Xfinity Championship 4 made up of favorites and a surprise

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Unlike on the Cup side where there are no surprises, the Championship 4 in the Xfinity Series is not entirely what was expected when the playoffs started.

Justin Allgaier, who won the regular-season title, was eliminated at the end of the Round of 8. So was teammate Elliott Sadler, who had 24 top 10s in the first 32 races but no wins.

Rookie Christopher Bell got into the Championship 4 in walk-off fashion, winning Saturday at Phoenix after he entered the race 34 points below the final transfer spot.

Bell joins Daniel Hemric, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick in Saturday’s title race in Miami (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

The drivers have an average age of 23 and have combined for nine wins since February, with Hemric the only winless  driver among them.

Here’s a look at each driver’s record ahead of Miami.

Christopher Bell (No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing)

Wins: Seven, a rookie record (Richmond I, Kentucky, New Hampshire, Iowa II, Richmond II, Dover II and Phoenix II)

Career Playoff wins: Four (Including win at Kansas last year as a part-time driver)

Miami record: Earned a DNF in first Xfinity start last year for an engine failure. Best finish of second in three Truck Series starts. Won the Truck Series title in 2017. Has been in the Championship 4 in each of his three full-time seasons in NASCAR.

Outlook: Bell enters as the favorite with his series-leading seven wins. Despite two DNFs in the Round of 8, he has won three of the last six races. Toyota has won two of the last five Miami races.

“I don’t know if you can take any momentum (to Miami),” Bell said after his win Saturday.  “The 00 (Cole Custer), they’re licking their chops because they won by (15.4) seconds last year so I’m sure they’re feeling good. We saw with the Cup deal, Jimmie Johnson won his championship (in 2016) because a couple guys beat themselves and took each other out and he was just at the right spot at the right time and he was definitely not the best out of the four. What we’re going to have to do next week if we are the best car, try not to beat yourself and if we’re not the best car, just wait for the opportunity for that last pit stop and you never know when the last restart is going to come.”

 

Cole Custer (No. 00 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing)

Wins: One (Texas II)

Career Playoff wins: Two (Won Miami last year when he was not part of Championship 4)

Miami record: Two starts in Xfinity. Finishes of 17th and a win. Started second in 2017 and led 182 laps on way to his first career Xfinity win.

Outlook: Despite only one win through 32 races, Custer placed in the top 10 a series-leading 25 times this season. And as Christopher Bell noted, Custer won at Miami by just over 15 seconds last year.

“All of the cars at Stewart-Haas (Racing), we build fantastic cars,” Custer said Saturday. “I could take any single car out of our fleet and I could take this car this weekend (at Phoenix) and I think it would be just as good as the car we’re taking to Homestead. I think the tires are gonna be a little bit different. I think it’s a different left-side tire. We have the flange-fit bodies this year, so that’s a little bit different. You have to account for those things and make sure that you’re adjusting and making your car as good as it can be.”

 

Daniel Hemric (No. 21 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing)

Wins: None

Career Playoff wins: None

Miami record: Finished 34th, 23 laps off the lead in 2017 due to an early mechanical problem. Three Truck Series starts with a best finish of fifth in 2016.

Outlook: For the second year in a row, Hemric enters the Championship 4 without a win to his name. Should he claim the title without winning in Miami he’d be the first driver to win a national NASCAR championship without having ever won a race.

Hemric leads the Championship 4 drivers in average finish (9.1). His five runner-up finishes without a win leads all winless drivers in Xfinity.

“You just hope you’re going to find yourself in position to have another shot at it like we did last year,” Hemric said after he finished second Saturday. “Now I can confidently say we do have that shot. It’s a tough situation to be in after the 10-point penalty we got after Kansas. It put you a little bit on edge and then we got into Texas and lost some points. We knew we had to come here (to Phoenix) today and be a solid as we could and give ourselves a shot to try to maximize our points as best we could and that’s what we did.

“… Having that taste in our mouth from having that taken away from us last year the way it was makes us that much more hungry when we go there next week.”

 

Tyler Reddick (No. 9 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports)

Wins: One (Daytona I)

Career Playoff wins: One (At Kentucky last year as a part-time driver)

Miami record: Started from pole and finished fourth in first Xfinity start last year. In three Truck Series starts finished sixth, third and second.

Outlook: Reddick admitted he would have been “surprised” had you told him nine weeks ago he would be the only JR Motorsports driver in the Championship 4.

Nine races ago he finished 34th in race No. 23 at Road America. By that point he had just one top-five finish since he won the season-opener at Daytona. In the nine races after Road America he earned four top fives, three top 10s and announced he’ll compete for Richard Childress Racing in 2019.

“I (knew we had) the potential to get to (Miami) all year long,” Reddick said after placing sixth at Phoenix. “I guess we’ve just been getting our bugs out this year. Our regular reason had moments of greatness but never really seized it. We’d have speed, but something would happen. … The playoffs have been more about what this team is really about. We’ve done everything we needed to. We’ve done a very good job of staying out of trouble and minimizing mistakes. But we’ve been lucky too.  … Sometimes it never hurts to just be a little lucky.”

NASCAR weekend schedule for Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs roll into Talladega Superspeedway, a center of uncertainty, for the second race in the Round of 12 this weekend.

Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET, NBC) could place the first driver in the Round of 8. Any playoff driver who wins the race automatically advances to the next round.

Through the playoffs to date, playoff drivers are batting zero in the race-win category. Non-playoff drivers — Tyler Reddick, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace and Erik Jones — have scored wins in the first four playoff races.

Joey Logano leads the playoff points entering the race. Ross Chastain, who won at Talladega earlier this year, is second.

The four drivers below the cutline are Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman. Byron was above the line earlier this week but was penalized 25 points for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. That move lifted Chase Briscoe above the cutline.

Playoff races also are scheduled for the Xfinity Series (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, USA Network) and the Camping World Truck Series (Saturday, 12:30 p.m., FS1) at Talladega.

Here’s a look at the Talladega weekend schedule:

Talladega Superspeedway (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Friday: Sunny. High of 78.

Saturday: Partly cloudy. High of 74.

Sunday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High of 75.

Friday, Sept. 30

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. — Truck Series
  • 10:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series
  • 2 – 7 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Garage open

  • 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 9:30 a.m. — Truck Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Short-track ace Sam Ard shares Xfinity record with Noah Gragson

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Former two-time Xfinity Series champion Sam Ard’s name returned to the forefront in the past week as Noah Gragson tied Ard’s series record for consecutive victories at four.

Although Ard has been nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, his exploits generally aren’t well-known among many who follow the modern sport of stock car racing. He was on the Hall voting list for the 2023 class but was not elected.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Ard was a short-track master in the vein of stars like Jack Ingram, Harry Gant and Butch Lindley, drivers who could show up at virtually any half-mile track across the country and take home the trophy.

He won the NASCAR Late Model (now the Xfinity Series) championship in 1983 and 1984, scoring 18 wins across those two seasons. He put together four victories in a row late in the 1983 season, winning at South Boston, Virginia; Martinsville, Virginia; Rougemont, North Carolina and Charlotte.

Ard was so dominant in 1984 that he had wrapped up the seasonal championship with two races remaining. In 28 series starts that year, he had 24 top-five finishes and 26 top-10 runs. He won eight times.

In the next-to-last race of the 1984 season, at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Ard suffered critical head injuries when his car slid in fluid from another vehicle and hit the track’s outside wall.

That crash effectively ended Ard’s career and impacted the rest of his life. Ard often talked of learning to walk again as part of his recovery. He said he would use a walker in a pile of sawdust in his backyard so that the landing would be softer when he fell.

Ard eventually was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. In 2006, responding to Ard’s financial problems, drivers Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others, launched a drive to raise funds for his family.

Ard, a native of Scranton, S.C., died in April 2017. He was 78.

 

 

 

 

 

Drivers to watch in Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs will reach a critical point Sunday in a 500-mile chase at treacherous Talladega Superspeedway.

The overriding factor in any race at Talladega, NASCAR’s biggest track, is the unknown. With cars running so fast and so close together, multi-car accidents are not only possible but expected, and it’s easy to become the innocent victim of someone else’s mistake.

MORE: NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

The tension is doubled for the 12 playoff drivers. A bad finish at Talladega could open the door for a probable playoff exit at the end of the round Oct. 9 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

The playoffs to date have seen four wins by non-playoff drivers, an unprecedented result. Tyler Reddick was the most recent to join that list with a win last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

A look at drivers to watch at Talladega:

FRONTRUNNERS

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 10th at Texas, 9th at Bristol, 2nd at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 2 career wins

Although he hasn’t won, Hamlin has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. In the past six races at Talladega, he has four finishes of seventh or better. Now if he can just keep people from running into him…

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Last three races: 7th at Texas, 3rd at Bristol, 6th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is a second

Byron stands alone as the only playoff driver who has been able to avoid major crashes and trouble in the pits, and he has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. After Tuesday’s penalty for his incident with Denny Hamlin at Texas, he sits below the cutline entering Sunday’s race.

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 24th
  • Last three races: 8th at Texas, 13th at Bristol, 25th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 6 wins, the active leader

Even in trying times, Keselowski is a threat at Talladega, where he last won in April 2021 (his last Cup victory). He has led 268 laps there in the past 13 races.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 15th
  • Last three races: 36th at Texas, 34th at Bristol, 26th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2008

Is Busch going to steadily disappear into the mist as he rides out the final weeks of his final year with Joe Gibbs Racing? His best finish in the past four races is 26th. On the positive side this week, he’s the only driver to finish in the top 10 in this year’s three races at Daytona and Talladega.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 32nd at Texas, 2nd at Bristol, 11th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2019

Can Elliott rebound from a fiery finish and a 32nd-place run at Texas? Playoff points give him some comfort, but a second career win at Talladega would be greatly appreciated in the Hendrick camp.

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: 17th
  • Last three races: 31st at Texas, 36th at Bristol, 5th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is 5th

Will one of the sport’s most enduring mysteries continue at Talladega? In 70 career starts at Daytona and Talladega, Truex, a former champion and a smooth driver, has zero wins. At Talladega, he has only three top-five finishes in 35 starts.

 

 

 

NBC will broadcast final six NASCAR Cup Series playoff races

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The final six races in the chase for the NASCAR Cup Series championship will be televised by NBC.

The races remaining on the schedule are at Talladega Superspeedway (Oct. 2), the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (Oct. 9), Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Oct. 16), Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 23), Martinsville Speedway (Oct. 30) and Phoenix Raceway (Nov. 6).

NBC’s broadcasting team will be on hand Sunday for what is typically a seasonal highlight — a 500-mile race at Talladega Superspeedway. The next week the playoffs move on to Charlotte for a cutoff race. The lowest four drivers in the playoff point standings will be eliminated from championship competition.

The Round of 8 is scheduled at Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville, with the tiny Martinsville track serving as the final cutoff race. The four drivers who advance from Martinsville will race for the title at Phoenix Nov. 6.

The high drama of the Phoenix race, in which the championship will go to the highest finisher of the four competing drivers, will be carried by both NBC and Peacock.

Post-race commentary and analysis for all six remaining Cup races will be carried on Peacock.

Kyle Larson is the series defending champion. Joey Logano carries the point lead into Sunday’s race at Talladega.