Breaking down the Xfinity playoff field ahead of Texas

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The Xfinity Series underwent a change in its playoff standings last week without the series even holding a race.

Daniel Hemric exited the Round of 8 opener at Kansas with a nine-point lead over Elliott Sadler. Then NASCAR handed Hemric a 10-point penalty and suspended his crew chief for one race after his No. 21 Chevrolet was found to be too low in post-race inspection.

After an off week, Hemric is second on the playoff grid, one point behind Sadler ahead of this weekend’s race at Texas Motor Speedway (4:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN).

That points shift came after a major shakeup on the very first lap of the Kansas race. A multi-car wreck involved playoff drivers Christopher Bell, Justin Allgaier, Austin Cindric and Cole Custer. Only Custer was able to finish the race.

The playoff field is separated by 56 points.

Here’s a look at the eight playoff drivers ahead of the series’ trip to the Lone Star State.

Elliott Sadler ( 14 points above cut line)

Sadler, who is winless so far in his final NASCAR season, leads all drivers with seven top-10 finishes in the eight races on 1.5 mile tracks in 2018.

His best finish on a 1.5-mile track this year is third at Kansas. He’s placed fifth three times.

He’s finished in the top six in seven of the last 10 races of 2018.

Sadler has just one top five in his last 14 Xfinity starts at Texas.

“Being able to head to Texas in our current points position gives us some relief, but we still need to go out there and give it our all,” Sadler said in a media release. “As we saw in Kansas, anything can happen in these playoff races. We still have a long way to go to get to Homestead and these next two races are crucial in making the championship four.”

Daniel Hemric (+13 above cut line)

Like Sadler, Hemric is winless through 30 races. But he’s finished in the top 10 in each of the four playoff races.

He leads the playoff drivers with an average finish of 5.5 through the playoff races, up from a regular season average of 9.9. His average is 2.5 positions better than any other playoff driver.

Hemric finished third at Texas in the spring and has four top fives on 1.5-mile tracks this season, fourth among playoff drivers.

“The guys that entered the Round of 8 with a solid points advantage thought they could cruise all the way to Homestead, well, we proved that theory wrong in the opening laps of the race at Kansas Speedway,” Hemric said in a media release. “Now everyone has to legitimately race every single lap and try to get to the end of these races in order to score points and at least get an opportunity to advance. It is no different than what we have been doing all year. We need to maximize our days and maximize the weekends.”

Tyler Reddick (+11)

Reddick is winless since he won the season opener at Daytona, but the JR Motorsports driver has finished in the top 10 in six of the last nine races, including a runner-up result at Indianapolis. He has top 10s in three of the four playoff races

Reddick will make his third start at Texas. He placed 33rd and 23rd in the first two. In the spring he was caught speeding after he pitted from third place on Lap 136.

“We had some good speed here in the spring and I am very confident that we can back that up and unload with that same speed this weekend,” Reddick said in a media release. “With our position in the Round of 8 right now, we all know what we need to do and if we can have a smooth, mistake-free weekend we should be able to leave here in an even stronger points position as Homestead approaches.”

Christopher Bell (+1)

Before he crashed on Lap 1 at Kansas, Bell was riding high through the playoffs with three top fives and two wins in the first round.

Now he’s hanging by a thread above the cut line.

The rookie returns to Texas where he finished second in the spring, one of six top fives he has this year on 1.5-mile tracks.

Though he has two victories in the playoffs, he’s only won two of the last 15 stages.

Matt Tifft (-1)

When it comes to average finish among the playoff drivers, Tifft has had the biggest improvement from the regular season. Through four playoff races his average is eighth, up six spots from his regular-season average.

He’s finished in the top 10 in eight of the last 10 races.

Tifft finished sixth at Texas in the spring. His four top 10s there are tied with Dover for his most at a track.

“Since they’ve paved Texas, it’s a lot more similar to Kentucky, where it’s a one to one-and-a-half lane track,” Tifft said in a media release. “It’s very narrow at Texas. Usually at intermediate tracks we have big, sweeping wide arcs. … The challenge with Texas is we run such a hard tire that we’re pushing the car to make it as free as possible, but there really is no slip in that tire so if you push it too far you’re done.”

Justin Allgaier (-5)

The JR Motorsports veteran was on a hot streak entering the playoffs with three wins in the last six regular-season races.

But Allgaier’s fortunes have cratered since then. He crashed at Richmond and Kansas and placed 15th on the Charlotte Roval. His only positive was placing third at Dover where he won in the spring.

After an average finish of 8.7 in the regular season, his playoff average is 22nd.

Allgaier doesn’t have much to look forward to with Texas, where he has just one top-10 finish in 16 career starts. He placed 35th in the spring after his engine expired.

“Kansas definitely didn’t go the way we wanted it to and that’s on me,” Allgaier said in a media release. “We find ourselves in a hole going into these final two races in the Round of 8, but one thing is for sure, whenever this team has been down we’ve come back stronger than before. I have faith that we can finish strong this weekend and head to Phoenix with a solid shot at making it to (Miami) as part of the championship four.”

Cole Custer (-23)

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver hasn’t visited Victory Lane since last season’s finale in Miami.

He enters Texas with 12 top fives this season, including three runner-up finishes. His five top fives on 1.5-mile tracks trails only Bell (six).

Custer placed fourth at Texas in the spring. He’s finished in the top five in all three of his Texas starts, which is tied with Kyle Busch for the second most starts at Texas before a finish outside the top five.

“(Texas has) been a great track for us in the past and I’m looking forward to it probably more than any track right now,” Custer said in media release. “We definitely have to be on our game and be hunting for a win and stage points as much as possible. It’s doable to make the points up, but we’re going to really have to make some magic happen. We’ll go to Texas with a lot of speed because we always do at mile-and-a-half tracks, so there is no reason we won’t finish well as long as we don’t get involved in a wreck like last weekend.”

Austin Cindric (-43)

The rookie driver has had a harsh campaign with seven DNFs and only four top fives in the first 30 races.

In the playoffs alone, he has one top five and a top 10 in addition to his Kansas DNF and a 13th-place finish at Richmond.

He has the second worst average finish in the playoffs at 15.8.

Cindric finished ninth at Texas in the spring.

A.J. Allmendinger joins Kaulig Racing for multiple Xfinity races

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A.J. Allmendinger will return to NASCAR competition this year in multiple Xfinity Series races for Kaulig Racing, the team announced Thursday.

Allmendinger, who serves as an analyst for NBC Sports’ motorsports coverage, will drive the No. 10 Chevrolet in an undisclosed amount of races. Kaulig Racing fields Justin Haley full-time in the No. 11 Chevrolet.

Allmendinger joins a growing list of drivers who are scheduled to pilot the No. 10 this year, including Ross Chastain, Austin Dillon and Elliott Sadler.

“I am excited for the opportunity to hop back into a Xfinity Series car,” Allmendinger said in a press release. “I look forward to helping Kaulig Racing build their program, as well as fight for wins with them.”

Allmendinger has one win and 11 top-five finishes in Cup and two Xfinity wins. All three wins were on road courses.

Allmendinger last made laps in NASCAR in the 2018 Cup finale in Miami. He also competed in the Rolex 24 at Daytona earlier this year.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: The Motorsports Hour

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America’s The Motorsports Hour airs from 5-6 p.m. ET and will cover multiple forms of auto racing, including NASCAR, IndyCar and more.

Krista Voda hosts with Parker Kligerman and AJ Allmendinger. Our special guest will be American Flat Track racer Briar Bauman.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Meet the No. 1 draft picks in the NASCAR Heat Pro League

Greg Matarazzo
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NASCAR’s race weekend in Phoenix earlier this month was one of many firsts for Slade Gravitt.

It marked the first time the 16-year-old had ever visited a state that didn’t border Georgia. It was also the first time he ever set foot on an airplane.

On March 9, the native of Cumming, Georgia, flew to west to Arizona for where another first was awaiting him: Wood Brothers Racing would select him No. 1 among PlayStation 4 users in the first NASCAR Heat Pro League draft.

“It was a very interesting week because I started off Sunday, Monday questioning if I even had an opportunity or a chance to get drafted,” Gravitt told NBC Sports. “I saw myself as a top-10 driver. I was doing a good bit on social media. I thought I was getting drafted but there’s (what) teams prefer and we didn’t really know what the teams preferred at the moment.”

For the Wood Brothers, they preferred Gravitt’s youth and his “marketability” combined with his ability in the game.

“Then we got a couple of text messages from people at 704 (Games, the producer of the NASCAR Heat series) and people at Wood Brothers saying, ‘Hey, we’re drafting the No. 1 draft pick and flying them down to Phoenix at ISM Raceway,'” Gravitt said.

While it was his first time leaving the Southeast, it wasn’t Gravitt’s first time to attend a NASCAR event, having been to races at Talladega, Charlotte and Atlanta.

Gravitt was raised in a home of NASCAR fans 15 minutes from Bill and Chase Elliott‘s hometown of Dawsonville. His parents, Dana and Michael, were fans of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Chase Elliott, while his grandfather cheered on Dale Earnhardt Sr.

“My parents, they’re pretty supportive of it,” Gravitt said. “My dad was in the background a good bit of the Pro League draft stream. He loves it, honestly. He’s always telling me, ‘Hey, look at this article’ and stuff like that.”

Even before the Pro League was announced last year, Gravitt was an avid player of NASCAR games. He was also part of a gaming league called The Midnight Broadcasting Network, which streams their races and other games online. Seven members of that group, including Gravitt, were selected in the draft.

But Gravitt was the only one who was drafted in person and got to mingle with the likes of Richard Petty, Austin Dillon and Paul Menard.

“I’m still trying to relive what happened, cause it all went by so fast,” Gravitt said.

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Greg Matarazzo’s journey to being the No. 1 Xbox One player drafted by Chip Ganassi Racing was very different.

Matarazzo, 24, grew up in Bridgewater, New Jersey, far from any NASCAR landmark and with parents and friends who didn’t particularly care about auto racing.

He was turned onto NASCAR through the video games “NASCAR Thunder 2003” and “NASCAR: Dirt to Daytona.”

From 7 to 17, he raced himself, competing in go-karts on the grounds of the Somerset County 4H Fair, even earning some trophies in a go-kart with a No. 97 on it inspired by Kurt Busch. But that’s as far as his racing career went.

“It wasn’t really a racing state,” Matarazzo told NBC Sports. “It just wasn’t really something super accessible. … It was just kind of something I enjoyed on my own. My parents weren’t really into racing. We weren’t in the position to start-up a race team and start traveling on the weekends to tracks hours away.”

After high school he started his own clothing brand, Burassi, founded on a batch of 175 shirts he bought with money saved from a job at a pizzeria. In September 2017 he swapped coasts, moving to Los Angeles to operate Burassi full-time.

“The name Burassi is just a made up word,” Matarazzo said. “That’s kind of what the whole brand is about, just creating something out of nothing. I’ve always had an optimistic and creative mindset and perspective on life. I was just like, this is something I like to do so let me just see where it takes me. Seven years later, I’m out here in LA operating from my apartment.”

It was in that apartment on his Xbox where the door was re-opened on Matarazzo’s chances of being part of NASCAR.

“Actually, I’ve been a PlayStation guy my entire life,” Matarazzo said. “But I ended up getting a Xbox literally just so I could play against my roommate on Fortnite so we could play on the same team.”

As soon as Matarazzo saw the announcement for the esports league in December, he realized “this is my shot.

“I had to hop right on there and start qualifying.”

The second domino that led to him being drafted – after getting a Xbox – had fallen a month earlier.

“I got my foot in the door with Elijah,” said Matarazzo, referring to Elijah Burke, a Business Intelligence Coordinator at Chip Ganassi Racing. “I unknowingly hopped in one of his stream races. I guess he saw my username, ‘skrrtBusch’ and he was just like, ‘Yo, that’s a genius name, that’s crazy.'”

After being alerted by another user, Matarazzo did a Twitter search for his username and found a tweet by Burke:

“I sent him a DM (direct message) and we started chatting, and then that kind of had my foot in the door at CGR, and then we kept in touch throughout the whole qualifying process,” Matarazzo said. “I guess I proved myself to them and they ended up drafting me. It’s crazy how if I had never gotten an Xbox none of that would have happened. A little bit of luck and being in the right place at the right time.”

It led to Matarazzo being introduced at the draft by his childhood hero, who had defined his racing career in reality and online.

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What are Gravitt and Matarazzo hoping to get out of the Pro League?

Gravitt has aspirations about someday working in broadcasting or being a chef.

But what if the Pro League and esports in general turns out to be a long-term commitment?

“Of course I’ve thought about that, what my future can be in this being my age,” said Gravitt, who is a junior in high school. “When it started, I just wanted to have some fun with friends and put on a show in a professional manner. … I’m starting to realize my age and skill level could lead to something bigger. I haven’t really thought about an exact answer to that. Best I could say is more opportunities are in my way than someone than who is in their early 20, late 30s.”

While Matarazzo hopes to promote his brand and NASCAR’s, he also wants to pay it forward. He’s thinking of people like himself growing up in New Jersey with no clear path toward being part of NASCAR.

“It’s lowering the barrier of entry,” Matarazzo said. “We’re kind of stomping into uncharted territory with what we’re trying to do here.”

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Martin Truex Jr. has ‘unfinished business’ at Martinsville Speedway

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Something’s gotta give for Martin Truex Jr.

Truex enters this weekend’s Cup race at Martinsville Speedway on a quiet hot streak. In the four races since the Daytona 500, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver has alternated runner-up finishes at Atlanta and Phoenix, along with eighth-place finishes at Las Vegas and Fontana this past Sunday.

Dating back to the 2018 season finale in Miami Truex has three runner-up finishes in the last six races.

Truex has also placed in the top five nine times since he last won in July at Kentucky Speedway (22 races).

But there’s a good chance Truex can improve his fortunes this weekend with the return to the half-mile track in Martinsville, Virginia.

Truex has top-five finishes in his previous three visits to Martinsville. You may remember the most recent one in October.

Truex started 33rd after his car failed inspection and slowly climbed his way to the front, eventually leading 18 laps. It ended in a riveting duel with Joey Logano over the last few laps and Logano executing a bump-and-run on Truex in the final turn on the last lap.

Truex finished third.

“We’ve certainly got some unfinished business going into Martinsville this weekend,” Truex said in a press release. “It’s a place that wasn’t one of my favorites early in my career, but the last few years, I feel like I’ve really started to get a handle on it.”

Somehow, some way Truex is seeking not only his first Martinsville victory, but his first short-track win in 79 attempts in the Cup Series.

Martinsville has been the short track Truex has come closest to getting a win at. He’s crashed out of the last two races at Bristol and in his last 10 starts there he’s led in just one.

He’s had winning cars at Richmond, but a combination of wrecks and issues on pit road have prevented him from winning after leading more than 675 laps in four of his last five starts there.

So with Truex seeking redemption on multiple fronts with a win – which would be his first for JGR – maybe Martinsville arrived just in time.

“It would mean a lot to win (at Martinsville), especially after how the last race there ended up,” Truex said. “I’m confident that we’ll have a fast SiriusXM Camry this weekend and be right there to have a shot at the end of the race.”