(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

2019 Xfinity Series Review, Pt. 1: Playoff Teams, Big 3 Dominate

The 2019 NASCAR Xfinity Series season was set to be promising from the beginning of the year, with many of its top drivers returning. Three of the series’ Championship 4 contenders from 2018 were back with vengeance, as Tyler Reddick was looking to repeat as champion, even though he swapped Chevrolet teams from JR Motorsports to Richard Childress Racing.

Series regulars won 29 of 33 races (including Ross Chastain, running for Gander Outdoors Truck Series points, who won at Daytona International Speedway in July, and AJ Allmendinger, who was victorious at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL in September), up from 20 last year. In fact, Kyle Busch was the only Cup driver that won, doing so four times.

But the season belonged to three drivers — Reddick, Cole Custer and Christopher Bell — who combined to win 21 races. It was the first time in series history that three Xfinity drivers had six triumphs or more in a single season.

Meanwhile, Michael Annett, Austin Cindric and Brandon Jones all got their first career victory. And Justin Allgaier, a crafty veteran, struggled much of the year, but was strong in the playoffs, making it to Homestead-Miami Speedway.

There was a great rookie battle between Chase Briscoe, Noah Gragson, Justin Haley and John Hunter Nemechek, while Ryan Sieg‘s RSS Racing team had a breakout season.

The action was fast and furious throughout, but the season opener at Daytona could go down as the worst race in NASCAR history, as most of the race was a Memorial Day Parade up against the wall. Yikes.

Races like that were a rarity in 2019, especially come the playoffs when Custer and Reddick brawled after making contact on a late race restart at Kansas Speedway in an overall thrilling race — and four weeks later, those two put on a hell of a show at Homestead for the championship, as did Bell.

NASCAR should take notice of the action the Xfinity Series put on in 2019; short tracks, road courses — hell, even intermediates put on great racing.

It would be hard to argue that the best on-track action for the duration of the nine-month season came from a season other than Xfinity. Reddick, Custer and Bell will be missed next year, though it leaves the series’ title battle wide open.

Tyler Reddick: championship winner. Grade: A+

Driving for JR Motorsports, Reddick never found his true identity. Sure, he won the championship in 2018, but he didn’t have the best season. Quite honestly, he probably shouldn’t have even made the Championship 4.

Reddick silenced the critics early in 2019, winning his first race of the season at Talladega Superspeeday in late April. His win at NASCAR’s largest track was his seventh top-five finish of the season through the opening nine races, matching his total from his championship season.

The No. 2 team kept that pace up all season long, winning the regular season championship and ultimately the overall championship. Reddick finished the year with six victories, 24 top fives and 27 top-10 finishes, becoming the first driver in Xfinity history to win consecutive championships for different teams.

Next season, Reddick will make the jump to the Cup Series and replace Daniel Hemric in the No. 8 car at RCR. Don’t be surprised if he quickly becomes the lead driver in that camp.

Cole Custer: runner-up. Grade: A

For the second consecutive season, Custer finished second in points… to Reddick. But 2019 was the California native’s coming-out party.

In Custer’s first two seasons for Stewart-Haas Racing (2017 and 2018), he brought home just two checkered flags. Come mid-April at Richmond Raceway, the No. 00 team had already equaled that total.

Custer kept his winning ways up throughout the season, oftentimes winning at tracks with worn out surfaces (Auto Club Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway, Darlington Raceway). He beat Busch straight up at the former, proving he was ready to take the next step.

The No. 00 ended 2019 with seven wins, 17 top-five finishes and 24 top 10s. Expect Custer to impress next season, driving the No. 41 Ford in the Cup Series for SHR.

Christopher Bell: third in points. Grade: A

In recent years, no driver has been more highly touted in NASCARs preliminary series than Bell. He delivered again in 2019.

Coming off a seven-win season in 2018, expectations were extremely high for the No. 20 team in 2019. Championship or bust? Eh, maybe not under this points format, especially going up against Reddick and Custer at Homestead.

Bell won three of the opening 10 races of 2019, continuing his dominance throughout. The No. 20 team ended the season with a series-high eight wins, 20 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes. His 2,005 laps led were almost as much of the remaining Championship 4 combined (2,097).

Bell has graduated from the Xfinity Series and will pilot the No. 95 for Leavine Family Racing at the Cup level next season. He could be the one to get that team its first victory.

Justin Allgaier: fourth in points. Grade: B+

On paper, 2019 will look like one of Allgaier’s best seasons. But if you asked him, he’d tell you it sucked.

That might be because of his dominance in 2018, with a career-high five victories. The No. 7 Chevrolet also saw multiple wins slip from its grasp this season, including both Bristol races (burning a right front hub in April from the lead and blowing a right front tire with less than 10 laps to go in August while leading). That summed up his season.

Allgaier did go on a streak of 16 consecutive top-10 finishes in the second half of the season, earning his lone win of the season at ISM Raceway in the penultimate race of the season. Ultimately, he made the Championship 4 at Homestead, something he didn’t accomplish in his career year in 2018.

Regardless, Allgaier will be the favorite for the Xfinity title next season, returning to JR Motorsports for a fifth season.

Chase Briscoe: fifth in points. Grade: B+

Ford Performance has believed in Briscoe for the past three seasons, and that belief paid off in 2019 for SHR.

After starting off the season consistently consistent, Briscoe earned his lone win of the season at Iowa Speedway in late July, taking advantage of fresh tires.

No, Briscoe didn’t make the Championship 4, and it could go down as a season of what-ifs. In the Round of 8, the No. 98 was battling Bell for the lead when Garrett Smithley, a lapped driver, caused a three-car crash with less than 20 laps to go. Had Briscoe won that race, his ticket to Homestead would have been punched.

At playoff races the ROVAL and Dover International Speedway, wins slipped away as well, making the postseason a stretch of missed opportunities. But finishing the year with 13 top fives and 26 top 10s, the No. 98 team was right there all season long.

At time of print, Briscoe’s 2020 plans have not announced, but it would be hard to imagine seeing him driving anything but a Ford.

Austin Cindric: sixth in points. Grade: B+

With two victories, 14 top fives (doubling his 2018 total) and 24 top 10s, Cindric is my vote for most improved driver. But the second round of the playoffs was a different story.

Cindric put his road racing skills to work in August at Watkins Glen International and Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course — his two triumphs of the year. Compared to his rookie season, when he was bouncing back and forth between Team Penske and Roush Fenway Racing, it was a vast improvement.

Heading into 2020, Cindric will look to win his first race on an oval. Based off his 2019 performance, I’d take that to the bank.

John Hunter Nemechek: seventh in points. Grade: B

All eyes were on Nemechek in 2019, as he made the move to GMS Racing. It was a season filled with ups and downs, but the No. 23 team ended the year with six top fives and 19 top 10s.

During the regular season, Nemechek was subpar, recording five DNFs and eight finishes of 20th or worse. But come the playoffs, the No. 23 team came to play, with an average finish of 7.6.

Due to a lack of playoff points and stage points, Nemechek was bounced in the Round of 12. But he led GMS to its best Xfinity season, right before the team shut down its Xfinity program early in the offseason.

As for 2020, Nemechek’s name has been thrown out there about taking over one of the rides at Front Row Motorsports in the Cup Series. Competing in the final three Cup events of the year, the 22-year-old had an average finish of 23.7.

Noah Gragson: eighth in points. Grade: B

Moving up from the Truck Series and switching organizations, Gragson had a lot of adjusting to do in 2019. In what was a down year across the board at JRM, the rookie impressed.

He wasn’t always flashy, but Gragson quietly ended the season with 22 top-10 finishes. His 9.3 average finish was among the best in the series.

Improvement was definitely noticeable for the No. 9 team. Through the opening 10 races of the season, Gragson had seven finishes outside the top 10. Over the final 23 races of the year, he had four such finishes.

Expectations will be much higher for Gragson in 2020, as he returns to JRM for a second season. If the final two-thirds of 2019 are any indication, he’ll be battling for wins on a more consistent basis in the near future.

Michael Annett: ninth in points. Grade: B

If Cindric was the most improved driver of 2019, Annett was the comeback kid, rejuvenating his racing career. He kicked it off at Daytona by winning his first series race in his 230th start.

That win led to a skyrocket in confidence for Annett. It started when Travis Mack came over to the team toward the end of the 2018 season. But 2019 was a career-year for the Iowa native, a season he desperately needed.

The No. 1 team ended the year with the Daytona win, along with six top-five finishes (tying a career best, which previously came in 2012). Annett set a new personal best with 19 top-10 finishes, leading 94 laps — more than his other seven full-time seasons combined.

With the series being wide open in 2020, don’t be surprised to see Annett snag a win or two for JR Motorsports, improving on his 2019 stats.

Brandon Jones: 10th in Points. Grade: B-

If Jones didn’t have bad luck, he wouldn’t have any luck at all. However, the No. 19 team managed a respectable 2019, granting the Georgia native his first series win at Kansas Speedway in October.

Jones kicked off the season strong, posting back-to-back top-five finishes at Daytona and Atlanta Motor Speedway. He was in position to get a third straight at Las Vegas, until a late-race incident with Custer. That finish was just the start of his inconsistency.

The No. 19 team went on to wreck out at Texas, Pocono Raceway, Iowa Speedway and Dover, while having engine issues at Richmond in the spring and Kentucky in July — a race during which he arguably had the quickest car. His eight DNFs were the most of all playoff drivers.

His win at Kansas to kick off the Round of 8 made his season a success. But comparing his stats to Bell, his JGR teammate, is like comparing apples to oranges. Meanwhile, he posted a career-high six top-five finishes.

Jones has the speed, he just needs to finish.

Ryan Sieg: 11th in points. Grade: B

RSS Racing came to play in 2019, as did its driver, Sieg.

Sieg, 32, kicked off the year with a fourth-place finish at Daytona. His teammate Jeff Green wasn’t far behind in seventh. Through the opening two months of the season, the No. 39 had a worst finish of 12th, posting five top-10 finishes, a new career best.

Over the next seven months of the year, Sieg recorded seven additional top 10s, making the postseason for the second time in four years. In his first five full-time seasons, Sieg had just nine top 10s.

Sieg should shine even brighter in 2020, being fully funded by CMR Roofing. If the team can replicate its 2019 performance, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them squeak out a win.

Justin Haley: 12th in points. Grade B-

The beginning of 2019 started off promising for Haley. The playoffs, on the other hand, were a disappointment.

Haley kicked off his rookie season with Kaulig Racing by winning the opening stage of the season at Daytona. When the series came back to Daytona in July, the No. 11 team’s runner-up finish was its 12th top 10 of the campaign, marking a new career best for the fourth-year team.

Over the second half of the year, Haley added eight more top 10s, finishing the season with 20. He also had to adapt to a crew chief change, following the unfortunate passing of Nick Harrison in late July. In the seven-race postseason, the No. 11 team had three finishes of 31st or worse.

The Hoosier native will return for a sophomore season in Xfinity for Kaulig. The team will expand to two full-time teams with the addition of Chastain and will likely make even more of a statement than it did in 2019.

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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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