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.

Talladega Xfinity starting lineup: Austin Hill wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Austin Hill will lead the field to the green flag Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway after scoring his first career Xfinity Series pole.

Hill won the pole Friday with a lap of 182.036 mph. He will be joined on the front row by fellow playoff contender Ty Gibbs (181.981 mph).

MORE: Talladega Xfinity starting lineup

Playoff drivers will start in seven of the top eight spots. The exception is Sheldon Creed, who will start third after a lap of 181.870 mph. Hill and Creed give Richard Childress Racing the first and third starting spots.

Justin Allgaier (181.529) qualified fourth and Brandon Jones (181.305) completed the top five. Noah Gragson, who has won four races in a row, starts sixth after a lap of 181.134 mph and is followed by playoff drivers Josh Berry (181.052) and AJ Allmendinger (180.932).

The Xfinity Series race is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET Saturday on USA Network.

Talladega Truck starting lineup: John Hunter Nemechek wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — John Hunter Nemechek will start on the pole for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race.

Nemechek earned the pole with a lap of 178.767 mph.

Nemechek is one of four playoff drivers starting in the top six: Chandler Smith (second, 177.732 mph), Zane Smith (fourth, 177.061) and Ty Majeski (sixth, 176.744). Majeski clinched a spot in next month’s championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

MORE: Talladega Truck starting lineup

Also qualifying in the top five were Carson Hocevar (177.068) in third and Matt Crafton (176.960) in fifth.

Failing to qualify are Tim Viens, Spencer Boyd, Jason White and Natalie Decker.

Saturday Talladega Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather

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The second race of the opening round of the Xfinity playoffs takes drivers to Talladega Superspeedway.

Noah Gragson secured his spot in the next round by winning last weekend at Texas. Ryan Sieg holds the final transfer spot. Riley Herbst is the first driver below the cutline, one point behind Sieg. Also below the cutline are reigning series champion Daniel Hemric (-8 points), Brandon Jones (-12) and Jeremy Clements (-28).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:09 p.m. … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:21 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Driver introductions are at 3:30 p.m. … The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. … The Brookwood High School choir will perform the anthem at 4:02 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 113 laps (300.58 miles) on the 2.66-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 50.

TV/RADIO: USA Network will broadcast the race at 4 p.m. Countdown to Green begins at 3:30 p.m. on USA Network. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 78 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Noah Gragson won and was followed by Jeffrey Earnhardt and AJ Allmendinger.

 

Could Talladega open door for a record 20th winner?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for fast speeds, huge drafting packs, sensational wrecks and tight finishes.

On Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC), it could be the site of an unexpected record.

Nineteen different drivers have won Cup races this season, tying a record. If a new winner shows up in Talladega victory lane Sunday, it will mark the first time in the sport’s history that 20 drivers have won races in a single season.

One of the remarkable things about that possibility is that the driver who has far and away the best record at Talladega among active drivers is among the group still looking for a win in 2022. That’s Brad Keselowski, who has won six times at NASCAR’s biggest track. No other active driver has more than three. (Keselowski is tied for second on the all-time Talladega win list with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt tops that list with 10).

Talladega and Daytona tend to reject repeat winners. The past nine races at the two tracks have been won by nine different drivers.

Other seasonal non-winners who could break through at Talladega:

Ryan BlaneyBlaney’s only win this year is in the All-Star Race, so he’s still looking for his first points win while continuing to chase the championship. He won at Talladega in 2019 and 2020.

Martin Truex Jr. — Superspeedways have been a pox on Truex’s career. In 70 races at Talladega and Daytona, he has failed to win.

Aric Almirola — In what has been a disappointing season, Almirola’s best finish is a fifth — twice. He won at Talladega in 2018 but hasn’t had a top 10 in his last four runs there.

Michael McDowell — McDowell’s best finish at Talladega is a third, but he is usually very competitive in the Talladega and Daytona drafts, winning the 2021 Daytona 500.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Stenhouse won at Talladega in 2017 and usually is a factor in the draft.

Harrison Burton — Burton has had a tough rookie season, but the peculiarities of the Talladega draft should play in his favor. The No. 21 team’s next win will be its 100th.

Justin Haley — Haley has no top-10 runs in five Talladega starts, but he showed potential last week with a third-place finish at Texas.

Corey LaJoie — LaJoie has started nine Cup races at Talladega and has led exactly one lap. His best finish is a seventh.

Noah Gragson — Gragson, the star of this Xfinity season, is in the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports with Alex Bowman out because of concussion-like symptoms. In the Talladega draft he could be a threat.