PHOENIX — By sheer numbers, JR Motorsports has the advantage entering Saturday’s Xfinity Series Championship race at Phoenix Raceway.
Going into the final lap of last week’s Championship 4 cutoff race, that wasn’t the case. With Brandon Jones out front and Ty Gibbs locked in on points, two Joe Gibbs Racing cars would have advanced into the championship race.
Then, Gibbs did the unthinkable and intentionally wrecked his teammate from the lead.
“I definitely understood what was going on,” Gibbs said at Championship 4 Media Day at the Phoenix Convention Center on Thursday. “I didn’t know exactly what points were in play, but I knew he had to win and it’s hard going back and looking at it just because I did something wrong and dwelling on it really hurts and affects me and my team and it’s just a hard situation.”
It’s not hard for JRM. It gives them an additional 25% chance of winning the championship. And while Gibbs might have the outright speed — JGR has 14 victories at Phoenix — the No. 54 team has several enemies in the field.
“He will be hard to beat,” Dale Earnhardt Jr., co-owner of JRM, said. “My worst fear is us bouncing off each other behind him, trying to get to him and not giving each other a chance.”
Noah Gragson, who’s won a series-high eight races in 2022, made it clear on Thursday that he has no remorse for Gibbs. He’s sick of the apology tour and Gibbs’ on-track actions not changing. As far as he’s concerned, the championship “will come down to three-and-a-half men.”
The race bodes well for JRM, too. Gragson won at the track in the spring, and it’s arguably Justin Allgaier’s best track on the circuit with two wins and 498 laps led. And while the one-mile layout isn’t exactly a short track, Josh Berry can make up for his inexperience at the venue.
Morale at JRM’s race shop has been high this week. It’s a fun battle within the team.
“You can kind of tell the [No.] 7 guys and [No.] 8 guys, they’re acting a little different,” Gragson said with a laugh. “We’re drinking beers and eating pizza, staying until 11 at night, playing music. They don’t seem to love that part, but the [No.] 9 team has been having a lot of fun.
“At the end of the day, we have a goal this weekend and that’s to bring back a trophy to JR Motorsports. It’s pretty bad when some teammates and competitors say if you start dusting off the trophy shelf because the championship trophy is definitely coming back to JR Motorsports.”
Really, Gibbs has no shot?
Gragson added, “I’m not saying that. I’m saying, maybe there’s some team members of organizations that might be involved in and have said that.”
Gragson, Allgaier and Berry all plan on racing one another clean. The veteran Allgaier believes the race sets up in his favor this weekend.
“The history of this racetrack has been around the bottom and having to have handling be a big part of what we do,” Allgaier stated. “I’m excited to see what happens. Our team is ready to go. We’ve put the effort in.”
Unlike some previous years, Allgaier didn’t know until the final lap of the cutoff race that he’d be competing for a championship. In eight years with JRM, it’s his sixth trip to the Championship 4. His best effort was in 2020, placing second to Austin Cindric in his lone opportunity of winning a title at Phoenix.
“We haven’t had weeks or months to prepare for it,” he said. “We literally got in [five] days ago. We put a lot of effort in in a short amount of time. I feel like we have a great shot at it.”
This is Berry’s first shot at the championship. He was locked into the Championship 4 by virtue of his win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in mid-October. The objective this weekend is simple.
“We just need our best race,” Berry said. “It took one of our best races and one of my best races, personally, to advance to the Championship 4.
“We just need to have a great racecar, I need to drive a great race, have great execution and great strategy and we’ll be in contention.”
Whatever happens, Earnhardt wants to make sure his team wins the title fairly.
“My message to the team is whatever happens on the racetrack,” Earnhardt said, “to try and go out there and win the championship, and we only do it if we walk out with our heads up and proud of how we did it. We should never go out there and try to do anything that we should be ashamed of; it’s not worth it. It’s not worth it for me anyways. I’ve won enough championships; I don’t need one that badly.”
The Xfinity Series will go green at 6 p.m. ET on Saturday, November 5.