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Eyes on Xfinity: Previewing the 2020 Playoffs

In the midst of one of the most bizarre NASCAR seasons, the NASCAR Xfinity Series regular season is finally complete. No practice, no qualifying, new racetracks and a great aerodynamic package have all led to an entertaining racing.

Now it’s time for a seven-week grind to crown a champion come Nov. 7 at Phoenix Raceway.

Xfinity regulars have dominated the regular season, winning 24 of 26 races. The only outliers appeared at a pair of intermediate racetracks starting when Kyle Busch took a win at Charlotte Motor Speedway in one of his five starts this year, followed by AJ Allmendinger earning Kaulig Racing its first win on a traditional racetrack at Atlanta Motor Speedway in early June.

For the most part, Ford has dominated the season with just two entries, winning 12 of the 26 races. Those drivers swept the top two positions in the regular season. Meanwhile, only five other drivers won for a total of nine across the board, all having multiple victories. That means five drivers enter the postseason winless.

As we’ve seen in recent years, anything can happen in the playoffs. But let’s dive into how these 12 drivers are feeling going into the playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Chase Briscoe

Let’s flash back to February, prior to the green flag of the Xfinity season at Daytona International Speedway, when Chase Briscoe set out a lofty goal of eight victories. Why eight? After not having a ride secure for the 2020 season until last December, he believed that number would appeal to Cup owners for a potential ride.

Through 26 races, he’s almost there. Briscoe won a series-high seven races in the regular season, finishing second in the regular season championship. Five of those came in the opening 13 races. The No. 98 driver has led nearly three times the amount of laps from his rookie season. He has also already bettered his top-five total (14) and his average finish of 7.6, which ranks second best in the series.

With 50 playoff points, Briscoe is nearly a lock for Phoenix.

“To a certain extent it’s championship or bust, but, at the same time, say we do win two or three more of these races in the playoffs and don’t win Phoenix, we had a great year winning nine or 10 races,” Briscoe said on Tuesday (Sept. 22) at Xfinity playoff media day. “You can’t let the championship define you and define your season.”

Austin Cindric

Briscoe’s Ford counterpart, Cindric, had three primary goals. First, win the regular season title. Check. Second, score 30-top 10 finishes. He’s run out of mulligans to accomplish that. Last, be at Phoenix to compete for a championship. For that, he’s well on his way.

Cindric enters the playoffs tied for the No. 1 seed with Briscoe, scoring 50 playoff points. The No. 22 team went on a tear during the summer, winning five of six races, including three on ovals. From a sheer speed standpoint, Cindric arguably has the fastest car, leading 812 laps already this season. He’s seemingly always in contention for the victory and has scored a series-high 17 top-five finishes.

There’s a good chance Cindric will also be locked into Phoenix based off playoff points, but he’s focused on winning in the postseason.

“It’s all about making it to Phoenix,” Cindric said. “You’ve got to have your best day. You’ve got to bring your A-game. For us, we’re in more of a position to have solid races instead of home runs, but winning makes things a lot easier.”

Justin Allgaier

Leading the charge for Chevrolet is veteran Allgaier. The No. 7 team is looking to make its fourth Championship 4 appearance in the past five years. But like the last two calendar years, 2020 has been a challenge.

Through 19 races this season, Allgaier was winless. But in the first race at Dover International Speedway, the No. 7 car whipped the field, scoring the victory. He went on to sweep the weekend at Richmond Raceway earlier this month.

Allgaier’s 896 laps led is the most in the series, and his 13 stage wins ranks highest. But his 13.2 average finish is among the worst in the playoff field. Should he make it to Phoenix, though, Allgaier is the favorite, with two prior victories.

“I feel like we’ve done such a good job of getting ourselves here, but we cannot focus on Phoenix,” Allgaier said. “Right now, Vegas is the most important race. When we leave Vegas, Talladega is going to be the most important race and just managing that week to week is going to be more important to me than looking ahead saying we know we’re good there (Phoenix).”

Noah Gragson

Gragson kicked the season off with a bang, winning his first Xfinity race at Daytona. He scored his second victory of the season at Bristol Motor Speedway, roughing up Allgiaer, his JR Motorsports teammate.

Since Bristol, it’s been hit or miss for Gragson. He hasn’t won in 20 races but was only a few laps away from sweeping the weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway. A pair of untimely cautions ruined his chance in both races.

Through 26 races, Gragson has a career-high 11 top-five finishes, leading 524 laps. However, he has all the confidence in the world entering his home track this weekend.

“I feel like we’re really confident in ourselves right now, and these tracks leading into the playoffs have been decent for us,” Gragson. “But once we get into the playoffs, I think those are really good racetracks for our team. […] I’m fully committed to this race team. Overall, I feel like if we can do everything we can possible right then it will be successful for us.”

Brandon Jones

Here’s your dark horse for the championship. Sure, Jones has three victories this season, but two of them – Kansas Speedway and Darlington Raceway – he’s been in the right place at the right time.

Compared to his first four seasons, 2020 has been Jones’ breakout season. His eight top-five finishes equals the amount he had in his first two seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing. His five DNFs – including four in a row during the summer – is a small cause for concern.

Regardless, Jones is out to prove something this season. Don’t be surprised to see the No. 19 team racing for a championship at Phoenix. Oh, and he won at Phoenix in March.

“This year has already been great,” Jones said. “I could end now and say that this has been a really solid year, but I feel like I have a lot left as well for the races that we have and staying focused.”

Justin Haley

Want another dark horse? Here you go. Compared to his rookie season last year, Haley has been leaps and bounds more competitive. He scored two victories (both at superspeedways), doubling his top-five total to eight and leading 101 laps.

Kaulig Racing has upped its game, running two full-time cars for the first time in team history. The one difference for Haley this year is, he enters the seven-race stretch with 18 playoff points. He told me on the Frontstretch Podcast three weeks ago the team would be disappointed if they don’t get one, if not two cars in the postseason.

Haley has also been competitive at Phoenix, finishing fifth in the desert earlier this year.

“We have playoff points this year, we have a lot faster racecars than last year,” Haley stated. “I feel like we’re in contention to win every single race. I think hopefully we should have a pretty easy first round and then the second round is going to be a little tougher.”

Harrison Burton

Right off the bat this season, Burton set a record for having the most consecutive top-10 finishes to start off a rookie season (10), winning twice. Since then, the No. 20 team has been inconsistent.

Burton has proven to be good on old, worn-out track surfaces with his two victories coming at Auto Club Speedway and Homestead. He was also in contention for the win at Kansas Speedway until a late-race caution flew.

The No. 20 team does have top-five finishes in half the races thus far (13), posting five additional top 10s. Burton’s also paced the field for 186 laps. But what does he consider a successful first postseason?

“I want to get Phoenix for the chance to win a championship,” Burton said. “I really think we are capable of that as a race team. If you get there, and things come up short, hey, you did your job and you got there. […] I know what I think of our team, and I think we have a chance to win it all and that’s all that matters.”

Ross Chastain

Earlier this week, Chastain announced something he’s been dreaming of: running in the Cup Series with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2021.

While moving to Cup in competitive equipment is a well-earned opportunity for Chastain, he’s chasing an Xfinity championship with Kaulig first. And boy, is he due for a checkered flag.

Chastain was the most consistent driver in the regular season, scoring a series-high 23 top-10 finishes. The No. 10 team has five runner-up finishes, three of which have came in the past six races. Entering as the eight seed, with just 10 playoff points, Chastain has his work cutout for him, but don’t consider him an underdog at all.

He said, “I can’t change anything. We just have to keep doing what we’re doing, and if we keep doing what we’re doing, this 10 car will pull into victory lane.”

Ryan Sieg

Before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sieg’s No. 39 team was hitting on all eight cylinders, scoring two top-five finishes in four starts. In the 22 races since the season resumed, Sieg has only two such finishes, along with a dismal eight-race stretch between Charlotte and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

Most people have Sieg out after the first round. His four top-five efforts is the same amount he had between the 2016 and 2019 seasons combined. Of his 108 career laps led, 81 have come this season. So despite his up-and-down season, it’s arguably his best yet.

Compared to 2019, Sieg, who has now made consecutive playoffs, believes his team will be more competitive this time around, even though he has the second worst average finish (15.7) of all playoff drivers.

“I feel like we’re stronger this year than we were last year,” Sieg said. “The cars we’re bringing now are better, and we’re clicking a little bit better on the personnel side. I feel like that’s a big step.”

Michael Annett

Last season, Annett had his breakout season, picking up his first victory at Daytona. He chalked up 19 top-10 finishes, his career best.

But this season has been more of a struggle. The No. 1 team has an average finish of 11.9, nearly two positions worse than 2019 (10.0). Annett does have three top fives and is on pace to break his top-10 total from last season, sitting with 16.

That’s not good enough for the driver. He believes the team consistently has top-10 speed, he but hasn’t been able to compete for victories yet. His primary goal in the playoffs is to win.

“I wouldn’t call this season a success at this point, even though we have had all those top 10s,” Annett said. “It’s just not good enough. The field is too strong, race wins is what it’s all about. […] We’ve got to get ourselves a race win.”

Riley Herbst 

Of the three JGR drivers this season, expectations were most limited for Herbst, who had just one ARCA victory in 47 starts prior to tackling Xfinity full-time.

This season has been average at best, especially running the coveted No. 18 Toyota. Herbst does have four top-five finishes with a total of 16 top 10s, eight of which have come over the past 10 races.

Like Sieg and Annett, most people have Herbst out after the first round. The Vegas native wishes he was in a better position entering his home track, nine points below the cutline.

“I would really be disappointed if we did get out of the first round,” Herbst noted. “I think that I have the crew chief (Dave Rogers), the car and the team to do it. JGR has given me the tools to perform, and now it’s kind of on my shoulders, and I have to go do it.”

Brandon Brown

Making the playoffs in its second full-time season is a success story for Brandonbilt Motorsports. Now the team is playing with house money, coming into the postseason as the 12th seed.

Brown has top 15’d the Xfinity field to death this season, scoring 17 such finishes in 26 races. However, only four of those have been inside the top 10, with a season-best finish of seventh (Daytona and Bristol).

The No. 68 team goes into the playoffs with the worst average finish of the 12 playoff drivers at 16.5. Brown has shown flashes of real speed this season, and the family-owned team will lease engines in select races during the postseason from ECR (Earnhardt-Childress Racing). He believes his team can be sneaky.

“I want to see us get into the second round,” Brown said. “As long as we head to Vegas and play our cards right, really do everything we need to do and I do everything I can to execute behind the wheel, then I think we have a shot of getting through the first round and into the second, especially with Talladega being one of the races.”

Predictions

This year’s playoffs is probably the most challenging in its five-year history. The opening round consists of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway and the Charlotte ROVAL. Yikes. The Round of 8 will begin at Kansas, go to Texas Motor Speedway and end at Martinsville Speedway, the series’ first visit to the famed paperclip since 2006. All of that sets up for Phoenix, the first time the one-mile track has hosted championship weekend.

Come the ROVAL, I see the bottom four – Sieg, Annett, Herbst and Brown – failing to advance to the second round.

After Martinsville, I predict Gragson, Jones, Haley and Burton will be eliminated. That means, my Championship 4 bracket consists of Briscoe, Cindric, Allgaier and Chastain. And after 200 laps in the desert heat, Allgaier is my pick for the championship, because, well… Phoenix!

Xfinity Notes

  • As noted above, the series heads to Las Vegas this weekend for the playoff opener. There are 36 cars on the entry list, with Briscoe and Cindric starting on the front row. The Nos. 8 and 21 of JR Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing are a part of the playoffs, chasing the owner’s championship.
  • With Chastain moving to Cup in 2021, that opens up at least one ride for Kaulig. There’s a possibility Haley could move to Cup as well, as he’s been linked to Spire Motorsports, who will have two charters in 2021.
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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.