The four drivers who will battle for the 2016 XFINITY Series title this weekend at Homestead Miami Speedway have performed better than anyone else this season.
It should not be a surprise, then, that those drivers represent the two best teams of the season. No matter who wins the championship Saturday evening, the big prize will either go to Joe Gibbs Racing or JR Motorsports. Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez represent JGR, while Elliott Sadler and Justin Allgaier carry the banner for JRM.
A JGR versus JRM showdown is a fitting way to finish off this year’s NXS season. The Gibbs organization has thoroughly dominated 2016, winning 18 of 32 races. That total includes a combined six between Jones and Suarez. Yet Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s team has performed well, too, winning five races, including three by Sadler. No other organization has more than three wins.
Most importantly, JGR and JRM drivers did the best job of performing at a high level during the Chase. Jones, Suarez, Sadler, and Allgaier all took different paths to reach the championship round, but all four drivers were able to earn good finishes when it mattered most, giving them a chance to race for the championship.
The 2016 championship battle also reflects the rising star versus veteran dynamic of the XFINITY Series. NASCAR’s second-tier division may be best known as a training ground for up and coming stock car racers, but the NXS also has its share of more experienced journeyman drivers seeking the best opportunity to be competitive. In pursuing an XFINITY championship, JGR will entrust its young drivers to win the title in this year’s final race. JR Motorsports, meanwhile, will rely on the experience of its veterans to bring home the trophy.
Both Jones and Suarez appear to have very bright futures in NASCAR. Jones has already been assured a Sprint Cup seat for 2017, and Suarez could easily follow him to NASCAR’s top level in the next few years. While winning an XFINITY championship has never guaranteed success in the Sprint Cup Series, Jones or Suarez could still use a title as proof that they are ready to race with NASCAR’s best drivers. In the event that either racer goes on to have a hall of fame-worthy career, an championship would still have to be considered one of their most important achievements.
Meanwhile, the path to the Sprint Cup Series for the JR Motorsports drivers would actually be a path back to Sprint Cup, and it would not be so well-defined. Sadler’s chance to be a Sprint Cup regular once again is likely to have already come and gone. Yet fans should not underestimate how racing in the XFINITY Series has pumped new life into the 41-year-old’s career.
The 2016 season has been particularly productive for Sadler. He has enjoyed his first multi-win year since 2012, and he has set a new personal record for number of top 10s in one season, currently at 28. Winning a championship might cause some Sprint Cup owners to take another look at him. But if his choices are either competing for XFINITY titles or running 25th every week in Sprint Cup, Sadler would probably be better off at NASCAR’s second-highest level anyway.
Allgaier finds himself in a similar position to Sadler, though his future in NASCAR is probably the biggest question mark of the four. A three-time winner during his first NXS run from 2009-2013, Allgaier finally got a chance to race in Sprint Cup the following season with HScott Motorsports. But after two seasons that were mostly a struggle, Allgaier came back to the XFINITY Series for 2016.
If Allgaier wins the championship, what kinds of doors could open for him? While his Sprint Cup results left a lot to be desired, HScott Motorsports has continued to struggle with Clint Bowyer. A championship might convince owners that Allgaier could be successful in Sprint Cup given more time and better equipment.
The opportunities that come with winning this year’s XFINITY title will be big ones for the drivers and the organizations. Will JGR continue its dominance and keep developing new stars? Can JR Motorsports reach new heights with a leading, veteran driver? Who will have a career-defining moment at Homestead? All of those questions will be answered on Saturday as the checkered flag flies over the 2016 season.
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