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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Kyle Busch to run five Truck races for KBM in 2023

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Kyle Busch Motorsports announced Wednesday the five Craftsman Truck Series team owner Kyle Busch will race this season.

Busch’s Truck races will be:

March 3 at Las Vegas

March 25 at Circuit of the Americas

April 14 at Martinsville

May 6 at Kansas

July 22 at Pocono

Busch is the winningest Truck Series driver with 62 career victories. He has won at least one series race in each of the last 10 seasons. He has won 37.6% of the Truck races he’s entered and placed either first or second in 56.7% of his 165 career series starts.

Zariz Transport, which specializes in transporting containers from ports, signed a multi-year deal to be the primary sponsor on Busch’s No. 51 truck for all of his series races, starting this season. The company will be an associate sponsor on the truck in the remaining 18 series races.

Myatt Snider to run six Xfinity races with Joe Gibbs Racing

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Myatt Snider is the latest driver to be announced as running a select number of Xfinity races in the No. 19 car for Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

Snider will run six races with the team. Ryan Truex (six races), Joe Graf Jr. (five) and Connor Mosack (three) also will be in JGR’s No. 19 Xfinity car this year.

Snider’s first race with the team will be the Feb. 18 season opener at Daytona. He also will race at Portland (June 3), Charlotte Roval (Oct. 7), Las Vegas (Oct. 14), Martinsville (Oct. 28) and the season finale at Phoenix (Nov. 4).

The deal returns Snider to JGR. He worked in various departments there from 2011-15.

“We’re looking forward to have Myatt on our No. 19 team for six races,” said Steve DeSouza, executive vice president of Xfinity and development. “Building out the driver lineup for this car is an opportunity for JGR to help drivers continue to develop in their racing career, and we’re looking forward to seeing how Myatt continues to grow.”

Said Snider in a statement from the team: “With six races on our 2023 schedule, I’m looking forward to climbing into the No. 19 TreeTop Toyota GR Supra with Joe Gibbs Racing this year. Having worked with JGR as a high schooler and a young racer, it’s an awesome full circle moment to return as a driver to the team that taught me so much about racing itself.

“It’s good to be reunited with (crew chief) Jason Ratcliff as we have an awesome history working together. With many memories and wins from 2013 and 2014 when I worked on the No. 20 Toyota Camry under Jason’s leadership, the team has always been more of a family relationship to me. I’m glad to be returning to the JGR family and looking forward to continuing to learn and grow as a driver.”

Daytona will be Snider’s 100th career Xfinity start. He has one series win and 21 top 10s. He was the rookie of the year in the Craftsman Truck Series in 2018.

Tree Top will be Snider’s sponsor for his six races with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Also in the Xfinity Series, Gray Gaulding, who will run full season with SS Green Light Racing, announced that he’ll have sponsor Panini America for multiple races, including the Daytona opener. Emerling-Gase Motorsports announced that Natalie Decker will run a part-time schedule in both the ARCA Menards Series and Xfinity Series for the team.

 

Travis Pastrana ‘taking a chance’ at Daytona

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In so-called “action” sports, Travis Pastrana is a king. He is well-known across the spectrum of motorsports that are a bit on the edge — the X Games, Gymkhana, motorcross and rally racing.

Now he’s jumping in the deep end, attempting to qualify for the Daytona 500 and what would be his first NASCAR Cup Series start.

Pastrana, who is entered in the 500 in a third Toyota fielded by 23XI Racing, will be one of at least six drivers vying for the four non-charter starting spots in the race. Also on that list: Jimmie Johnson, Conor Daly, Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Austin Hill.

MORE: IndyCar driver Conor Daly entered in Daytona 500

Clearly, just getting a spot on the 500 starting grid won’t be easy.

“I love a challenge,” Pastrana told NBC Sports. “I’ve wanted to be a part of the Great American Race since I started watching it on TV as a kid. Most drivers and athletes, when they get to the top of a sport, don’t take a chance to try something else. I like to push myself. If I feel I’m the favorite in something, I lose a little interest and focus. Yes, I’m in way over my head, but I believe I can do it safely. At the end of the day, my most fun time is when I’m battling and battling with the best.”

Although Pastrana, 39, hasn’t raced in the Cup Series, he’s not a stranger to NASCAR. He has run 42 Xfinity races, driving the full series for Roush Fenway Racing in 2013 (winning a pole and scoring four top-10 finishes), and five Craftsman Truck races.

“All those are awesome memories,” Pastrana said. “In my first race at Richmond (in 2012), Denny Hamlin really helped me out. I pulled on the track in practice, and he waited for me to get up to speed. He basically ruined his practice helping me get up to speed. Joey Logano jumped in my car at New Hampshire and did a couple of laps and changed the car, and I went from 28th to 13th the next lap. I had so many people who really reached out and helped me get the experience I needed.”

Pastrana was fast, but he had issues adapting to the NASCAR experience and the rhythm of races.

“It was extremely difficult for me not growing up in NASCAR,” he said. “I come from motocross, where there’s a shorter duration. It’s everything or nothing. You make time by taking chances. In pavement racing, it’s about rear-wheel drive. You can’t carry your car. In NASCAR it’s not about taking chances. It’s about homework. It’s about team. It’s about understanding where you can go fast and be spot on your mark for three hours straight.”

MORE: Will Clash issues carry over into rest of season?

Pastrana said he didn’t venture into NASCAR with the idea of transferring his skills to stock car racing full time.

“It was all about me trying to get to the Daytona 500,” he said. “Then I looked around, when I was in the K&N Series, and saw kids like Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. They were teenagers, and they already were as good or better than me.”

Now he hopes to be in the mix with Elliott, Larson and the rest of the field when the green flag falls on the 500.

He will get in some bonus laps driving for Niece Motorsports in the Craftsman Truck Series race at Daytona.

“For the first time, my main goal, other than qualifying for the 500, isn’t about winning,” Pastrana said. “We’ll take a win, of course, but my main goal is to finish on the lead lap and not cause any issues. I know we’ll have a strong car from 23XI, so the only way I can mess this up is to be the cause of a crash.

“I’d just love to go out and be a part of the Great American Race.”

 

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”