One of the more curious aspects of the 2019 NASCAR Xfinity Series season is how it’s managed to simultaneously subvert and reinforce its own narratives all year long.
Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick won enough races to be part of a Big Three, but most people still consider Christopher Bell the favorite for the championship. Other drivers like Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe did well enough to wonder if they had stepped up to the level of true contender, yet the Big Three had enough playoff points racked up by Las Vegas Motor Speedway to have a comfortable cushion over everyone else.
In that same vein, there were reasons to think that someone from the nine- to 12-seed range might sneak into the Round of 8. Alas, the Use Your Melon Drive Sober 200 at Dover International Speedway gave us all chalk for the next round, to borrow a term from a certain hoops tournament that takes place every March.
Brandon Jones, Justin Haley, Ryan Sieg and John Hunter Nemechek were eliminated on Saturday afternoon (Oct. 5), all ultimately unable to punch above their weight and advance. All except Jones finished inside the top 10, so they did well when it mattered, just not good enough to make up the gap between themselves and the drivers above them — which has been true for this group since Daytona International Speedway in February for the most part.
There were other ways Dover was something of a microcosm of the season as a whole as well. Justin Allgaier appeared for what felt like the 17th time in 2019 that he might end his ongoing run of frustration, winning two stages, but he ended up second to Custer despite leading more than twice as many laps. Bell ended up 25th after mechanical issues, which sometimes seems the only thing that can prevent him from finishing first or second.
But even with some of the same old, same old at Dover, there was a glimmer of unpredictability. Custer had never conquered the Monster Mile before, so seeing him in victory lane there was something different. Now things might get really interesting, because there’s a spot in the Championship 4 up for grabs that could lead to a wild next few weeks.
Or maybe it will just go to Cindric, who entered the playoffs as the fourth seed. He did just finish third at Dover, and it would be fitting in this year of contradictions if the Round of 8 teased us a bit and then just delivered the top four to Homestead-Miami Speedway in order.
Based on the themes we’ve just laid out, Michael Annett doesn’t figure to be a title contender, but he’ll still be in the hunt when the Round of 8 begins. It’s the first time he’s been able to say that, so the No. 1 team has to be excited as it leaves Dover.
That’s even more true given what they had to overcome on Saturday. Annett qualified 16th but was forced to start from the rear thanks to an engine change. He’s not one many would expect to fly up through the field — particularly since he hadn’t recorded an Xfinity top 10 since 2012 — but fly he did, all the way to sixth by race’s end.
Annett got a little lucky thanks to a caution that flew with less than 25 laps left that shuffled the field some, because it came during a sequence of green flag pit stops. But good teams make their own luck by being in position to capitalize on breaks that come their way. Annett’s bunch did exactly that, and now they’re moving on.
There must be something about having the last name Jones and driving for Joe Gibbs Racing during the playoffs that displeases the stock car gods for some reason. Brandon Jones never had a chance to race his way into the next round as he was eliminated from the elimination race on the very first lap in a wreck that was not of his own making.
— NASCAR Xfinity (@NASCAR_Xfinity) October 5, 2019
Jones has had a wildly inconsistent campaign, occasionally showing he could run with anyone but also struggling to put together any extended stretch of strong finishes. He entered the playoffs with as much momentum as he had all year, but after zero top 10s in the Round of 12, he really didn’t deserve to move on anyway. It’s unfortunate that he never got a real shot to change that, but hey — at least Erik Jones can join him for some misery-loves-company discussion.
Nemechek was something of the anti-Brandon Jones in that he limped into the playoffs with only one decent result in the final four regular season races. His eighth-place result was perfectly fine, but it didn’t come without a talking point as he got into Mike Harmon early on.
The 74 gets spun coming out of Turn 4! pic.twitter.com/rz76jBx8z7
— NASCAR Xfinity (@NASCAR_Xfinity) October 5, 2019
Though he definitely has talent and was (somewhat surprisingly) steadier than Jones in 2019, Nemechek isn’t going to take the next step up if he doesn’t do better at avoiding incidents like this.
(Nemechek’s team also let him down, failing to tighten all the lug nuts on his left-rear tire during one of his pit stops.)
Better luck next year.
Underdog Performance of the Race
From a purely technical perspective, this honor goes to Sieg, who ended up 10th despite being eliminated from the championship chase. It’s probably more apt to hand out the award to a non-playoff driver, however, so the props go to the driver who finished right behind him, Brandon Brown.
Brown’s 11th-place effort was not only his second-best of the year but his Xfinity Series career, topped only by a sixth a few months ago at the summer Daytona race. The usual comments about how impressive it is for an underfunded team to turn in a top performance at a non-superspeedway apply here, and Brandonbilt Motorsports has clearly made some strides forward this season.
“I’ve wanted to win here so bad for so long. I’ve been close a number of times but just to win the gold monster [trophy] is unbelievable.” – Cole Custer
“Disappointing day, but seems like it’s the story of our season. Just can’t catch a break.” – Justin Allgaier
“I’ve kind of been saying all along if we got through the first round, I’m really confident about the round coming up.” – Michael Annett
And then there were eight. Despite the field losing four drivers and time dwindling for a shot at the title, there’s still a chance for someone to seize the opportunity to race the Big Three for the championship, as they all figure to still be around by Homestead. It’s going to take something more dramatic than what just happened at Dover, though, where the status quo was very definitely reinforced.
The Xfinity Series races just once more this month, and it’s not next week. The Round of 8 begins at Kansas Speedway on Saturday, Oct 19, with the remaining contenders attempting to secure a spot in the final by winning the Kansas Lottery 300.
Nemechek is the defending race winner, though he triumphed last year in a Chip Ganassi Racing ride that no longer exists. Bell took the honors in 2017 before he was even a series regular, though it’s worth noting that he would up 37th at Kansas in 2018 while Reddick earned a top five, so make of that what you will.
Coverage is on NBC and begins at 3 p.m./ET on Oct. 19.
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