Race Weekend Central

Eyes on Xfinity: Previewing the 2019 Playoffs

The regular season of NASCAR is complete. The Xfinity Series has raced from coast-to-coast, creating a “Big Three” — and heated rivalries.

But it’s time for the postseason.

Action has been fast and furious in 2019, with drivers returning to the series and stepping up their win totals. Veteran drivers have come back to relevance, running for some of Xfinity’s Goliaths. And, oh yeah, there have been three first-time winners, with Cup drivers (Kyle Busch) only winning four of the opening 26 events.

While three of the four spots for the title battle at Homestead-Miami Speedway look to be all-but-secure, it’s the battle for the coveted fourth position to watch. But as we saw last year, anything can happen in the playoffs.

Let’s dive into this year’s field and discuss why each driver will and will not win the championship.

Christopher Bell 

Bell enters the playoff-opener at Richmond Raceway with 55 playoff points, the most for an Xfinity driver since this version of the postseason was implemented in 2017. With six victories and nearly 1,500 laps led, it’s going to be hard seeing the No. 20 team not make it to Homestead.

Why Bell will win the championship: In 2018, Bell made it to Homestead, albeit a bit too close for comfort, having to win at ISM Raceway in the penultimate race of the season. However, Bell’s sophomore season has been a bit more consistent, and if he can run against the wall in South Beach, the No. 20 team is the odds-on favorite.

Why Bell won’t win the championship: As we saw in 2018, anything can happen in the playoffs, and the No. 20 car was hands down the quickest car in the playoffs last year. Despite three victories in the seven-race playoff, the Round of 8 saw Bell have two finishes of 32nd or worse. The one downfall for Bell has been his inconsistency, or lack thereof.

Cole Custer 

If Bell is the favorite for the championship, Custer is right behind. Compared to his first two seasons in Xfinity, the No. 00 team has been hitting on all eight cylinders, leading more laps in the opening 26 races this season (782) than his first 71 starts combined (691). He enters the playoffs with six wins, tied for Bell for the series high.

Why Custer will win the championship: Have you seen Custer’s results this season on tracks that have worn out surfaces where tire falloff is drastic? Yikes. Three of his wins this season have come at Fontana, Chicago and Darlington. Guess what Homestead has? Drastic tire falloff. Plus he’s led 277 out of the past 400 laps run at Homestead.

Why Custer won’t win the championship: Much like Bell, Custer has been feast or famine this season. He’s already guaranteed to have fewer top 10s this season than last year and has four DNFs. Should the No. 00 team hit a streak of bad luck, its 44 playoff points could evaporate quickly.

Tyler Reddick

Most people would tell you Reddick shouldn’t have won the 2018 championship, having a lackluster regular season at best. But a fresh start at Richard Childress Racing this season has proved to be a good move for the California native, winning five races, two on pure strategy calls by crew chief Randall Burnett.

Why Reddick will win the championship: Consistency. Most people didn’t have Reddick going to the Championship 4 last season. Hell, some probably didn’t even have him making out of the first round. But along with the five checkered flags he’s captured, he has 20 top-five finishes, tying his top 10 total from 2018. Entering the playoffs with 44 playoff points should be more than enough to get the No. 2 team to Homestead, and Reddick has proven he can run the wall there better than anyone.

Why Reddick won’t win the championship: Though it’s a near guarantee Reddick will make it to the championship race, the No. 2 car hasn’t had the pure speed that Bell and Custer have had most of this season. His 448 laps led are the least of the three drivers, and come Homestead, speed will be a factor.

Austin Cindric 

If Cindric has proved anything in 2019, it’s the fact he’s damn good on road courses. His two victories came in back-to-back races at Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio, en route to his 17 playoff points gained during the regular season.

Why Cindric will win the championship: It’s hard to ever count out the No. 22 Team Penske car as it’s been one of the top two teams in the series for the past decade. Cindirc is a fighter and proven to use the bumper. Plus, his average finish has been nearly cut in half from this season, down to 9.4 from 17.0 last season. He could surprise some people in the playoffs.

Why Cindric won’t win the championship: Despite the improved average finishing position and more experience from 2018, Cindric still has moments where the team isn’t hitting its stride. Expect the No. 22 car to easily make it into the Round of 8, but come ISM Raceway, he’ll have to use that fighter mentality to get to Homestead.

Chase Briscoe 

Expectations were high for Briscoe this season as he’s been backed by Ford Performance. Through 26 races, the Indiana native has one victory (Iowa, July), nine top fives and 20 top-10 finishes. His average finish of 8.3 is third-best of Xfinity drivers.

Why Briscoe will win the championship: Over the course of 2019, Briscoe has improved tremendously for Stewart-Haas Racing. Though not leading a plethora of laps, the No. 98 team seems to have speed more times than not. Oh, and if he can make it to Homestead, watch out. He won his lone Gander Outdoors Truck Series start there in 2017, and he, too, is best at low-grip racetracks.

Why Briscoe won’t win the championship: Experience. Though he seems to always run consistently in the top 10, Briscoe hasn’t found what he needs to put an entire race together with the exception of Iowa, though Bell led 234 of 250 laps in that race, and a late stop for tires earned the No. 98 car the win.

Justin Allgaier 

2019 has been a year of near misses for Allgaier. Leading 455 laps is third-best of Xfinity drivers, though he doesn’t have a victory in over a calendar year. He hasn’t shied away from how challenging of a year it’s been.

Why Allgaier will win the championship: Redemption. Since clinching the 2018 regular season championship at Indianapolis last year, it’s been a rough 34-race stretch for the No. 7 car. The speed is there, but the team has been snakebitten with bad luck. If you believe in redemption stories, this would be a good one, because Allgaier was arguably the favorite for the title last year.

Why Allgaier won’t win the championship: Sometimes it’s just not your year, and 2019 has to feel like that for Allgaier. The No. 7 team has been close to multiple victories this year, but dating back to the beginning of the playoffs last year, he just hasn’t been able to seal the deal.

Michael Annett 

Speaking of redemption stories, 2019 has been the best year of Annett’s career, including his first victory in the season opener at Daytona. In his first two years at JR Motorsports, Annett had 10 top-10 finishes in 66 races. In 26 races this season, he has five top fives and 15 top-10 efforts.

Why Annett will win the championship: If a driver can get hot at the right time, anything can happen in the playoffs. Last season Reddick won the season opener, bookending the season in victory lane at Homestead to win the title. Can it be déjà vu for Annett?

Why Annett won’t win the championship: Though the No. 1 team has shown flashes of brilliance this season, it hasn’t had the flashy speed to run with the big boys. Annett should make it to the Round of 8, but winning the championship is a different story.

Noah Gragson

All eyes were on Gragson at the beginning of the season, and like his JRM teammate Annett, there have been flashes of excellence this season. Other times, not so much. The No. 9 team ended the regular season with seven top fives and 17 top-10 finishes, leading 62 laps. An average finish of 8.9 is very respectable for the rookie driver, on par with his average finish in the Truck Series last year.

Why Gragson will win the championship: Gragson has the most successful Xfinity crew chief in recent years on top of his pit box with David Elenz. In fact, Elenz has won the past two Xfinity championships as a crew chief with Reddick and William Byron. Both were driving the No. 9 car. No pressure, Noah.

Why Gragson won’t win the championship: Mental game. JR Motorsports hasn’t shown the hands-down speed it has over the past number of years. Also, Gragson has proven to get down at times during the season, and that mentality could be a detriment to the No. 9 team.

Brandon Jones 

If there was a way to buy luck, I’d imagine Jones would be one of the first people in line in the NASCAR world. Expectations are high competing for Joe Gibbs Racing, and the No. 19 team had top 10 finishes in just half of the regular season races, though having speed.

Why Jones will win the championship: Following his third-place run at Las Vegas over the weekend, Jones mentioned the No. 19 team will surprise some people should it get out of the first round of the playoffs. Indeed. Speed-wise, the No. 19 team is in the top half of the playoff drivers.

Why Jones won’t win the championship: Bad luck hasn’t just bit Jones this season, it seems to always pop up and catch the Georgia native. Overall, I don’t expect that to change, though he does have some decent tracks in the playoffs.

Justin Haley 

This season has been all about learning for Haley, who’s in his rookie year for Kaulig Racing. Regardless of what the Xfinity playoffs have in store, Haley is the first of these drivers to win at the Cup level, obviously winning the rain-shortened July race at Daytona.

Why Haley will win the championship: The No. 11 team has been sneaky good this year, posting an organization-best 17 top-10 finishes with one driver. With just three top fives this season, odds are Haley won’t win the championship, but at this point last year, the eventual champion had just four such finishes. This team has the potential to make some noise during the final seven races.

Why Haley won’t win the championship: Resources. From a sheer speed standpoint, Kaulig Racing is a bit off from the companies above, specifically the “Big Three.” Stranger things have happened, though, so don’t count this team out.

Ryan Sieg 

Kicking off the season with six top-10 finishes in the opening 11 races of the season, all was right for the little team that could: RSS Racing. Since Memorial Day Weekend, the No. 39 car has three top 10s in 15 races, including four DNFs.

Why Sieg will win the championship: Want a Cinderella story? Look no further. The No. 39 team has overachieved to date this season, having nine top-10 efforts. Entering this year, Sieg had just nine such finishes in 169 starts.

Why Sieg won’t win the championship: Manpower. Not that RSS Racing has bad employees — that’s not the case at all — but the team only has a few full-time employees to field its three entries. That will catch up to the No. 39 team. Expect him to have an early exit from the postseason.

John Hunter Nemechek

This season has been a tale of two tapes for Nemechek and GMS Racing. Some weeks the speed is there, but lately not so much, leading to just three top 10s in the past 12 races. But Nemechek is a wheelman, so don’t count him out just yet.

Why Nemechek will win the championship: With chatter starting to spread about an uncertain future for both Nemechek and GMS, the pair might not have anything to lose in this seven-race stretch, which is a dangerous combination. Last season, running for Chip Ganassi Racing, the 21-year-old competed in five of the seven playoff races, with a worst finish of ninth. Consistency could be key, though the No. 23 team will likely need to win.

Why Nemechek won’t win the championship: Like some of the other teams, inconsistency has haunted the No. 23 team this season. It will be interesting to see which team shows up come this weekend at Richmond.

Predictions: Following the conclusion of the opening three-race round at Dover, I expect Annett, Haley, Sieg and Nemechek to be eliminated.

After ISM Raceway in November, I predict Cindric, Briscoe, Gragson and Jones to be eliminated, thus meaning Bell, Custer, Reddick and Allgaier advance to Homestead.

Come Saturday, Nov. 16 at Homestead, I expect Cole Custer to be crowned champion.

Xfinity Notes:

  • There are 38 drivers on the entry list for Friday night’s Go Bowling 250 at Richmond Raceway. After making his Truck Series debut at Eldora, dirt race veteran Mike Marlar is scheduled to make his series debut for MBM Motorsports in the No. 66 car.
  • Hermie Sadler will compete in one of the RSS Racing Chevrolets this weekend, making his first Xfinity start since 2016.
  • With Silly Season in full effect, it’s expected that Xfinity regular season champion Tyler Reddick will move to the No. 8 Cup Series ride next year for Richard Childress Racing. It was announced on Tuesday that Daniel Hemric will not be returning to the team in 2020.

About the author

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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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