Xfinity playoffs: Past Championship 4 drivers look to go over the top


Last year’s Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway was the closest Justin Allgaier has been to winning a NASCAR Xfinity Series title.

In his fourth career Xfinity Series Championship 4 appearance, Allgaier was in contention as the race entered overtime. Having put on his last set of tires earlier, he stayed out to inherit the lead while Austin Cindric pitted for fresh tires.

On older rubber, Allgaier tried but failed to hold back Cindric off the restart. After they made contact coming to the white flag, Cindric slipped by him, and then Noah Gragson, to claim the title with a win. Allgaier faded to a fifth-place finish.

Looking back, it’s hard to see what more Allgaier could’ve done in that situation.

So, as this year’s Xfinity Series playoffs get set to begin Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), trying to glean areas of potential improvement from last year’s playoff run doesn’t seem to be his main priority.

“I think every playoffs has been different,” Allgaier said Tuesday during Xfinity Series playoff media day. “The way drivers race, the risk that certain drivers are willing to take – until you get into those moments, you don’t necessarily always know what’s going to happen.

“Every playoffs has had its own vibe and its own feel, and I think this year is not going to be any different. It’s going to be a lot about managing your expectations, managing your competition and just getting yourself in position to go for that opportunity at Phoenix.

“Not beating yourself – that’s probably the most important piece of the playoffs for 2021 … If we can keep from beating ourselves, we’ll be in great shape.”

Allgaier is one of three drivers in this year’s playoffs who’ve reached the Xfinity Series Championship 4 but have been unable to win the title.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Daniel Hemric rode consistency to Championship 4 berths in 2017 and 2018 while driving for Richard Childress Racing. Since then, Hemric’s career has taken some turns.

He rose to the Cup Series with RCR in 2019, but was out after a single season. He then went back to the Xfinity Series in 2020, where he ran the majority of races (21 of 33) for JR Motorsports.

Last November, he landed a full-time Xfinity Series ride for 2021 with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Shortly after the announcement, Hemric was enthused about having “legitimate, raw, in-your-face speed” in his equipment. But that speed has not helped him get to Victory Lane for the first time in his NASCAR national series career (201 starts).

Still, Hemric believes his lessons from 2017 and 2018 will help him.

“For me, I look at the strengths of this race team and the strengths of myself mentally and physically, of where I’m at as a person and race car driver now than where I was then,” Hemric said Tuesday.

“I think (I) just keep myself centered and humbled about the opportunity I have in front of me and just attack each week for what it is. Your biggest competitor in these scenarios is yourself, right? So, you gotta go and compete.

“Every spot does matter. Every scenario, every situation and decision you make are going to be different but they are going to matter. I think going through that experience in ’17 and ’18, hopefully, will help me be better now than I was then. I feel confident that I am.”

Then there’s Kaulig Racing’s Justin Haley, who made his first Championship 4 appearance last year alongside Allgaier, Cindric and Chase Briscoe. Haley finished eighth at Phoenix, which put him third in the final standings.

In last year’s playoffs, Haley won at Talladega to reach the second round. In that round, he posted an average finish of 7.7 (fourth at Kansas, seventh at Texas, 12th at Martinsville) to reach the Championship 4.

Haley believes a repeat Championship 4 appearance will be “a difficult task.” But if he and the No. 11 Kaulig team can do it, Haley thinks last year’s experience will pay dividends.

“I think now that we’ve had that championship race under our belts, we can do what we learned last year and be better at it,” Haley said Tuesday. “We’ve already had the team go through a little different technical process (in the championship race), a little more technical than normal of that side of things, and I go through a little more media.

“It’s a lot of pressure and a lot more things going on. I’ve made the (Championship) 4 in Trucks, made (Championship) 4 in Xfinity, so (I’m) kinda taking all that and figuring out what we can do to be better and try to win a championship for (owner) Matt Kaulig.”