NXS Battle It Out In The Desert

AJ Allmendinger

In one of the most competitive seasons in recent memory, Noah Gragson, Austin Cindric, Daniel Hemric and A.J. Allmendinger have earned the right to compete for the 2021 Xfinity Series title in Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship Race at Phoenix Raceway (8:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Gragson, driver of the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet pulled off a dramatic victory at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway last week to earn his first ever shot at the series title.

He’ll contend with a pair of five-race winners in reigning series champion, Team Penske’s Austin Cindric and this year’s NASCAR Xfinity Series Regular Season Champion, Kaulig Racing’s A.J. Allmendinger. The steady and impressive Joe Gibbs Racing driver Daniel Hemric rounds out the quartet. Only Cindric and Hemric have raced in the finale for the title previously.

With his win, Gragson is the only fulltime series driver to hoist a trophy in the most recent three-race Playoff round. In fact, only two of the six Playoff races – Allmendinger won at the Charlotte ROVAL – have been won by championship-eligible drivers.

Because of that win in the Round of 8, Gragson is listed as the top-seed for the Championship Race. He has 20 top-10 finishes and three wins on the year. His Playoffs have tended to be “all or nothing” with four top-10 finishes and a pair of Did Not Finish (DNFs). He’s solid at Phoenix with three top-10 finishes in five starts. He was runner-up to Cindric in last year’s Championship Race and has finished 11th or better in his last four starts there.

When it comes to Phoenix, however, Cindric has been the master of this class. He is the defending championship race winner and won again this Spring. He has six top-10 and four top-five finishes in seven starts and is 261 laps out front are most among the title-seekers. And his 5.9 average finish in the No. 22 Team Penske Ford at Phoenix is by far the best among these four contenders.

He’s earned five wins on the year – tying Allmendinger for most. His 21 top-five and 25 top-10 finishes and average finish of 8.4 through 32 races are high marks for the series this season. He hasn’t won since the Indianapolis Road Course back on Aug.14, but is the only one of these championship eligible drivers to earn top-10 finishes in all six Playoff races. Three times – at the ROVAL, Kansas and Martinsville – he’s finished runner-up.

Hemric’s consistency posting five top-five finishes in the six Playoff races has earned him his third appearance in the Championship 4. Still looking for his first career victory in one of NASCAR’s national series, he has been impressive this year, especially during the Playoff run with a runner-up showing at Texas and third place efforts at the ROVAL and last Saturday at Martinsville.

The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has four top-10 finishes at Phoenix with a best showing of runner-up there in 2018. He hasn’t finished in the top-20 in his last three Phoenix starts, however, he did lead 44 laps there in a 23rd-place finish this Spring.

After a celebrated maiden full-season run in the Xfinity Series, Allmendinger, 39, is ready to top off the work with a championship trophy. He’s won five races and amassed 22 top-10 finishes with a Playoff win at the Charlotte Road Course. His only Phoenix start since 2008 in the Xfinity Series was this March and he finished fifth. In 19 NASCAR Cup Series starts, his best finish was sixth-place.

Among those drivers eliminated from Championship contention was two-time Phoenix winner Justin Allgaier, who still goes into the race a favorite. He has led at least 30 laps in eight of the last 10 Phoenix races with 14 top-10 and eight top-five finishes in his 22 series starts. His 8.6 Average Finish at Phoenix is second only to Cindric.


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