Race Weekend Central

Eyes on Xfinity: 5 Things to Pay Attention to After 5 Races

The 2022 NASCAR Xfinity Series season is five races old.

Overall, 28 races remain in the season, and there are only 21 more before the start of the playoffs. A lot of racing remains, and by no means have the season’s best moments already occurred. Key elements have popped up through five races that will be worth paying attention to as races click off.

Here are five points to keep in mind as the season progresses. Four of the points will have season-long implications in one way or another. However, the fifth point is one to watch because it is a potential future full-time competitor. Let’s go ahead and start with that point, and it concerns Trevor Bayne.

1. Trevor Bayne

Before his first start in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota at Auto Club Speedway in February, Bayne shared that this opportunity felt like a “reset,” with his goal being to get back to full-time racing in an Xfinity ride. While he hasn’t won a race yet, everyone’s certainly aware of his presence.

At Auto Club, Bayne qualified fourth and won the first stage before finishing third overall. Returning to the track at Phoenix Raceway, Bayne won the pole and was again victorious in the race’s first stage. He finished fourth in the second stage but suffered a setback before the final stage. Bayne sped on pit road, sending him to the back of the field when the race restarted.

Unfortunately for Bayne, the race was green the rest of the way, but he drove his way back up to the top five and finished fourth. It’s hard to argue that it wasn’t an impressive performance.

In his third event, Bayne was once again out front for most of the race but crashed on lap 154 in what was Atlanta Motor Speedway’s first ‘Big One’ in its new configuration. He continued, but finished 28th after leading 38 laps.

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For many, when they hear the name Trevor Bayne, the term “also-ran” comes to mind. His poor performances in his three full-time seasons with Roush Fenway Racing (now RFK Racing) overshadow his 2011 Daytona 500 victory in his second career start. But his poor statistics aren’t all his fault. Roush struggled heavily during this period, but like a quarterback or head coach in football, the driver will always shoulder a bulk of the blame no matter what.

Atlanta wasn’t one of the seven tracks initially listed for Bayne to make a start at this season. It was added after the fact. So Bayne has five more opportunities to shine and prove he is worthy of being considered for a full-time ride. The Xfinity Series would only benefit from having another seasoned driver like AJ Allmendinger in the field. From what Bayne has displayed so far in one of the best cars in the field, he is capable of winning races and competing for championships.

2. Ryan Sieg

After back-to-back playoff appearances in 2019 and 2020 for Ryan Sieg, 2021 was a struggle, and that is putting it lightly. Sieg’s 2020 was a career year, scoring a career-high seven top-five finishes. He scored 11 top 10s that season, too, one shy of his career-high set in 2019.

In 2021, Sieg scored only two top fives and seven top 10s, but the year was also a transition season from Chevrolet to Ford. So far in 2022, Sieg has three top 10s, and his other two finishes are 11th and 36th. The 11th was at Phoenix, where he laid down a statement qualifying effort of fourth, and the 36th at Las Vegas was a DNF following his attempt at redemption against Ty Gibbs.

Barring Las Vegas, Sieg has quietly been the best of the midpack entries. At Auto Club, he averaged a 13th-place running position and squeaked out a 10th-place finish amongst the chaos of late-race restarts. At Phoenix, Sieg averaged a top-10 running position through the race. Sieg is looking a lot like his 2020 self, where he often ran in the top 10 at intermediate tracks and was the best of the midfield.

Atlanta was heartbreaking for Sieg, as he took the white flag as the leader. Eventual winner Gibbs had such a head of steam, and Sieg was too far in front and going too slow to block the run. Caught in the middle, he drifted back to a 10th-place finish. The storybook first career Xfinity win at his home track was not to be.

Sieg’s time is coming. He’s proven to be a smart superspeedway racer over the years, and lucky for him, there are four more superspeedway races left in 2022 and three before the start of the playoffs. Win or no win, if Sieg keeps up the top-10 performances, which currently look to be his trend, he’ll be able to point himself into the playoffs — as long as there aren’t 12 or more different winners.

3. The Midfield Playoff Battle

Speaking of the midfield, aside from Sieg, none of the mid-pack cars are making an argument for themselves to be considered for a win, let alone the chance to point their way into the playoffs. Yes, the season is young, but while Sieg is drawing eyeballs toward him, others at his level aren’t matching his performances.

The midfield faces the following problem: the front-running teams consist of 12 drivers, and there are only 12 spots available in the playoffs. After five races, Gibbs, Noah Gragson and Austin Hill are locked into the playoffs, and the man in the midfield who is ruing his missed opportunity for a ticket punch is Anthony Alfredo.

Alfredo’s team strategized to save a set of fresh tires for the end of the race at Auto Club. Whatever the reason, too many restarts, poor lane selection or otherwise, Alfredo missed his golden opportunity to park his Our Motorsports Chevrolet in victory lane and get a provisional ticket to the playoffs.

If a midfield team wants to make the playoffs, they need to limit the missed opportunities like Alfredo’s. And the missed opportunity doesn’t need to be a win either. It can simply be a top five when stronger teams and other midfielders have bad days. Or when the chance to strategize tires comes to play, execute effectively.

A win is a team’s safest bet to make the playoffs, but being in the top 10 in points is a safe bet too. That way you have added insurance if there are any winners outside the top 12 in points after the regular season concludes. As mentioned above, the issue is there are 12 drivers among the front runners. With Gibbs, Gragson and Hill having already scored victories, nine capable front-running teams are still winless.

Allmendinger, Justin Allgaier and Josh Berry might as well be penciled in for a win or two each, leaving Brandon Jones, Daniel Hemric, Riley Herbst, Landon Cassill, Sheldon Creed and Sam Mayer as the remaining six frontrunners that may or may not get a win. All of these drivers are capable of winning, which even further increases the pressure for midfield teams to perform at their highest level. So, will it take a win for a midfielder to make the playoffs? The safe bet is ‘yes,’ because the depth of the front running teams is too strong to bank on pointing your way into the playoffs.

4. JR Motorsports

There is little to argue about who is the most improved from year-to-date in the Xfinity Series. Through five races in 2021, JR Motorsports had only one driver, Allgaier, in the top 12 in points. Gragson had four finishes of 28th or worse, while Allgaier had one top 10 with three finishes of 28th or worse. Michael Annett was, on paper, the most consistent driver, but Berry was the most impressive, and he only had four starts in the first five races last year.

This year, JR Motorsports has four full-time drivers, and all four are among the top 13 in points. Gragson has the team’s sole victory, leads the points and was on a streak of top-three finishes to begin the season before a crash at Atlanta ended the excellent start.

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Allgaier’s major flaw at the moment is qualifying. In the first four races of the season, he failed to crack the top 15. Starting deeper in the field opens you up to more vulnerable situations and grants you less time to properly work on your car for clean air racing.

Berry has once again been the face of consistency. Sam Mayer is the JRM driver struggling the most, yet struggling is a loose term because he has shown speed. The biggest knock on Mayer and his team is that they need to clean up pit road penalties. If they can stay up front, they’ll finish up there too.

Being the only four-car team among the frontrunners, it’s hard to draw direct comparisons, but pound-for-pound, JRM has been the face of strength in Xfinity so far this season. In Saturday’s (March 19) race at Atlanta, JRM finished 1-2-3-4 in stage 1, a significant display of both talents by the drivers and force. After five races, I’ve seen enough to believe that Allgaier, Berry and Mayer will join Gragson in the playoffs by virtue of a victory.

5. Who is the Fourth?

Atop the standings sit Gibbs with two wins, Gragson with one win and Allmendinger, the only Xfinity driver to finish in the top 10 in all five races. Before the season, many pointed to Gibbs and Allmendinger as the two drivers to beat in 2022. Gragson’s performance hasn’t been too much of a shock, but it has been historic.

Who is the next driver to separate themselves from the pack to stamp their status as “one to watch?”

The seasoned veteran Allgaier is the safe bet, and defending champion Hemric has had flashes of speed with his new team, Kaulig Racing, but hasn’t shown winning speed yet. Berry and Jones have quietly put themselves in the top six in points with consistent max points days … when running at the finish.

Of course, there are the new faces in new places with Cassill, Creed and Hill. Hill has a win but doesn’t shout “Championship 4” to me. As for Creed, his biggest need is to settle in and find a way to have a quiet top-10 day. Then there’s Cassill, who, after a rocky start to the season, has quietly put together three straight top 10s, something he hasn’t done since he was with JR Motorsports back in 2008.

While Allgaier is a safe pick and Cassill may be the sentimental one, I’m going with Berry as the driver to make a statement. After this weekend at Circuit of the Americas, the following five races will be Richmond Raceway, Martinsville Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway, Dover Motor Speedway and Darlington Raceway. Berry performs well on short tracks, and he had excellent showings at Talladega, Dover and Darlington last season. By mid-May, Berry may be a multi-race winner.

About the author

Josh Roller is a 2019 graduate of the Sports Capital Journalism Program at IUPUI in Indianapolis. While in school, he covered the 2018 Indianapolis 500 and the 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship. He was an extern for INDYCAR in 2019 and interned with Charlotte Motor Speedway's Communications Department in 2020. Besides writing the Xfinity Breakdown for Frontstretch, he also does a weekly podcast with a friend he met at the 2018 Indy 500, Rob Peeters, called the Racing with Rob and Roller podcast.

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