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.
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.
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)
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.”