Breaking down the Xfinity Series’ Championship 4

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The NASCAR Xfinity Series crowns its champion in Saturday’s season finale at Phoenix Raceway (8:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Noah Gragson, AJ Allmendinger, Daniel Hemric and reigning series champion Austin Cindric are eligible to compete for the title. The highest finisher among them will take it.

Allmendinger and Cindric have been the top two drivers in the series this season. But Hemric has again mastered the art of making the title race without winning. And coming off his win in last week’s elimination race at Martinsville Speedway, Gragson may have the most momentum.

How do the four title contenders shape up entering Saturday?

Noah Gragson – No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet

  • Age 23 from Las Vegas, Nevada
  • First Championship 4 appearance
  • Best Xfinity points finish: Fifth in 2020
  • This season: Three wins, four stage wins, 13 top-five finishes, 20 top-10 finishes, 360 laps led
  • Xfinity career at Phoenix: Winless in five starts (best finish – second, Nov. 2020), avg. finish of 13.8

A clutch victory last weekend put Gragson into the Championship 4 for the first time.

He started his season with four finishes of 28th or worse in the first five races and didn’t post his first win until September. Now, he’s ending the season with a shot at the title.

An engine failure in March at Phoenix was part of his season-opening skid. But he also nearly won last year’s championship race at Phoenix before Austin Cindric passed him on the last lap.

With the Championship 4 being new territory for Gragson, he’ll be glad to have crew chief Dave Elenz with him. Elenz guided William Byron to the 2017 Xfinity title, with Byron finishing third in the title race. The following year, Elenz repeated with Tyler Reddick, who won the title race.

AJ Allmendinger – No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet

  • Age 39 from Los Gatos, California
  • First Championship 4 appearance
  • 2021 Xfinity Series regular season champion
  • This season: Five wins, 11 stage wins, 18 top-five finishes, 22 top-10 finishes, 422 laps led
  • Xfinity career at Phoenix: Winless in three starts (best finish – fifth, March 2021), avg. finish of 10.0

Win or lose Saturday, AJ Allmendinger has continued his career rebirth in his first full-time Xfinity season.

After claiming the regular season title in dramatic fashion at Bristol, Allmendinger has carried on to the title race thanks to an opening-round playoff win at the Charlotte Roval and a solid Round of 8.

That consistency has been prevalent all season. He’s finished first or second in 28% of this year’s races (nine of 32) and has largely avoided bad results with just two DNFs.

But Allmendinger’s biggest advantage may be his experience. Saturday will mark his 450th national series start. Twenty-two of them, including 19 Cup starts, have come at Phoenix dating back to the 2007 season.

Daniel Hemric – No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

  • Age 30 from Kannapolis, North Carolina
  • Third Championship 4 appearance
  • Best Xfinity points finish: Third in 2018
  • This season: Zero wins, nine stage wins, 14 top-five finishes, 20 top-10 finishes, 615 laps led
  • Xfinity career at Phoenix: Winless in seven starts (best finish – second, Nov. 2018), avg. finish of 14.0

Hemric came up short again in his quest for a first career national series win last week at Martinsville. But once again, a steady playoffs – five top-five finishes, including a runner-up at Texas – have put him into the Championship 4.

He can clinch the title with victory No. 1 or by simply being top finisher among the contenders. Either way would be perfect to end his one-year run with Joe Gibbs Racing before moving to Kaulig Racing next season.

However, Hemric could use some better luck than he’s gotten lately at Phoenix.

Last year, he ran both Phoenix races for JR Motorsports. That March, he finished 30th after involvement in a multi-car crash. Then in November, a throttle linkage issue on his car led to time behind the wall for repairs and a 25th-place finish.

This past March, Hemric was in the mix for a win on the final restart with two laps to go but ended up in the wall as drivers jockeyed for position. He finished 23rd.

Austin Cindric – No. 22 Team Penske Ford

  • Age 23 from Mooresville, North Carolina
  • Second Championship 4 appearance
  • 2020 Xfinity Series champion
  • This season: Five wins, 12 stage wins, 21 top-five finishes, 25 top-10 finishes, 1,037 laps led
  • Xfinity career at Phoenix: Two wins (2020 championship race, March 2021) in seven starts, avg. finish of 5.9

Cindric aims to repeat as Xfinity Series champion before moving to the Cup Series next season as Brad Keselowski‘s replacement in Penske’s No. 2 car.

Carrying an average finish of 3.8 in this year’s playoffs (worst finish: eighth at Talladega), Cindric now comes to Phoenix, where he’s won the last two races. He followed up his title clincher from last fall with another victory in March.

He’s also been top finisher most often among the Championship 4 drivers this season. Cindric earned that distinction 10 times, besting Allmendinger’s nine, Gragson’s eight, and Hemric’s five.

While Cindric is capable of three Phoenix wins in a row, that’s important to keep in mind considering the success of non-playoff drivers this postseason.