Race Weekend Central

Eyes on Xfinity: Time for the Meat & Potatoes

Two races down and 31 to go.

Austin Hill has swept the first two events in familiar fashion. He started hot last year and has a penchant for coming out of nowhere to win races. We thought he’d dominate at Atlanta. Instead, his rookie teammate, Jesse Love, was the dominant lap leader.

But the end, Hill made it two-for-two.

Daytona International Speedway is a huge weekend, and Atlanta Motor Speedway put on a hell of a show for the Cup Series. As a Xfinity Series truther, it’s rare to admit Cup had a much better race. But at Atlanta, it was clearly the case. Cup had 48 lead changes and a legendary finish while Xfinity had just 11 lead changes to go along with limited passing and predominantly single-file action throughout the event.

Whatever your thoughts on the first two events of the season, they can be compared to an appetizer of sorts. They’re fun, they’re an important part of a great dinner and they satisfy our appetite for racing, but they aren’t the main course.

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Last season, Hill won two of the first three races and three of the first five. We’re now heading to Las Vegas Motor Speedway — the site of Hill’s second victory last season — Atlanta was the fifth event on the schedule last year instead of the second.

After his third victory at Atlanta, Hill went 12 straight races without a top-three finish. He’s the king of the appetizer, but it remains to be seen whether he can conquer the meat and potatoes of the schedule. I never envisioned the driver known as ‘Big Country’ to be a salad bar aficionado, but who knows? Maybe it’s something heartier like mozzarella sticks or Crab Rangoon.

The next five races are Las Vegas, Phoenix Raceway, Circuit of the Americas, Richmond Raceway and Martinsville Speedway. That my friends are what the meat and potatoes taste like. When we get to Martinsville it’s a hot dog for sure, but I digress.

Are Hill and Richard Childress Racing right where they were last season? We’ll know pretty quickly whether they’ve taken another step forward or if they’ll continue to be a half-step behind JR Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing at most tracks.

Since the draft is such an equalizer, the first two events haven’t told us a ton about how these teams will run throughout the year. This week at Las Vegas, however, we’ll learn a lot.

We have 14 full-time drivers who are most likely to compete for the 12 playoff spots.

That includes four from JR Motorsports, two from JGR, two from RCR, two from Stewart-Haas Racing, three from Kaulig Racing, and Parker Kligerman from Big Machine Racing.

Based on history, it would seem reasonable to think Brandon Jones and Josh Williams will be the two drivers from that group on the outside looking in. Las Vegas will give us our first chance to see how those two drivers stack up with the rest.

Then again, can Shane van Gisbergen really outrun those guys with his lack of oval experience? I believe he will. He’s proven to be an ultra-talented quick study. Plus, SVG has a great chance to win on a road (or street) course.

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It could definitely be more than two of those teams missing out. Drivers like Ryan Sieg, Anthony Alfredo, Hailie Deegan, Jeremy Clements, Jeb Burton, Parker Retzlaff or Kyle Weatherman could all pull out a surprise win, most likely at Talladega Superspeedway or our second trip to Daytona.

Among the 14, there are a lot of interesting dynamics we’ll start to see play out this weekend. The most intriguing is the hierarchy, or lack thereof, at JGR. Last season they had John Hunter Nemechek as the undisputed lead horse with Sammy Smith second in line. Now they have Chandler Smith and Sheldon Creed as their full-time drivers, and it’s anyone’s guess on who will fare better in equal equipment.

Sammy Smith has replaced Josh Berry at JRM, while the rest of the roster is unchanged. Berry ran well at times last season but went winless while Smith scored a win early in his rookie year driving for JGR. Can Smith run with Sam Mayer and Justin Allgaier? Will Mayer keep improving at the rate he did last season? Can Allgaier make it happen this year? Will Jones continue to lag behind the rest, or will he get back to victory lane this season?

The defending champion isn’t from JRM or JGR, as Cole Custer hails from SHR. Despite his 2023 Xfinity championship, he didn’t get the call to return to SHR’s Cup team. Instead, they chose Noah Gragson. Does that put a chip on Custer’s shoulder this year, and if so, how many wins are possible?

Speaking of chips on shoulders, Riley Herbst took the field to the woodshed at his home track last time we were at Las Vegas. Can he pull off a repeat, and can he keep pace with Custer throughout the year?

At RCR it’s Hill and Love. At Atlanta, Love made a big statement by leading 157 laps. Creed was close to several victories last year, but can Love go one step further and close the deal on one or more?

Kaulig is an interesting team. It seems they might be a little behind where they were a few years ago, but bringing AJ Allmendinger and van Gisbergen into the stable should make them fun to watch. Add in Williams and you have the most entertaining roster in the series. How does SVG do on the ovals? Where will Williams run in the best equipment he’s had so far? With finishes of 34th and 37th, his Kaulig tenure is off to a rough start. I’m counting down the weeks until Circuit of the Americas to see ‘Dinger and SVG in peak form.

Then you have Kligerman. The 33-year-old had eight top fives last season but remains winless in his 91 Xfinity starts. He was so close at Daytona and Road America and edged out Herbst for the final playoff spot last season. Will he get back into the playoffs this year? He might need a win to do it.

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We’ve got a fun race for the Rookie of the Year as well, and the headliners are Love and van Gisbergen. Massive bragging rights would go to Love if he can beat the international Cup-debut-winning Supercars legend. Van Gisbergen taking the honor would just solidify his future in the sport, showing he’s figured out the ovals quickly.

Then you have Deegan driving a competitive ride for SHR-aligned AM Racing. Brett Moffitt had that car on the periphery of the playoff race last season. Can Deegan get back to that level? There is a sentiment out there that she is better than her results in the Craftsman Truck Series. Hanging with Love and van Gisbergen would prove that.

Other ROTY candidates are Leland Honeyman and Dawson Cram. While they probably won’t compete for many top 10s, they can do a lot for their young careers by keeping it clean and appearing in the top 20 as often as possible.

So many questions, and we start to get some answers this week. Bring on the entrée. I’ll take my steak medium-rare please, with a side of mashed potatoes, gravy and Sunoco Green E15 to wash it down.

It’s a long season and Las Vegas won’t answer every question, but we’ll get a glimpse of what the rest of the season might look like. So buckle up, fire up the grill and enjoy. Keep your eyes on the field. On to Las Vegas!

About the author

Steve Leffew joined Frontstretch in 2023, and covers the Xfinity Series. He resides in Wisconsin and has been a NASCAR fan as long as he can remember. He has served honorably in the United States Air Force and works during the week as a Real Estate Lender.

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