On Saturday, NASCAR will crown the 2021 Xfinity Series champion. Man, what a season it’s been.
AJ Allmendinger outdueled Austin Cindric for the regular season championship, which included a 99-point swing between Michigan and Daytona. The battle came down to the last lap at Bristol Motor Speedway, which saw both drivers lay it all on the line for five playoff points.
Meanwhile, Noah Gragson, the third member of the Championship 4 stayed winless until early September, when the No. 9 car won at Darlington Raceway. He backed that up the following week at Richmond Raceway, winning again.
But Daniel Hemric has remained winless, now 119 starts deep into his Xfinity Series career. Add that onto 50 Camping World Truck Series and 38 Cup Series races, the North Carolina native is 0-207 in NASCAR competition.
Still, though, Hemric has a shot at the championship for the third time in the final race of the season.
It all comes down to 200 laps at Phoenix Raceway, a flat one-mile oval in the middle of the desert. Cindric has dominated the last two races at the track, including taking home the 2020 championship in an overtime restart. Earlier this year, the No. 22 car led 119 of 200 laps.
Cindric, though, doesn’t believe past success at Phoenix necessarily makes him the championship favorite come Saturday.
“I feel like probably the best thing that I’ve heard all year, that I’ve probably been saving for this moment, came from Chase Elliott: Past success doesn’t equal future success,” Cindric said. “It’s pretty hard to go back-to-back in races let alone three times at a certain racetrack, but obviously championships as well, so we have that opportunity and I think we’re prepared for it.”
Cindric’s 2021 counterpart, Allmendinger, enters the race with nothing to lose. Sure, the No. 16 team won the regular season championship, but this isn’t the veteran’s first rodeo. It is, however, his best shot at a NASCAR championship in his 15-year career.
As Allmendinger has said all year long, the pressure to perform isn’t there. Racing is fun again, especially following his latter years as a full-time Cup driver with JTG Daugherty Racing.
Kaulig Racing, which started the playoffs with three cars in the 12-team postseason field, has been preparing for Phoenix for over a month, Allmendinger stated. Now it’s time to put the race together, despite it not being one of the team’s best tracks.
“If we hit it on Saturday and we execute, we have a chance at it,” Allmendinger said. I think I was more nervous [during the Round of 8] than I was waking up this week. Other than that, the teams have been preparing for the last four to five weeks like we were going to phoenix. We had to plan like that. I’ve been at the shop and simming for the last three to four weeks like we were going to be there. This week we got a little more time to finalize everything.”
Winning a championship doesn’t define Allmendinger. He’s competed in some of the biggest racing events in the world, so this doesn’t phase him.
“If I win it or I don’t, for me personally, it doesn’t change my life,” he said. “Of course I want to win a championship in NASCAR, I’ve been here for 15 years trying to do it. But I’m at a point in my life now where I would love to win it and the celebration if we win it may be better than anyone’s you’ve ever seen between Chris Matt and me, you may never hear from us again.”
Gragson enters the race with momentum. Last week at Martinsville Speedway, the No. 9 team had a walk-off win in order to get to Phoenix.
Last November, Gragson finished runner-up to Cindric, though wasn’t championship eligible. Earlier this year, the No. 9 Chevrolet blew an engine early after having a fast car.
Gragson has leaned on two-time Phoenix winner Justin Allgaier in the past, plus having built a notebook of his five starts at the track (13.8 average finish), and he believes his JR Motorsports team can be in contention for the title.
“I feel good about it,” Gragson said of Phoenix. “Last year, we were a sixth or seventh place car, but we maximized on the final restart and finished second, leading at the white flag. This year, we had a lot of speed in our car, so that makes me feel even better coming into this weekend is, how we were able to execute restarts last year and even more speed this year. It was really a championship practice earlier in the year. That’s how we looked at it and fell short, but still have that confidence.”
Before departing Joe Gibbs Racing for Kaulig Racing, Hemric enters Phoenix with three consecutive finishes of 23rd or worse at the track. His average finish of 14th is the worst of the four drivers at Phoenix.
But Hemric has been prepping for Phoenix for months, first running the simulator at the track sometime over the summer. It was so long ago that it’s “out of my mind.” Whenever the team had additional simulator time, it would go to Phoenix, hoping it would be in the championship race.
He competes for a company that has 11 Xfinity Series victories at Phoenix.
“You can never lean on past results, but in the grand scheme of things this racetrack has been really good for this company, no different as it has for the other three guys we have to beat,” Hemric said. “I know how far we’ve come as a race team, how far I’ve come as a driver and how far our group has grown over the last 32-plus weeks.”
Certainly, a case could be made for all four drivers as to why they could win the 2021 championship.