(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Eyes on XFINITY: Previewing the Playoffs

Just over seven months ago, the 2018 NASCAR XFINITY Series season began at Daytona International Speedway in a five-overtime thriller, ending with the closest margin of victory in NASCAR history. Seven months later, it hasn’t slowed down.

Action has been fast and furious this season, as veteran drivers prove why they are the ones to beat in the series, and some of the young guns are starting to hit their stride. Through the opening 26 events, there has been a pair of first-time winners, while series regulars kept up and stuck it to Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series stars.

Following last weekends race (Sept. 15) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the 12-driver playoff field was set, and there are five first-timers at a shot at the championship, beginning this weekend (Sept. 21) at Richmond Raceway. Check it out.

Justin Allgaier

Justin Allgaier enters the postseason as the odds-on favorite to win the title. Since wrecking out of the June Pocono Raceway race, the No. 7 team has 14 consecutive top-10 finishes, a career-best for the veteran driver.

Over the final eight races of the regular season, Allgaier had seven top-three finishes, winning three times. He also recorded victories at Dover International Speedway and Iowa Speedway in the first half of the season. But the No. 7 JR Motorsports team is hitting on all eight cylinders as the playoffs begin.

The No. 7 car has been out front for a series-high 575 circuits. The second highest among XFINITY regulars is Christopher Bell at 439. Look for Allgaier to make it to Homestead-Miami Speedway for the third straight year with a shot at the title. He leads the series in average position throughout the races and quality passes and has gained over 100 points in the final six events of the regular season to cruise to the regular season championship.

Christopher Bell

One of the young guns is Christopher Bell, and the No. 20 team hit its stride in the middle of the season.

Bell, 23, had four regulars season victories to his credit. And until Allgaier got hot over the final month-and-a-half of the regular season, the No. 20 team led the series with four wins — three of which were in consecutive weeks at Kentucky Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Iowa. But it’s been feast or famine for him, as he has four DNFs.

Entering the postseason with 32 playoff points, C-Bell could have a bad race in each of the first two rounds and still have a shot at the championship in Homestead. The No. 20 car has the speed, it’s whether or not he can keep it off the wall that will determine his playoff fate.

Bell’s average finishing position of 10.7 in the regular season may have to improve a tad, as does the consistency. At Michigan International Speedway in June, Bell told Fronstretch he’s been consistently inconsistent in 2018, and since then, it’s gotten even worse despite the trio of victories. Regardless, Bell has a real shot at the title and could be a co-favorite to Allgaier.

Elliott Sadler

Since returning to the XFINITY Series full-time in 2011, Elliott Sadler has been the most consistent full-time driver in the series. He’s also the only driver in the playoffs that has been racing in the series full-time for the past seven seasons.

2018 has been another year of consistency for Sadler, leading the point standings after 15 events. However, the No. 1 team has yet to taste Victory Lane, as the long-time driver has gone winless for nearly two seasons.

Sadler is tied with Allgaier and Cole Custer with 21 top-10 finishes, which leads the series. But being out front for 205 laps ranks sixth in the series, despite having 13 top fives.

These could possibly be the last seven races of Sadler’s career, announcing his retirement from full-time competition prior to last months race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Given that it’s the Virginia natives last hoorah at a NASCAR title, it’s hard to imagine he won’t be on his A-game.

Cole Custer 

If Cole Custer can get to Homestead, watch out.

In 2017, Custer, then a rookie, was eliminated following the penultimate race of the season at ISM Raceway at Phoenix. But he whipped the field in the season-finale on South Beach, leading 182 of 200 laps.

With an additional year of experience in the XFINITY Series, Custer has grown to be more consistent, though like Sadler, not yet winning in 2018. Meanwhile, the No. 00 car has led 240 laps and has the best average start of full-time competitors at 6.2 with a series-high five pole awards.

After not having a top-10 finish at either of the first two races (Daytona and Atlanta Motor Speedway), Custer has placed inside the top 10 in 21 of the last 24 races with a worst finish of 29th at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He also wrecked out of the July Daytona event, finishing 25th.

Custer has the speed to make it to Homestead, but a victory would put him in that upper echelon of drivers that have a shot at the title.

Tyler Reddick 

Tyler Reddick kicked off the season in grand fashion by winning at Daytona, by .0004 seconds over Sadler. Since then, it’s been an up-and-down year.

The No. 9 car has had speed all year, but, more so than Bell, has been extremely inconsistent, seeming to find trouble weekly.

Sure, Reddick enters the playoffs with 14 top 10s, but he also has nine finishes outside the top 20 with five DNFs. He did, however, build some type of momentum as the regular season wound down, picking up back-to-back top fives at Darlington Raceway and Indy, one of which was using restrictor plates — apparently a package he’s good at racing.

Out of the three JR Motorsports to make the playoffs, Reddick is the least likely to make it to Homestead. But should he, be on the lookout, as he won the pole there last year.

Ross Chastain 

Want to talk about a Cinderella story? Ross Chastain is your driver.

For 24 of the 26 races in the regular season, Chastain raced in the No. 4 of JD Motorsports — a severely underfunded ride. Meanwhile, the watermelon farmer recorded six top 10s with the team, before Chip Ganassi recognized his talent, giving him a ride for three races in the No. 42 car, which had won four races this season.

At Darlington, Chastain’s first shot in the No. 42, he led a race-high 90 laps before having a late-race incident with Kevin Harvick for the lead. Chastain got another try in Sin City, where he led 180 of 200 circuits en route to his first NASCAR victory.

Chastain will be in the No. 42 for what’s scheduled to be the final time this weekend at Richmond. If so, he will run the final six races of 2018 in the No. 4 car, by far the most underfunded car of the 12 playoff drivers. Richmond might be a must-win, and it is what he believes is his worst track on the circuit.

Daniel Hemric

For the past two seasons, Daniel Hemric has been the definition of consistent, pointing his way to Homestead last year — his rookie season in XFINITY. With more experience, the No. 21 team has been in contention for more victories in 2018, though coming up on the short end of the stick on multiple occasions.

The weight of the world is on Hemric’s shoulders, as he has been so close, yet so far from picking up his first NASCAR win. This year has been a step in the right direction.

Compared to his rookie season in the series, Richard Childress Racing has shown more speed. Austin Dillon took the No. 3 to Victory Lane at Michigan, but the No. 21 car typically out-performs the No. 3, oftentimes when the latter has Cup drivers in the seat.

Hemric made it to Homestead last year and had a real shot at the championship until a second stage mechanical failure. The second-year driver has nearly tripled his laps led from last season and already has the same amount of top 10s with seven races to go.

Brandon Jones 

2018 has been a rebuilding year for Brandon Jones, getting his confidence back after a dismal 2017 with RCR.

Jones has 12 top-10 finishes through the opening 26 races, equaling his 2016 amount. Last year, he had just three such finishes.

At Bristol Motor Speedway in mid-April, Jones proved he can lead laps and be a front-runner despite finishing sixth. The No. 19 car paced the field for a race-high 106 laps, en route to a pair of stage wins throughout the year.

Like Hemric, Jones is still looking for that first XFINITY victory, but he’s hands-down in the best equipment, as Joe Gibbs Racing has dominated the series for over a decade. The No. 19 car could be a sleeper in the playoffs.

Matt Tifft

Spending his rookie campaign in that same No. 19 car, Matt Tifft moved over to RCR this season, basically swapping positions with Jones.

Tifft’s No. 2 team has had flashes of brilliance, winning the pole at Road America and picking up a stage win en route to a second-place result to Allgaier. However, he too, has also been inconsistent.

The No. 2 car has four DNFs, including last week at Las Vegas where Tifft snapped loose. Prior to the 36th-place result, Tifft was on a streak of five-consecutive top 10s, the longest such span this season for him.

Tifft enters the postseason as the nine-seed with three playoff points. Based on regular season performance, he would be the first driver to miss the second round of the playoffs should it start now. But that’s why it’s racing, and there is a short track, road course and the Monster Mile making up the first round.

Ryan Truex

In its third year of existence, it’s been a career-year for Kaulig Racing with Ryan Truex as the team’s driver.

Coming into the season, the No. 11 car had 10 top 10s total in its first two years. Truex has that amount alone this season, but has led just four laps, the lowest among the 12 playoff drivers.

Despite having a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, Kaulig Racing is underfunded. Yet, the team has made it to the postseason for the third-straight year.

It would likely take a wild set of circumstances for Truex to make it past the first round of the playoffs. However, that happened in 2016 when Blake Koch had a legit shot of making it to the championship race up until Phoenix. With a more experienced driver behind the wheel, the No. 11 car will be one to watch over the next two months.

Austin Cindric

It’s been a rough season for Austin Cindric, crashing out of six races. However, the rookie driver competed for three teams — the Nos. 12, 22 and 60, with his best results coming with Team Penske.

Cindric, 2o, failed to post a top-10 finish in nine races for Roush Fenway Racing, meaning his eight top 10s came in Penske equipment. He won a pair of poles in the No. 22 car, which led the owner’s title following the regular season.

The good news for Cindric is he will be in the No. 22 for the rest of the year. However, he’s a rookie and is a longshot at best to be at Homestead. But he was facing similar circumstances last year in the Camping World Truck Series and made it to the Championship 4, so crazier things have happened.

Ryan Reed

In 2017, Ryan Reed was a lock for the playoffs after the season-opening race at Daytona. This year, however, has been a struggle.

In his fifth full season behind the wheel of the No. 16 car, Reed has a pair of top fives, though finishing in the top 10 a career-high eight times. When it’s good, it’s good, it just hasn’t been good as much as it has been bad this year for the Roush Fenway Racing group.

Reed has led just five laps this season, all of which have been in restrictor plate races. As the regular season continued on, the more inconsistent the No. 16 team got, with four top 10s in the second half of the regular season and a quartet of DNFs.

The No. 16 team is the only car to not have any playoff points entering the playoffs. Taking the green flag to the postseason shotgun on the playoff grid, there’s only one way for Reed to go — up, but it’ll be harder than it sounds.

Prediction: Justin Allgaier, Christopher Bell, Daniel Hemric and Cole Custer make it to Homestead. Allgaier wins the title. 

XFINITY Notes: 

  • Dale Earnhardt Jr. will compete in his first NASCAR race of the season this weekend at Richmond Raceway, driving the No. 88 Chevrolet. He mentioned at Indianapolis that this could be the last race he ever races in.
  • After making four ARCA starts earlier this season, Quin Houff will get the nod to drive the No. 4 car for JD Motorsports this weekend while Ross Chastain is in the No. 42 car. It’s Houff’s first series start since Kansas Speedway last October, where he finished 22nd.
  • Katherine Legge will be making her oval debut this weekend. In a pair of starts on road courses earlier this season for JD Motorsports, she had a best effort of 14th at Road America.
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About Dustin Albino

Dustin Albino
Dustin joined the Frontstretch team at the beginning of the 2016 season. 2020 marks his sixth full-time season covering the sport that he grew up loving. His dream was to one day be a NASCAR journalist, thus why he attended Ithaca College (Class of 2018) to earn a journalism degree. Since the ripe age of four, he knew he wanted to be a storyteller.

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