver is in the Championship 4 for the second year in a row. The big difference this season is that he enters the season finale with two wins after going winless in 2016.

Allgaier qualified for the playoffs early with a win at Phoenix in March. He didn’t return to victory lane until the regular-season finale at his home track of Chicagoland Speedway.

He heads to Homestead with 10 top fives and 17 top 10s. Four of those top fives came on 1.5-mile tracks. In seven starts at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Allgaier’s best finish was sixth last year. It is his only top-10 finish at the track.

Allgaier will be without his primary crew chief, Jason Burdett, who was suspended for the race after his No. 7 Chevrolet failed post-race inspection at Phoenix.

It’s similar to the situation that his teammate, Elliott Sadler, was in last season.

Elliott Sadler (Getty Images)

Elliott Sadler – JR Motorsports’ No. 1 Chevrolet

Sadler has strapped himself in to compete in NASCAR points races 819 times in his career.

But in none of those races – in the Cup, Xfinity or Camping World Truck Series – has the 42-year-old driver clinched a NASCAR title.

Sadler has finished in the top five in the Xfinity standings six times in his nine full-time seasons on the circuit. That number will rise to seven on Saturday no matter the outcome of the Ford EcoBoost 300.

One stat he doesn’t want to add to is the number of times he’s finished runner-up to the Xfinity champion.

His second-place finish to Daniel Suarez last year was the third occurrence.

“I’m definitely looking for redemption this year,” Sadler told NBC Sports in May. “Believe me, I don’t need any extra incentive to want to win a championship.”

Elliott is one of two championship drivers who haven’t won this season. The other is Hemric.

However, Sadler has been wearing his competition down with consistency, reaching the championship race through 12 top fives and 24 top 10s, both highs among Xfinity regulars.

“We’ve met our goals,” Sadler said after the Phoenix race. “We’re back in a one-race shootout at Homestead and we’ve saved our best car for there. So we’re very optimistic for when we get to Homestead. Just ready to get the weekend going. That was our goal when we went to Daytona in the beginning of the season and we’ve met our goal and that’s all we can ask for.”

If Sadler prevails with the first NASCAR title of his career, he’d be the third-oldest champion in Xfinity history at 42 years, 6 months and 19 days. He (or Hemric) could also be the second winless champion in Xfinity history  (Austin Dillon, 2013).

Sadler is the father figure of the playoff drivers by an average of 16.6 years. The biggest age gap is 23 years between him and 19-year-old JR Motorsports teammate, William Byron.

William Byron (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

William Byron – JR Motorsports’ No. 9 Chevrolet

Like Sadler, Byron is also looking for redemption from last season.

Byron looks to claim his first NASCAR title before departing for the Cup Series and his third consecutive rookie season, this time driving the No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.

Byron entered the Xfinity Series after a year in the Camping World Truck Series. He won a rookie-record six races before a blown engine at Phoenix kept him from being among the Championship 4 in a race he won.

“This year we made sure that didn’t happen,” Byron said after winning last weekend at Phoenix. “We executed well. We had a lot of adversity I feel like through the playoffs. We’ve just had different things, weird things happen. We’ve been able to rebound from those. … We’ve been able to get a good finish and that’s what matters (in Miami).”

Byron heads to the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway with 11 top fives and 21 top 10s.

Unlike four of his Truck wins, none of Byron’s four Xfinity victories have come at a 1.5-mile track. His only finish better than seventh (three times) was fourth two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway.

Only five years removed from his beginnings on the online racing simulator iRacing, Byron is one of four full-time Xfinity regulars to have won this year.

Should he win Saturday’s race – and the championship – he would enter a four-way tie for most wins by a rookie (Greg Biffle, 2001; Kyle Busch, 2004; Carl Edwards, 2005).

He’d also join his future Hendrick teammate Chase Elliott in being the only rookies to ever win the Xfinity title.

Challenging Byron for that distinction is a driver he competed against in Legends cars and even once called a team owner: Daniel Hemric.

Daniel Hemric (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Daniel Hemric – Richard Childress Racing’s No. 21 Chevrolet

If Hemric wins the Xfinity title, it’ll be for the “hard-nosed short-track racer that will not ever get an opportunity like this.”

The 26-year-old rookie – ancient by today’s NASCAR standards – made that proclamation prior to the start of the postseason.

Two months later, Hemric is in position to be that symbol due a display of his own hard-nosed talents last week at Phoenix.

The Richard Childress Racing driver took part in a nearly 13-lap battle with fellow rookie Cole Custer for the final Championship slot.

On the final restart, Hemric started on the front row with just two fresh tires. Custer, restarting behind him, had four.

A late charging Christopher Bell passed both of them with two laps to go, ensuring Hemric was safe – narrowly – points wise. But that didn’t keep Hemric from aggressively defending against Custer on the final lap before clearing him coming to the checkered flag and finishing fifth.

“Those are the moments you live for and you hope to get that excited about anything as your career goes,” Hemric said afterward. “I’m just very fortunate … it’s my rookie season, we’ve been through a lot together.”

Hemric clinched his championship spot while capping off a four-race stretch that saw him without his primary crew chief, car chief and an engineer. All had been suspended due a weight that fell off his No. 21 Chevrolet during practice at Dover in the first round.

Randall Burnett, who was Hemric’s interim crew chief in those four races, will remain in the position for the season finale.

Before Phoenix, Hemric finished seventh (Charlotte), 18th (Kansas) and 14th (Texas).

The fifth-place finish at Phoenix was his seventh top five of the year, but just his second in the playoffs.

Only one of his top fives, at Chicagoland, came on a 1.5-mile track.

“The heart of this group has done an unbelievable job just rebounding and sticking together and coming through the struggles with out heads held high and making the most of every weekend, and that’s why as a rookie group together we’ve been able to accomplish the things we have.”

While he and Sadler both hope to win their first race of the season, Hemric is also looking for his first NASCAR win overall.

Hemric would make history if he were to win the championship without having won a race in any of NASCAR’s three national touring series.

Said Hemric: “Hopefully we’ve saved our best for last.”

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NASCAR Penalty report from Michigan

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The NASCAR penalty report from Michigan International Speedway has been released.

It includes two fines for unsecured lug nuts. Chad Knaus, crew chief for William Byron‘s No. 24 Chevrolet, and Chris Gabehart, crew chief on Denny Hamlin‘s No. 11 Toyota, have each been fined $10,000 for one unsecured lug nut during the course of the weekend.

The report also includes the penalties issued Saturday to Roush Fenway Racing for the improper spoilers used on both Ryan Newman and Chris Buescher‘s cars.

Brendan Gaughan set for Daytona road course after COVID-19 recovery

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On July 15, part-time Cup Series driver Brendan Gaughan became the second NASCAR driver to announce he’d tested positive for COVID-19.

After quarantining for two weeks and testing negative for COVID-19 twice more than 24 hours apart, Gaughan has been medically cleared to go racing again.

And he won’t even have to wait until the Cup Series regular-season finale on Aug. 29 to do it.

Originally scheduled to only compete in the season’s four superspeedway races with Beard Motorsports, Gaughan will suit up to drive the No. 62 Chevrolet in Sunday’s race on the Daytona road course (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

He joins Jimmie Johnson in having tested positive for COVID-19 and returned to race. While Gaughan last competed in the June 22 race at Talladega, Johnson only missed the Brickyard 400 before returning to the track.

“I feel fantastic,” Gaughan said in a press release. “I’m finally out of the house. The toughest part of the whole ordeal was the mental aspect. I truly feel for people who struggle with depression and have to deal with COVID-19, because this thing is tough. You literally get stuck in a location by yourself. Fortunately for me, I had my puppy. I missed my two children tremendously. But it’s amazing now because we live in the age of the Jetsons that we can pick up a phone and look at their faces.”

To get clearance to race, Gaughan tested twice for COVID-19 in more than 24 hours and also had to get a doctor’s note saying he was good to go.

“That was it,” Gaughan said. “As long as I’m negative, they are good with it. They still have their protocols in place, so when we get to the track we are all still separated. The drivers don’t get to mingle with the teams right now. NASCAR has done a phenomenal job with it and they have been able to stay open for business while having very, very minor effects from this.”

While he was originally just going to race at Talladega and the Daytona oval, Gaughan says this weekend’s road course race “technically counts.”

“We said all of the Daytona races,” Gaughan said. “What happened is that as soon as it got added to the schedule immediately my mind went, ‘Wow, I would love to race the Daytona road course.’ There’s very few of us Cup drivers that have experience on that race course. And with no practice and no qualifying, that gives about 10 of us a very large advantage over the field.”

Brendan Gaughan
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Gaughan competed on the road course and earned a class victory in the 2011 Rolex 24 at Daytona, with his team beating second place by a full lap. He’s ran in the Rolex 24 twice since, finishing third in 2016 in the Prototype Challenge class and 14th in 2018 in the Prototype division.

“I was immediately enticed by it,” Gaughan said of the road course race. “Then you know how much I always speak so highly of Richard Childress Racing. Richard called and said, ‘Hey, come on man, you know you want to do it,’ and I kind of chuckled because everyone knows I love my road racing. I talked to the Beard family and said, ‘Hey, you want to add a race to the schedule?’ It wasn’t in the budget. It wasn’t planned originally, but the Beards were on board.

“They are in the same boat as me. This is a retirement year like me and they are having the same fun I am. They went, ‘Ooohh, we can do well there.’ So we called Richard up and he built me a brand new Beard Oil Distributing/South Point Hotel & Casino Chevrolet Camaro from RCR that we were able to rent for Beard Motorsports to go race.”

Gaughan, who will start last in the race due his lack of owner points, dissected how different it will be navigating the road course in Cup compared to the sports car he drove the last time he raced on it.

“I need to remember that the last time I raced there in an LMP car, I could lift at the ‘1’ sign going into the chicane on the back straightaway,” Gaughan said. “Now if I lift at the ‘1’ in a Cup car, I will end up at the airport. So I need to remember that I’m going to need a little more braking zone room. But you basically already know the line and you know where you want to be. You know the feel of the place.

“You know where some passing zones are. You kind of know how to run that race, which is the big advantage that comes with it. Having a car built from Richard Childress means that I don’t have to worry that it’s going to have parts and pieces that aren’t any good. And I still have Darren Shaw, my crew chief, who I’ve been working with at Beard Motorsports. We’ve still got our guys working it and our guys doing it, so I kind of have the best of all worlds here. And there is an advantage for people that have been there. I also gave myself a little bit of an insurance policy. I offered to sponsor Andy Lally in the Xfinity race. To me, Andy Lally is the premier sports-car racer in America.

“I don’t think anybody can argue that there is anybody better than Andy Lally. So, I offered to sponsor Andy because he’s racing Saturday. I told him he has to stay over Sunday and do some driver coaching and give me his notes. Not only do I have experience on the track, I will have notes from a stock car on the track from the day before.”

Christopher Bell: ‘Pretty scared’ about future before re-joining JGR

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Early last week, Christopher Bell was “pretty scared” about his NASCAR future after Leavine Family Racing, the Toyota-backed team the rookie driver competes for in the Cup Series, announced it would sell its assets to Spire Motorsports.

That left Bell’s relationship with Toyota, the manufacturer that’s been the “centerpiece” of his racing career since 2013 and 2015 in NASCAR, up in the air.

“I’ve said it time and time again, but Toyota has been my – they’re the ones that got me here,” Bell said Tuesday in a press conference. “They’re the ones that took me from dirt track racing to pavement racing to Truck (Series) racing to Xfinity racing and then obviously made this deal happen with LFR too. At the time, it’s either the 20 car (at Joe Gibbs Racing) or I’m done with Toyota. There’s no other options. It was very scary. I didn’t want that to end.”

Bell acknowledged that despite his 2017 Truck Series title, his seven Truck wins and 16 Xfinity wins, a lack of sponsorship backing didn’t make him the most valuable hire for another team.

“The sponsorship piece is a huge part of it,” Bell said. “It’s no secret, you have to have sponsors in order to succeed in this sport and I’ve been really fortunate to have Rheem with me for the last couple of years. If I get pushed out of the Toyota group, I don’t really have much to say, ‘hire me.’”

Bell said, “I knew that once LFR shut down, there was only one place for me to go and the 20 car has obviously got a great driver in there right now.”

That driver was Erik Jones, who has been with Joe Gibbs Racing in Cup full-time since 2018 and been a Toyota driver in NASCAR since 2013 in the Truck Series with Kyle Busch Motorsports.

“‘How is that going to work?'” Bell asked himself. “‘How am I going to be able to go to JGR whenever they’re full?’ Unfortunately my homecoming so to speak was at the expense of another driver.”

Two days after LFR’s announcement, Joe Gibbs Racing revealed Jones would not return to the team in 2021, a move that “blindsided” Jones.

On Monday, JGR announced Bell’s ascent up the ranks would finally land him in the No. 20 next season.

“It was very, I mean, uncomfortable is a good way to put it,” Bell said. “I don’t think any of us – myself, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota – none of us expected the whole LFR deal to go down like it did, so I think that put everybody in a little bit of a box. … I’m extremely grateful that I get to continue that relationship and that I get to continue to drive Camrys on Sundays and race with TRD for hopefully a long time to come.”

How does Bell see his relationship with Jones playing out over the final 14 races of the season?

“As far as me versus him, that situation is already done, so I don’t know how he’s going to race me going forward,” Bell said. “I’m going to be cheering for Erik, just as everybody is at Joe Gibbs Racing, just hoping that he gets a nice solid deal and lands on his feet. I’ll be cheering for him and trying to race him with as much respect as I can, just like every other competitor. I hope he performs well, and obviously, the better he performs now in the 20 car, the better off I’ll be at the start of the year with the owner points standings. It’s really important that he does well this year in the 20 car for my future next year as well.”

Bell observed that it’s “absolutely crazy” to look back at his career path, which began in UASC Midgets and has led to him driving a “house” Toyota Cup car at JGR next year.

Going into 2021, Bell said he still has a “great relationship” with the people at JGR from his time there in the Xfinity Series.

“Whenever I was on the Xfinity side, I still got to mingle and interact with the Cup shop a little bit, so I have a rough idea how everything operates there,” Bell said. “I got in a little bit deeper with the LFR deal, and having that technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing, but it’s going to be very nice to be able to go back home.”

Spire Motorsports confirms purchase of Leavine Family Racing

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Spire Motorsports confirmed Tuesday that it will acquire the assets from Leavine Family Racing upon the completion of the 2020 season. Spire Motorsports also will expand to a two-car team in the Cup Series in 2021.

The purchase will include LFR’s charter, the team’s race shop near Charlotte Motor Speedway and all of its owned inventory. LFR’s fleet of cars and chassis will be returned to Joe Gibbs Racing.

Spire, which began competing in 2019 after it purchased Furniture Row Motorsports’ charter, fields the No. 77 Chevrolet. It has made 58 starts for more than a dozen drivers since last year, including an upset win in the July 2019 race at Daytona with Justin Haley behind the wheel.

The team is co-owned by Jeff Dickerson and Thaddeus “T.J.” Puchyr.

“This is an exciting moment for Spire as we take the natural next step in our long-term plan to build our race team and prepare for the Next Gen car in 2022,” said Dickerson in a press release. “Bob Leavine invested more than money into LFR and this industry. He built a team brick-by-brick and we have long admired how he took his own steps in the garage. He also did it with his family at his side. We won’t let that be lost in this transaction. When you build something with your family, it always means a little bit more. His ability to connect with fans was genuine and we are thankful he chose us to carry this team forward.

“These are no doubt trying times, but I have never been prouder to be part of this sport. NASCAR has managed several difficult situations this spring and into the summer. We believe in the ownership model that NASCAR has built and where this sport is going now more than ever.”

The team said details about drivers and manufacturers for 2021 will come later.