Remember the Xfinity Series?
It’s been a while. Xfinity Series drivers will compete Tuesday night at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET on FS1) in their first race since March 7 at Phoenix Raceway.
Jeff Meendering, the last crew chief to win in Xfinity, looks back at the March 7 race and it “honestly feels like it was the last race of the season and we’re getting ready to start a new season.”
But it’s not a new season. It’s race No. 5 of the 2020 season. Here’s a refresher on where the Xfinity Series is heading to Darlington.
1.) Joe Gibbs Racing Strikes Back
Entering 2020, there were a lot of questions surrounding Joe Gibbs Racing’s driver lineup, which consisted of Brandon Jones (one win in 137 starts), Harrison Burton (nine Xfinity starts, winless in 38 Truck Series starts) and Riley Herbst (winless in 17 Xfinity/Truck Series starts).
Even Jeff Meendering, crew chief on Jones’ No. 19 Toyota, had concerns.
“We were pretty nervous going into the West Coast swing that, ‘Oh my gosh, we could come home and be in trouble car wise from potential wrecks and everything,'” Meendering said. “It actually didn’t turn out anything like that.”
Instead, JGR went into NASCAR’s COVID-19 imposed lockdown with two consecutive wins after Burton won at Auto Club Speedway and Jones found Victory Lane at Phoenix. Meanwhile, Burton, who finished in the top five in all four races, leads the point standings. The team’s only DNF was from Herbst at Daytona.
“We heard the doubters from outside, I guess, but that just only motivated us to be better,” said Burton, who went winless as a Kyle Busch Motorsports driver in the Truck Series in 2019. “There was the Big 3 last year (Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer), we had a meeting and we wanted our three guys to be the Big 3 this year. We wanted to race each other every weekend for wins and go against each other every weekend and have to beat our JGR teammates, which is kind of how it’s been.”
While Burton, 19, has led the charge for JGR, it’s Jones, 23, who is the veteran of the group. He’s in his fifth full-time Xfinity campaign and third with JGR.
“We all laughed at the start of the year,” Jones recalled. “I said, ‘Well, dang boys. I’m the old man of the group I guess this year.’ But it is it is interesting. Christopher (Bell) last year was obviously dominant. But I still have more races than he had in Xfinity, but he just took to the car so well. But this year kind of coming in, I feel that I’m kind of playing that role now a little bit. I’ve definitely helped (Burton and Herbst) come up to speed at race tracks and they’ve actually helped me too.”
Burton recalled how advice from Jones helped in his effort to win in his first start Auto Club Speedway on Feb. 29.
“I asked him, ‘Hey Brandon, how far are you going to drive in (to the turns)?’ and I ended up winning … and he said ‘I’m never telling you how deep I drive in ever again!'”
But with where the Xfinity Series is going tomorrow, Jones’ experience will be invaluable.
2) Darlington Rookie Stripes
When the green flag drops on Tuesday night’s Xfinity race, it will be a big moment for select drivers in the 39-car field.
Among the competitors will be 11 – more than 1/4th of the field – who have never taken a lap around Darlington. Not in practice, qualifying or a race.
The first lap will truly be the first lap of action at Darlington for Burton, Jesse Little, Herbst, Anthony Alfredo, Myatt Snider, Kody Vanderwal, Colby Howard, Ronnie Bassett Jr., Mason Massey, Joe Graf Jr. and Colin Garrett.
“I think I’d lie if I said I wasn’t a little nervous about it,” said Burton. “But the cool thing is, everybody’s nervous about it. Everyone’s in the same boat. … There’s an advantage to have in your head that everyone’s in the same boat and you just have to do your job the best you can do it.”
As for Burton’s crew chief, Ben Beshore, he doesn’t have too many concerns about Burton’s first Darlington experience.
“I felt that way about Fontana too and he showed up there and hauled ass,” Beshore said. “He’s really quick to adapt and uses the tools that he has available to him before he gets there. Whether it be studying data or notes that I sent him or running in iRacing races, he seems to be able to use that to his advantage.”
Little, a rookie driver for JD Motorsports, took on the mindset of “they’re gonna race with or without me” as he dove into his preparation of watching film, taking notes, talking to drivers and making laps on iRacing. Meanwhile, he reiterates to himself “I’m gonna go there and I’m gonna be cautious.”
When it came to advice from drivers, he didn’t have to go far.
“Definitely lean heavily on my roommate/landlord,” Little said.
That would be Cole Custer, current Cup Series rookie and winner of last year’s Xfinity race at Darlington.
“I’ve picked his brain as much as I can,” Little said. “I can’t really think of a better Xfinity driver to do it than him. … He’s helped me out quite a bit … (Making sure I’m not) psyching myself out, not being too timid or scared, you know, in a sense of, ‘It is Darlington, but if you approach it this way it’s really just another racetrack and you know, you’ll enjoy it.'”
Unlike Burton and Herbst at JGR and Alfredo at Richard Childress Racing, Little won’t make his first visit to Darlington in top equipment.
That’s something that concerns former JD Motorsports driver, Ross Chastain.
“I probably feel … the worst for Jesse, just knowing that situation and how important practice is,” Chastain said. “Even though in a normal situation going there he would only have one set of tires, he would have limited laps, but he would have 10 quality laps to learn the track and he has nothing now and you’re going to get thrown into a random draw starting position. That’s tough. Just because I know that.
“Harrison, Riley, those guys … They know their car is going to go down in the corner and it’s going to do normal stuff. Jesse’s, it can do something that he’s not expecting. And I just know that. He’s probably got the biggest, biggest challenge, but when you catch them or you’re passing them or they’re passing you, you just have to trust them.”
3) Briscoe’s Opportunity
The turnover in the Xfinity Series driver ranks this year stands out when looking at the results of the 2019 race at Darlington.
None of the top five finishers – Cole Custer, Tyler Reddick, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – are entered in Tuesday’s race, with Custer, Reddick and Bell now rookies in the Cup Series.
That’s leaves Chase Briscoe as the highest-finishing returning driver from last year. In his first start at Darlington, he started fifth and finished sixth.
Count the 25-year-old driver among those excited about a lack of on-track preparation for the race.
“I actually like the no practice and qualifying deal,” Briscoe said. “I feel like that kind of fits my team’s style. You know, last year I wouldn’t have said that at all. But this year, even at the end last year we were just always really good off the truck.”
Briscoe heads into Darlington with three tops 10s, including one win (Las Vegas) through four races this season.
“I feel confident that we’ll be good,” Briscoe said. “And you know, there’s a lot of inexperienced guys in the field as far as never even racing at Darlington. I don’t have a ton of experience there, but at least I know what to expect. I think the biggest question mark for myself is (it’s) at nighttime now. How much does that change things? Last year, it was a pretty hot race and we were slick and sliding around. That fits my driving style a lot more.”
Briscoe also is concerned about there being more grip on the track, a result of Sunday’s Cup race. It’s a situation Xfinity drivers are not used to.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit nervous about the added grip that we’re gonna have, just because I feel like that kinda kind of evens the playing field,” Briscoe said. “Regardless of the temperature outside, it’s still gonna be slick to a certain extent.”
4) What day is it?
While the Cup Series competed on Sunday, Justin Allgaier watched from a distance.
The JR Motorsports driver said it was “hard to not get your blood pumping” as he’s in the final days of prepping for his own return to racing.
Allgaier and the rest of the Xfinity Series race at Darlington and then six days later will race at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the oval.
“Some of the most difficult races that we have on the schedule now on the Xfinity Series side … are kind of happening in a short amount of time,” said Allgaier, who has nine Xfinity starts and two Cup starts at Darlington. “I’m looking forward to it. I think that it’s going to be a little bit different being (at Charlotte) on a Monday. Obviously, Memorial Day. It’s going to be super, super weird.
“But somebody the other day asked me if it threw me off to race on a Tuesday at Darlington. I said ‘Well, to be honest with you, because of this pandemic, I don’t know what day it is half the time anyways. So a Tuesday and a Saturday, they’re kind of the same.”
With the Charlotte race being held at night, rather than in the day like the last oval race there, Allgaier predicted that the track will have “a little bit more character” to it.
“We all call bumps character, we know that,” Allgaier said. “The weather has been kind of hot, cold, hot, cold here in North Carolina, obviously. And that a lot of times has more affect than just all the time hot or all the time cold.”
5) Over prepared
When Jeff Meendering was first able to enter the JGR shop after stay-at-home orders were lifted in North Carolina, his first stop was his office. The next was to check on the condition of the car Brandon Jones would race at Darlington.
“Obviously, we shuffled some our cars around a little bit,” Meendering said. “Our car racing at Darlington was originally going to be our Atlanta backup car. And the car we were taking to Texas originally is now going to Charlotte. So we’ve had to shuffle some stuff around, looking at the condition our cars are in and what makes sense with a limited crew to put it out.”
Despite the 10-week shutdown, Meendering’s team had been able to put together car builds through at least August. But Meendering and much of the NASCAR world didn’t know where they’d be racing beyond Charlotte until last week. On Thursday, NASCAR announced Cup and Xfinity would race at Bristol Motor Speedway the weekend after the Charlotte races.
“Those builds we were just basing them off of what the original schedule was,” Meendering said. “We got pretty deep into the original schedule. … We might have built for races that we don’t even go to now. I feel like we’re over prepared for whatever could get thrown at us.”