Xfinity Series storylines for Darlington

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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.”

 

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.

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Talladega Superspeedway

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After a messy Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs move on this weekend to another potentially messy spot — Talladega Superspeedway.

Home to the Big One — an almost certain multi-car crash, Talladega also occasionally produces unexpected winners, including Richard Brickhouse, James Hylton, Lennie Pond, Ron Bouchard and Brad Keselowski.

The mix of tight drafting, the Next Gen car and general playoff tension should make Sunday’s 500-mile run quite the adventure.

On Sunday at Texas, Tyler Reddick became the second driver (after Chase Elliott) to score three wins this season.

Joey Logano enters Talladega with the playoff point lead.

Playoff rookies roll on

The four drivers participating in the Cup playoffs for the first time remain factors approaching the second race in the second round.

Ross Chastain is second in the standings, 18 points above the cutline entering Talladega.

MORE: NBC NASCAR rankings put Denny Hamlin first

Daniel Suarez, Chastain’s Trackhouse Racing teammate, is seventh. He’s four points above the cutline.

Two other playoff rookies — Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric — will start Talladega below the cutline. Briscoe is four points below the cutline. Cindric is 11 points below the cutline.

Looking for wins

Only six of the remaining 12 playoff drivers have won races at the two remaining tracks in the second round (Talladega and Charlotte Roval).

Among the six, Joey Logano has the best win record at Talladega, having finished first there in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

Other Talladega winners in the group: Ryan Blaney (two), Denny Hamlin (two), Chase Elliott (one), Ross Chastain (one).

The Charlotte Roval is relatively new, of course, but Chase Elliott already owns two wins there. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson also have won at the Roval.

An opening for Brad?

Few people who watched it will forget the first Cup Series victory scored by Brad Keselowski.

It occurred at this week’s tour stop — Talladega Superspeedway — in April 2009. Keselowski and Carl Edwards made contact approaching the finish line and notched the win, even as Edwards’ car flew into the frontstretch fence, spraying car parts into the grandstands.

Thirteen years later, Keselowski returns to NASCAR’s biggest track having recorded six Talladega wins. No other active drive has more than three.

Keselowski’s refurbished team — Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing — has new fire with Chris Buescher winning at Bristol and Keselowski winning the pole and finishing eighth at Texas.

RFK Racing has led 309 laps in the past two races, more than the team had led in the prior 105 races combined.

Although he hasn’t won a Cup race since scoring a victory in a Team Penske Ford in April 2021 at Talladega, Keselowski must be considered a threat Sunday.

Entry lists

Thirty-seven drivers, including Xfinity Series star Noah Gragson and reigning Xfinity champion Daniel Hemric, are entered for Sunday’s Cup race.

Talladega Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are Trevor Bayne, Parker Kligerman, Timmy Hill and Jeffrey Earnhardt.

Talladega Xfinity entry list

Forty-one drivers are entered for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race. Included are Kaz Grala, Ryan Preece, Natalie Decker, Jennifer Jo Cobb and Parker Kligerman.

Talladega Truck entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Friday, Sept. 30

Forecast: Partly cloudy. High of 77. (Weather note: There is the possibility that Hurricane Ian could impact the race weekend, depending on its path).

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

Saturday, Oct. 1

Forecast: Overcast with showers at times. Potential for heavy rainfall. High of 73. 60% chance of rain.

  • 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

Forecast: Sun in the morning, increasing clouds in the afternoon. Slight chance of a shower. High of 74.

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