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Key NASCAR Xfinity storylines entering summer break

Making his first NASCAR Xfinity Series start in almost two years, Christopher Bell wins at New Hampshire Motor Speedway for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Along with its Cup brethren, the NASCAR Xfinity Series is going on a two-week hiatus while NBC Sports covers the Tokyo Olympics.

With seven races left in the regular season, the Xfinity Series still has some ways to go before its playoffs begin in late September.

But entering the summer break, we find intriguing storylines building as we look toward the resumption of racing on Aug. 7 at Watkins Glen.

Righteous reign

Team Penske’s Austin Cindric has picked up where he left off last November in Phoenix.

The reigning series champion leads the Xfinity regulars this season in all major categories: Wins (four), top-five finishes (12), top-10 finishes (15), laps led (534) and average finish (7.6). He’s also led the regular season standings after all 19 races.

Previously announced to go to the Cup Series next season with Wood Brothers Racing, Cindric will now step into Penske’s heritage No. 2 Ford as the replacement for Brad Keselowski.

“I feel like I’ve had a great opportunity this year to identify strengths and weaknesses that I have that I can apply and build on for next season,” said Cindric, who has also made six Cup starts this year to prepare for 2022.

“And with the Next Gen car I think that adds some similarities, but also some complications to being a rookie in Cup. So I’m excited for that challenge and excited to embrace this new role.”

But first, Cindric will focus on claiming a second Xfinity crown.

Goose egg for Gibbs regulars

While Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 54 “star car” has earned a series-best eight wins with multiple drivers this season, the organization’s trio of series regulars are all still looking for their first wins of 2021.

In Daniel Hemric’s case, it’d be his first win of any kind in a NASCAR national series. Hemric, who joined the organization this season, is a solid sixth (+266 points above the cutline) in the playoff standings. His 390 laps led rank second in the series to Austin Cindric. But circumstances have still not allowed Hemric to reach Victory Lane.

Harrison Burton, who will join Cindric in the Cup Series next season, follows Hemric at seventh (+197) in the playoff standings. By this point last season, Burton had already won twice. This season, however, he’s had several instances of bad luck, particularly during a stretch where he crashed out three times in four June races (Mid-Ohio, Texas, Pocono).

The good news for Hemric and Burton is that they’ve got comfortable points cushions over the cut line. Their teammate, Brandon Jones, isn’t so fortunate. Following a DNF at New Hampshire (his sixth of the season), he’s only +71 and holding the 10th playoff position.

Stepping up (mostly)

While Hemric remains winless, he has been a consistent front-runner. He’s also one of several notables that either joined new teams or went to full-time status last winter and have excelled so far in 2021.

Richard Childress Racing’s Myatt Snider scored his first career series win in February at Homestead-Miami. Then in April, Kaulig Racing’s Jeb Burton followed suit at Talladega. Both are on their way to the postseason.

However, another notable who switched teams in the offseason has not fared nearly as well.

Riley Herbst assumed the No. 98 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford that Chase Briscoe took to nine wins in 2020. But this season, Herbst has finished no better than fourth on two separate occasions.

With Michael Annett absent due to injury, Herbst finished 10th at New Hampshire and pulled within 32 points of Annett for the 12th and final playoff spot. But he’s still got some grinding to do.

Experience counts

JR Motorsports’ Justin Allgaier has been the established top veteran of the series for some time now. But in 2021, he’s been joined by another.

A.J. Allmendinger got the bump to full-time from Kaulig Racing, and he’s made the most of it. He claimed his playoff spot with a win in March at Las Vegas, and earned another victory in June on the road course at Mid-Ohio. His 11 top-five finishes are second only to Cindric.

As for Allgaier, he shook off a poor start to the season and claimed two wins himself in the spring at Atlanta and Darlington. Since the latter victory, he’s claimed six additional top-three finishes, including a runner-up at New Hampshire.