Photo: Meg Oliphant/Getty Images via NASCAR

Chasing the Championship: A Look at the Xfinity Series Title Contenders

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

AVONDALE, Ariz. – Day two at Phoenix Raceway will be highlighted by NASCAR’s second highest division, as the NASCAR Xfinity Series wraps up its 2021 campaign by crowning its newest champion.

Twelve championship hopefuls started the six-week march to the Valley of the Sun, with only four drivers left standing to duel it out in the Arizona desert on Saturday night. Austin Cindric will look to make it back-to back Xfinity titles before moving on to the Cup Series in 2022, while AJ Allmendinger, Daniel Hemric, and Noah Gragson have their sights set on winning their first championship.

By the Numbers

What: NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship, Race No. 33 of 33

Where: Phoenix Raceway – Avondale, Arizona

When: Saturday, November 6

TV/Radio: NBC Sports Network, 8:00 pm ET / MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90

Track Size: 1.0-mile oval

Banking: Eight to nine degrees in Turns 1-2, 10 to 11 degrees in Turns 3-4 and frontstretch dogleg

Race Length: 200 laps, 200 miles

Stage Lengths: Stage One/Two – 45 laps each, Final stage – 110 laps

March 2021 Race Winner: Austin Cindric – No. 22 Team Penske Ford (Started third, 119 laps led)

November 2020 Race Winner: Austin Cindric – No. 22 Team Penske Ford (Started third, 72 laps led)

Tale of the Tape – How the Championship 4 Stacks Up:

Noah Gragson – No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet

2021 Stats: Three wins (Darlington, Richmond, Martinsville), 13 top-five finishes, 20 top-10 finishes, 360 laps led, 13.4 average finish

Phoenix Specific Stats: Five starts, one top-five finish, three top-10 finishes, 29 laps led, 13.8 average finish

Why Gragson Can Win: There’s something to be said about momentum. After missing out on the victory lane until late in the regular season, a rough Round of 8 put Gragson in a must-win position last weekend at Martinsville, with the brash driver of the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet going out and taking care of business by winning himself a grandfather clock and a berth in the championship race.

Gragson finished as the runner-up in this race one year ago and was running strong in the race at Phoenix earlier this year before his engine expired just 67 laps in. As long as everything holds together this time around, Gragson is the type of driver you want behind the wheel in these types of situations. Just aggressive enough to make sure he’ll be in the running for the title all the way to the finish.

What the Driver Says: “With our win at Darlington and then we went on the next week to win at Richmond, once we get on a roll and gain momentum, it’s big for us. With winning last weekend, I think we’ve got a lot of confidence going in. It was nice going throughout the week, to the go-kart track or wherever, people say good job. It fires you up. It keeps you motivated. It puts a smile on your face. I think definitely this team has that momentum and we can go capitalize on it.

“I kind of expect that we’ll bring a bullet for this weekend. I’m excited. It’s a good track for us. We finished second here last year. Unfortunately, we blew up earlier in the season in the Phoenix race running third. We’ve got all the puzzle pieces, just got to go put it together.”

AJ Allmendinger – No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet

2021 Stats: Five wins (Las Vegas, Mid-Ohio, Michigan, Bristol, Charlotte Roval), 18 top-five finishes, 22 top-10 finishes, 422 laps led, 9.0 average finish

Phoenix Specific Stats: Three starts, one top-five finish, one top-10 finish, five laps led, 10.0 average finish

Why Allmendinger Can Win: The past two seasons have been a career resurgence for Allmendinger with Kaulig Racing. After a part-time schedule last season, Allmendinger went full-time in 2021 and right out of the gate made it known that he would be a championship contender.

He and defending champion Austin Cindric have been running neck and neck all season long and he had shown speed at Phoenix, finishing in the top-five at the track earlier this season. When it comes down to it, Allmendinger and his No. 16 team will no doubt be a force to be reckoned with on Saturday night.

What the Driver Says: “What an amazing year it’s been. Ultimately the dream season that I never thought would actually happen, that’s happening now. No matter the outcome on Saturday, I look at it that it’s been an amazing year. I truly wouldn’t change any of it for anything.

“I was probably more nervous last week than I will be on Saturday because with the way this championship works now, it comes down to whoever is best out of those four cars on that day. Right or wrong, that’s the way it plays out. Ultimately, I just looked at it with the year that we’d had, it’d be a disappointment if we didn’t even make it to the championship.

“To get through last week was a big relief and now I’m just kind of enjoying it.”

Daniel Hemric – No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

2021 Stats: No wins, 14 top-five finishes, 20 top-10 finishes, 615 laps led, 11.1 average finish

Phoenix Specific Stats: Seven starts, two top-five finishes, four top-10 finishes, 45 laps led, 14.0 average finish

Why Hemric Can Win: To say that Hemric is snake-bitten would be an understatement. Time and time again, he has had a chance to win a race in the Xfinity Series only to see it snatched from his grasp in the final moments. Just this weekend, his hauler had an issue on its cross-country journey to Phoenix, causing some tense moments for both driver and team wondering when their car would arrive.

Despite all the bad luck, Hemric is not letting any of it get to him as he appears as relaxed as any of the championship contenders, looking to finally get the monkey off his back with the help of his Joe Gibbs Racing team before moving on to Kaulig Racing in 2022.

What the Driver Says: “They counted us out a long time ago. I know myself as a racer, ever making it to any part of any of these top three series was never a thought from anybody else other than myself probably. By the time you make it to this point, you feel like you’re playing with house money.

“The format, the things, the decisions, just everything that has to go in to trying to get to the Championship 4 is a task like no other. To be able to do that, you get here and you feel like if I had to beat the other 39 guys all year, I’ve got to beat three more. To me, those odds seem a lot better than the other way around.”  

Austin Cindric – No. 22 Team Penske Ford

2021 Stats: Five wins (Daytona, Phoenix, Dover, Pocono, Indianapolis), 21 top-five finishes, 25 top-10 finishes, 1037 laps led, 8.4 average finish

Phoenix Specific Stats: Seven starts, two wins (November 2020, March 2021), four top-five finishes, six top-10 finishes, 216 laps led, 5.9 average finish

Why Cindric Can Repeat: Cindric has been unstoppable at Phoenix as of late, dominating the past two races in the Arizona desert, one of which earned him the 2020 Xfinity Series championship. Overwhelmingly having the best stats among the four title contenders, it’s clear the path to the trophy goes through Cindric and the No. 22 Team Penske group.

While Cindric may be moving on to the Cup Series in 2022 to take over the No. 2 Ford for the departing Brad Keselowski, he’ll be looking to get the job done in the Xfinity Series one more time before putting it in his rearview mirror.

What the Driver Says: “I feel like probably the best thing that I’ve heard all year, that I’ve probably been saving for this moment, came from Chase Elliott.  Past success doesn’t equal future success.  It’s pretty hard to go back-to-back in races let alone three times at a certain racetrack, but obviously championships as well, so we have that opportunity and I think we’re prepared for it.”

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.