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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William Byron focused on Talladega, not upcoming appeal

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — William Byron enters today’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway not knowing if he truly is above the cutline or below it.

He’s listed as eight points outside the final transfer spot after NASCAR penalized him 25 points for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

Hendrick Motorsports’ appeal will be heard this week. Should the team win, Byron could get those 25 points back. 

But that doesn’t matter to Byron this weekend. He views himself outside a playoff spot.

“I race eight behind,” said Byron, who starts ninth in today’s race (2 p.m. ET on NBC).  “I don’t think about the hypotheticals.

“Obviously, I feel like we’ve got a good case and a good amount of evidence that we put together, but I race (as the points are). So just move forward with it. Go after the stage points and feel like we’re capable of running really well at superspeedways.”

If he wins today to advance to the next round, the points he was penalized won’t matter, but if he doesn’t win, those could prove valuable. 

The points deducted are an element of the Hendrick appeal. 

“The severity of the penalty, that’s what we were opposed to and that’s what the appeal is about,” Byron said.

His point is that being docked a similar amount of points in a three-race round as during a 26-race regular season is too severe. The suggestion being that point penalties should be modified for the playoffs because drivers have fewer races to make up those points before the playoff field is cut. 

That will be up to the appeal panel to determine. Should Hendrick lose, the team could further appeal that decision. 

Byron is in this situation after being upset with how Hamlin squeezed him into the wall last week at Texas. Martin Truex Jr. crashed to bring out the caution a few laps later. As Hamlin, running second, slowed, Byron ran up to Hamlin’s car and hit it in the back, sending Hamlin spinning through the infield grass. 

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, said series officials in the control tower didn’t see the contact. Series officials did not penalize Byron during the event but announced a penalty two days later. 

Hamlin had wanted to be placed back in his original spot after the contact but series officials put him back in the field where he blended in. Asked if he was satisfied with the penalty to Bryon, Hamlin said: “It didn’t help my finish. … It didn’t change the fact that I could have won the race instead of finishing 10th.”

Byron said he and Hamlin spoke this week.

“It was a good conversation, learned a lot from him,” Byron said of Hamlin. “Got a better understanding of what he was thinking.”

Byron’s incident shares similarities to what happened to him at Darlington in May. Joey Logano was upset with Byron for crowding him into the wall with 26 laps left. Logano caught Byron and hit the back of Byron’s car, knocking it out of the way with two laps left. Logano won. Byron finished 13th. NASCAR did not penalize Logano.

That incident was under green and in the final laps — when NASCAR is more likely to allow drivers to settle the race between themselves within reason. Byron’s contact of Hamlin last week was under caution and NASCAR typically frowns upon such action.

Earlier this season in the Xfinity Series, NASCAR did not penalize Noah Gragson for wrecking Sage Karam and triggering a 13-car crash at Road America. Four days later, NASCAR penalized Gragson 30 points and $35,000.

Dr. Diandra: Is Talladega really the biggest, fastest, fiercest track?

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Talladega Superspeedway has a reputation as one of the wildest tracks on the NASCAR circuit.

Is it hype? Or do the numbers prove the point?

The biggest

Talladega is the longest oval track in the NASCAR circuit. At 2.66 miles (14,045 feet), one Talladega lap is the length of about 468 football fields. Talladega is longer than Mauna Kea is tall.

If we measure lengths in terms of Talladega:

  • The distance from Charlotte to Nashville (the location of the NASCAR awards ceremony) is 339 Talladegas.
  • If you flew direct from Los Angeles to New York City, you would cover 2500 Talladegas.
  • Martinsville is just 0.20 Talladegas.

Talladega also holds the record for banking in current Cup Series tracks with 33 degrees. Talladega’s banking is so high that the outside lane of the 48-foot wide racing surface is 26.1 feet higher than the inside lane. That difference is about the height of a two-story house.

Talladega is a tri-oval. Think of it as three straight lines connected by three curves.

A graphic showing the tri-oval shape and how it got its name

 

While tri-oval describes the track shape, it is also used to refer to the frontstretch — the most triangular part of the track.

And Talladega’s frontstretch is formidable. The 4,300-foot segment is banked at 16.5 degrees. Talladega’s frontstretch has more banking than all three of Pocono’s turns.

The backstretch, known as the Alabama Gang Superstretch, isn’t too shabby, either. It’s 1,000 feet longer than Daytona’s backstretch. If you were to unroll Richmond, its entire 0.75-mile length would just cover Talladega’s backstretch.

Talladega’s infield is so large that it could hold the L.A. Coliseum, Martinsville, Bristol, Dover, Richmond and the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

A graphic showing that it's possible to pack five smaller tracks, plus the NASCAR Hall of Fame into Talladega's infield

The Fastest

Bill France Sr. originally envisioned Talladega as Indianapolis Motor Speedway with higher banking. At a time when raw speed was the big attraction, higher banking would allow Talladega to wrest away the closed-track speed record from Indy.

In 1970, just six months after Talladega hosted its first race, Buddy Baker became the first driver to break the 200 mph mark on a closed course.

Baker’s breakthrough happened at a testing session. It wasn’t until 1982 that Benny Parsons became the first Cup Series driver to qualify over 200 mph. Just four years later, all but one of the 42 drivers starting the spring race qualified over 200 mph.

In May 1987, Bill Elliott set the all-time Cup Series qualifying record at 212.809 mph. That record will likely never be broken. During the race, Bobby Allison got airborne and crashed into the catchfence. NASCAR subsequently mandated restrictor plates (and now tapered spacers) to keep speeds down and cars on the ground.

Restricting airflow to the engine makes drafting even more important. That, in turn, leads to large packs of cars racing within inches of each other. That’s why four of the top-10 closest finishes in the Cup Series happened at Talladega.

In the spring 2011 race, Jimmie Johnson beat Clint Bowyer by just two-thousandths (0.002) of a second. That ties the famous 2003 Ricky Craven/Kurt Busch Darlington finish for the smallest margin of victory in Cup Series history.

Of all Talladega races run after NASCAR introduced electronic scoring in May 1993, 44 ended under a green flag. Of those races:

  • Seven (15.9%) were won by less than 25 thousandths of a second.
  • Fifteen (34.1%) were won by less than one-tenth of a second.
  • Thirty-nine (88.6%) were won by less than two-tenths of a second.
  • The largest margin of victory was 0.388 seconds.

The Fiercest

Pack racing leads to more contact. Out of 35 Talladega races run under the current green-white-checkered rule, 14 (40%) ended under caution. Rain caused one of those yellow/checkered finishes. The rest were due to accidents.

In 64 races since 1990, Talladega has seen 228 caution-causing spins or accidents, which involved 1,120 cars.

Almost half (49.2%) of these incidents involved only one or two cars. A one- or two-car accident is no less problematic for the drivers involved than a larger crash. But the more cars involved in accidents, the more likely a driver is to be knocked out of the race.

  • 3.5% of all accidents since 1990 involved 20 or more cars.
  • 5.7% of accidents collected 15 or more cars.
  • 16.7% were 10-car or larger crashes.
  • 38.2% involved five or more cars.

While probable, the Big One is by no means inevitable.

Neither are accidents in general. Three races since 1990 finished with no cautions, but all three of these races took place before 2003. The lowest number of cautions in a Talladega race since 2003 is three. That happened at the fall races in 2013 and 2015.

The average number of caution-causing accidents and spins in a Talladega race is 3.5.

  • Seven races (10.9%) had a single caution-causing accident or spin.
  • 14 out of 64 races (21.9%) had four caution-causing accidents or spins
  • 13 of 64 races (20.3%) had three caution-causing incidents.

Races with four or fewer accidents make up 71.9% of all Talladega races — which means that races with five or more accidents only account for 28.1%.

The numbers definitely uphold Talladega’s reputation. Although the track itself remains the same, the racing varies. Tune in to NBC (2 p.m. ET) to see whether this fall’s bout is accident-filled or accident-free.

Talladega Xfinity results: AJ Allmendinger edges Sam Mayer

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AJ Allmendinger, who had had several close calls in Xfinity Series superspeedway races, finally broke through to Victory Lane Saturday, edging Sam Mayer to win at Talladega Superspeedway.

Allmendinger’s margin of victory was .015 of a second. Mayer finished second by a few feet.

Following in the top five were Landon Cassill (Allmendinger’s Kaulig Racing teammate and his drafting partner at the end), Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson, who had won four straight Xfinity races entering Saturday, was 10th. Austin Hill dominated the race but finished 14th.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

AJ Allmendinger wins Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

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Veteran driver AJ Allmendinger slipped past youngster Sam Mayer in the final seconds and won Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

As drivers in the lead pack scrambled for position approaching the finish line, Allmendinger moved to the outside and, getting a push from Kaulig Racing teammate Landon Cassill, edged Mayer by a few feet. The win ended frustration for Allmendinger on superspeedways.

Following Allmendinger, 40, at the finish were Mayer (who is 19 years old), Cassill, Ryan Sieg and Josh Berry.

Noah Gragson and Allmendinger have qualified for the next playoff round. The other six drivers above the cutline are Ty Gibbs, Austin Hill, Josh Berry, Justin Allgaier, Mayer and Sieg. Below the cutline are Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones, Riley Herbst and Jeremy Clements.

MORE: Talladega Xfinity results

MORE: Talladega Xfinity driver points

“This is Talladega,” a wildly happy Allmendinger told NBC Sports. “Yes, I hate superspeedway racing, but it’s awesome to win in front of the Talladega crowd.”

Austin Hill dominated the race but dropped out of the lead to 14th place  in the closing five laps as drivers moved up and down the track in search of the best drafting line.

The first half of the race featured two and sometimes three drafting lines with a lot of movement and blocking near the front. In the final stage, the leaders ran lap after lap in single file, with Hill, Allmendinger and Gragson in the top three.

MORE: Safety key topic as drivers meet at Talladega

Hill led 60 laps and won the first two stages but finished 14th.

Gragson was in pursuit of a fifth straight Xfinity Series win. He finished 10th.

Remarkably for a Talladega race, the entire 38-car field finished. The race was the 1,300th in Xfinity history, marking only the third time the entire field had been running at the finish. The other two races were at Michigan in 1998 and Langley Speedway in Virginia in 1988.

Stage 1 winner: Austin Hill

Stage 2 winner: Austin Hill

Who had a good race: AJ Allmendinger got the “can’t win on superspeedways” monkey off his back with a great final lap. … Sam Mayer made all the right moves but was passed in the madness of the final run down the trioval. … Landon Cassill finished a strong third and gave Allmendinger, his teammate, the winning push.

Who had a bad race: The race had to be disappointing for Austin Hill, who ran the show for most of the afternoon, winning two stages and leading 60 laps, more than twice as many as any other driver. While blocking to try to maintain the lead late in the race, he fell to 14th. … Playoff driver Jeremy Clements finished a sour 20th and is 47 points below the cutline.

Next: The Xfinity Series’ next playoff race is scheduled Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. (ET) on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. The race will be broadcast by NBC.