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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Sunday’s Cup race at Bristol: Start time, forecast and more

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After four races on tracks more than 1 mile in length, NASCAR heads to Bristol Motor Speedway for Sunday afternoon’s race.

NASCAR’s first short track race of the season concludes a two-week period where the Cup Series will have run five times.

Kevin Harvick won the first race in this stretch May 17 at Darlington Raceway. Denny Hamlin won the May 20 Darlington race. Brad Keselowski won last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. Chase Elliott won at Charlotte on Thursday night.

Here are the details for Sunday’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee will give the command to start engines at 3:43 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 3:53 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 7:30 a.m. (teams are assigned specific times). Engine prime and final adjustments at 1:30 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 3:20 p.m. The invocation will be given at 3:35 p.m. by Mike Rife, pastor of Vansant Church of Christ in Vansant, Virginia. The national anthem will be performed at 3:36 p.m. by Edwin McCain. There will be a flyover at 3:37 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 500 laps (266.5 miles) around the 0.533-mile oval.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 125. Stage 2 ends on Lap 250.

TV/RADIO: FS1 will televise the race. Its coverage begins at 3 p.m. Performance Racing Network will broadcast the race. Its broadcast begins at 2:30 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for sunny conditions with a high of 70 degrees and a zero percent chance of rain at the race’s start.

LAST RACE: Chase Elliott took the lead from Kevin Harvick with 28 laps to go and went on to win Thursday night’s Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Denny Hamlin finished second. Ryan Blaney placed third.

LAST RACE AT BRISTOL: Denny Hamlin passed Matt DiBenedetto with 12 laps to go to take the lead and went on to win last year’s night race. DiBenedetto finished second. Brad Keselowski placed third.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the starting lineup.

CATCHING UP TO SPEED WITH NBC SPORTS COVERAGE:

Matt DiBenedetto: “No margin for error” at Bristol Motor Speedway

Can Adam Stevens, Kyle Busch “get mojo back” at Bristol?

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Forget practice, qualifying, “I just like to race”

Chase Elliott’s “Sent it, for Judd” in Charlotte Cup Series win

When fans can return, how many will be allowed at tracks?

Where are they now? Catching up with Casey Mears

 

Matt DiBenedetto: ‘No margin for error’ at Bristol Motor Speedway

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It will be a weird feeling for Matt DiBenedetto on Sunday.

He and the rest of the Cup Series will embark on a 500-mile race at Bristol Motor Speedway for the first true short-track race of the season.

It will be DiBenedetto’s first trip back to the hall-mile track since last August, when he came within 12 laps of earning his first Cup Series win. Instead, he finished second to Denny Hamlin in his best career finish. For DiBenedetto, Bristol represents the site of “probably one of the most defeating and toughest days of my life” and one of the “most rewarding.”

“It was a tough week on us, so there was a lot of not really feeling how to feel,” DiBenedetto said Friday in a Zoom press conference. “But ultimately it led to being a big factor in me getting this opportunity to drive the 21 car this year, so it was a big day and everything was meant to be.”

DiBenedetto enters his ninth race as the driver for Wood Brothers Racing.  But he’s not revisiting last year’s night race in his preparation for Sunday’s race (3:30 p.m. ET on FS1).

“It’s still that painful that I’ve never watched (it),” DiBenedetto said. “I can’t remember what lap, but I cut it off and I can’t even watch it.  It would be too much.

“But as far as what I’m gonna try to learn for this Sunday, I’m actually gonna go back and probably watch mostly 2018 stuff because, thank goodness, we have the low downforce back for Bristol, which will make the racing way, way better, so I’m excited about that.”

As with the first four races back amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Cup teams will get no practice before taking the green flag in “Thunder Valley.”

DiBenedetto said it has been “amazing” how cars have been able to fire off without any preparation, thanks to simulations and notes from previous races.

“The heights (on the car) and everything are usually pretty close, just because they have so much information to work (with),” DiBenedetto said.  “Really, it’s not too big of a deal.

“Actually, it’s even better than I thought just firing straight off in the race. The (competition) yellow and things like that help so you have a little time to adjust on your car and work on it, so they’ve done a good job with that.”

But Bristol is a different animal. DiBenedetto said the race will be “nerve-racking” without on-track preparation.

“Bristol, there’s just no margin for error.,” he said. “It’s really, really fast.  It’s an insanely fast short track.  You’re on edge already even when you have your car dialed in. … It’ll work out fine, for sure, but you just really are out and out praying that your car is dialed in right because it’s very sensitive.

“If you’re off just a little bit at Bristol, it can affect you worse than these tracks where it’s a big race track – a mile-and-a-half – and you don’t have to worry about going a lap down if you miss it or things like that, so this one will be a little bit more treacherous.”

DiBenedetto will be hoping to capture some of his Bristol magic from last year. Since finishing second at Las Vegas in February, DiBenedetto has finished better than 13th just once in the following six races, placing ninth in the second Darlington race.

After starting fourth Thursday night at Charlotte, he led 10 of the first 11 laps before ending the first stage in third, but finished 15th.

“Car speed is there and great and we’ve shown if we hit it or we’re close we can be up front at any of these races,” DiBenedetto said. “I’d say we’re not in our rhythm yet, but we will be. I have no doubt about that, but we’re still learning each other and making little mistakes figuring out each other’s communication.

“(Crew chief) Greg Erwin and I are figuring out working together and we still have a lot of room for improvement, which is a good thing because I know we can run up front and can contend for wins quite often. We have a lot of room for improvement on the execution side as far as putting our race together perfect from start to finish.”

Where Are They Now? Catching up with Casey Mears

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There are certain days most people never forget: their anniversaries, their children’s birthdays and for race car drivers, their first win.

These days Casey Mears may live 2,100 miles away from Charlotte Motor Speedway, but he was there in spirit for last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600.

Mears won NASCAR’s longest race in 2007. He was in the right place at the right time, taking the lead from Denny Hamlin late in the race and hanging on for the final six laps – the only laps he led all day – for the win.

Casey Mears celebrates after winning the 2007 Coca-Cola 600. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

“It was definitely the high point of my career, for sure,” Mears told NBC Sports. “I remember everything about that night.

“The one thing – and it’s not a regret – but it’s unfortunate that it ended up being a fuel-mileage race because we had a very fast car that night and ran inside the top 10 and top five the majority of the night.

“We probably weren’t going to win it, but we had a good shot at a top five and were going to be in the hunt. (Crew chief Darian Grubb) made a great call and we won the race, which was amazing for several different reasons.

“I mean, obviously winning in Charlotte, the 600 is the longest race, winning on Memorial Day weekend, which is a huge week for my family and then also being sponsored by the National Guard at that time. It was just a big night.”

While the 600 was his only Cup win, Mears also recalls several other key moments of his career, including runner-up finishes in 2006 at the Daytona 500 and later that year at Kansas.

“That night at Charlotte was a huge part of my career but some of the stuff that I feel like we earned on speed which was really cool were, we sat on the pole at Indy, did well at places like Chicago, Pocono and Michigan, being competitive and leading laps at places like Atlanta and Homestead, going back and forth with Tony Stewart at Atlanta one year.

“Some of those big moments in my career weren’t necessarily the only parts that stand out. The moments I remember the most were when we had competitive race cars and when we were on the verge of getting those wins and getting real close.”

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Mears lives in the Phoenix area with his family. It’s also where he met his wife, Trisha.

“We always said that when the NASCAR things slowed down, we’d like to be back out this way,” Mears told NBC Sports. “So we picked up and moved the kids and came out to Phoenix. We’re loving it, and I’m really enjoying spending a lot of time with them. I’ve also been fortunate to reconnect with some of my off-road racing buddies since I’ve been out here.”

This is the off-road truck Casey Mears co-drove in last year’s NORRA Mexican Baja 1000. (Photo courtesy Casey Mears)

Mears may be gone from NASCAR, but he’s still taking part in other forms of racing part-time, including off-road competition like the NORRA Mexican Baja 1000 last year with Lynn Chenoweth. Casey’s father Roger drove for Chenoweth back in the 1960s and 1970s, and also is part of Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks Series.

“I also hang out with (NBC IndyCar analyst and former racer Paul Tracy) and drive his Lamborghini sports car, just taking it on the track and sliding around, just having fun,” Mears said. “If opportunities come around, I’d love to race some more.

“I really, really enjoyed racing out in the desert, doing off road stuff. I’d also love to get involved in some sports car stuff as well if there’s an opportunity.

“I love what I’m being able to do right now, just dabble. Playing in Robby’s series, that’s been a blast and picking up random off road, desert opportunities. But racing’s racing, it always boils down to the dollars and cents and sponsors or finding some guy that just wants to go racing and spend some money and have fun. It’s few and far between these days.”

Even though Mears has moved on from NASCAR, he admits he misses it.

“I was fortunate to get to do it for about 15 years,” Mears said. “I lived that life and it really becomes almost the opposite. Your family and friends end up being all the people on the road and people at home become extended friends and family, you’re on the road so much.

“For sure I miss a lot of the people that you saw week in and week out. I definitely miss the competition. I don’t think I’ll ever not miss being in a race car because, like so many others in the sport, I didn’t really get to go out on my own terms.

“For so many people, the sport decides it for you before you’re ready to decide not to do it. I think I’ll always have that desire to want to get in a car again.

“But the one thing that helped me make this decision to move to Phoenix is that I didn’t want to be one of those guys that lingered in the sport either. I didn’t want to be with a back marker program and not be able to be competitive and that’s kind of probably what would have happened. I would have stuck around and would have gotten into something I probably really didn’t need to be in.”

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Mears made 489 career Cup starts, his last full-time season being in 2016. He came back for a start last year for Germain Racing in the season-opening Daytona 500. He started 40th and finished 40th, involved in a crash just past the halfway point.

Mears also made 107 Xfinity Series starts, earning his lone series win in 2016 at Chicagoland Speedway.

He still keeps his hand in NASCAR somewhat, just not on a steering wheel. He does promotional work for Phoenix Raceway and visits his former chums each time NASCAR comes to town.

Casey Mears, right, remains good friends with a number of his former teammates, including seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

He also keeps in regular contact with close friends and former teammates and bosses including Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Chip Ganassi, Rick Hendrick, Bob Germain and Doug Barnette.

But moving on from being a race car driver, pretty much the only thing he had known for more than 30 years since being a kid growing up in Bakersfield, California, gave Mears pause.

“This move really forced me to figure out what’s next in life,” he said. “I’m 42 years old and although I’ve done well and been very fortunate, but I need to do something.”

He’s looking at a variety of business opportunities in the Phoenix area, primarily in the automotive industry.

“I feel very fortunate to have the career that I’ve had in the sport,” Mears said. “I drove for a lot of real good teams and programs and learned a lot from a lot of people.

“The people I got to race with and learn from just from the business standpoint is going to help me later in my career with whatever’s next. I had some great opportunities and will always miss it, but at the same time, I’m looking forward to the future and what’s next.”

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Starting lineup for Monday night’s Xfinity race at Bristol

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Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Harrison Burton and Brandon Jones will start on the front row for Monday night’s Xfinity Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway after a random draw.

Burton will start on the pole and Jones will be second. Austin Cindric will start third, Justin Haley starts fourth and Ryan Sieg starts fifth.

There are 37 cars in the field. NASCAR on NBC analyst AJ Allmendinger will start 27th in his season debut in the series.

Monday’s race is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. ET on FS1.

The starting lineup was determined through a random draw of the following groups:

  • Positions 1-12: The first 12 NXS Teams based on the Adverse Conditions Line Up Eligibility will be assigned starting positions 1st – 12th using a random draw.
  • Positions 13-24: The next 12 NXS Teams based on the Adverse Conditions Line Up eligibility will be assigned starting positions 12th- 24th using a random draw.
  • Starting positions 25-36:The next 12 NXS Teams based on the Adverse Conditions Line Up eligibility will be assigned starting positions 25th -36th using a random draw.
  • Any vehicles that are eligible for the Event in position 37th – 40th will be assigned starting positions based on their order of eligibility.

Click here for starting lineup

 

NASCAR Xfinity Series at Bristol

Race Time: 7 p.m. ET Monday

Track: Bristol Motor Speedway; Bristol, Tennessee (0.533-mile oval)

Length: 300 laps, 159.9 miles

Stages: Stage 1 ends on Lap 85. Stage 2 ends on Lap 170.

TV coverage: FS1

Radio: Performance Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: Fox Sports app (subscription required); goprn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Next Cup race: May 31 at Bristol (500 laps, 266.5 miles), 3:30 p.m. ET on FS1

Next Truck Series race: June 6 at Atlanta (130 laps, 200.02 miles), 1 p.m. ET on FS1