Life on the cutline as Xfinity playoffs head to Kansas
Entering Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series Round of 8 playoff race at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBC), there are three distinct groups among the remaining contenders.
At the top are the season’s dominant drivers, AJ Allmendinger and Austin Cindric. Allmendinger (30 above the cutline to advance) and Cindric (+26) are still on course to make the Championship 4.
At the bottom are Harrison Burton (21 below the cutline) and Brandon Jones (-32) in seventh and eighth. Both had top-10 finishes last week at Texas Motor Speedway, but a lack of stage points left them with bigger deficits than they had going in.
And in the middle? Four drivers covered by a mere eight points.
JR Motorsports teammates Justin Allgaier (+4) and Noah Gragson (+2) hold the final two transfer spots to the Nov. 6 title race at Phoenix Raceway. Just behind them below the cutline are Daniel Hemric (-2) and Justin Haley (-6).
This situation is due to all four drivers being among the top five points-scorers at Texas. Gragson finished third and led the group with 45 points. Hemric finished second and earned 44 points. Allgaier finished fourth and earned 43 points. Haley finished seventh and earned 41 points.
Now, the playoffs move to Kansas, which has been tough on those in the postseason. From 2016-20, at least five of the eight playoff drivers have encountered trouble in the Kansas playoff race.
Last year, Gragson was one of them. He and Cindric collided on an early restart at Lap 15. Cindric ended up finishing 28th after extended repairs behind pit wall. But Gragson’s crew failed to complete repairs to his car before the damaged vehicle policy clock expired, and Gragson finished last in 36th.
In a media conference earlier this week, Gragson said that having a solid - and clean - day at Kansas is the top priority to set himself up for the Oct. 30 elimination race at Martinsville Speedway.
“I feel like we have a pretty good package for when we get to Martinsville, (but) we’ve been kind of hit and miss at Kansas,” Gragson said. “We’ve been there and had a ton of raw speed and can run in the top three, and we’ve been there and can’t even run 15th.
“That’s kind of a challenge realistically, going into it. But I believe in this team and I know everybody believes in me and we’re ready to go fight for it.”
Regarding his strategy going into Kansas, Gragson noted the importance of gaining as many stage points as possible while referencing a decision that Hemric made at Texas.
“I was quite surprised to see Daniel Hemric pit in the first stage at Texas, just because stage points are so hard to come by,” Gragson said. “But we really had different strategies and I only gained one point over the cutline.
“We’re close but we need a little buffer going into Martinsville. Hopefully, we can get some stage points this week and have a solid points day.”
On the other side of the cutline is Hemric, who will start on pole Saturday. As he continues to chase his first career win, he also has a chance to make the Xfinity Series’ Championship 4 on points for a third time (2017, 2018).
When asked if that makes him more adept at recognizing how many points he or a rival may need to gain at any given point, Hemric demurred.
Considering the volatility of the playoffs, all he thinks about is being better than he was the last race. No points targets. No worrying about other drivers.
“You just have to show up and try to do your part,” Hemric said. “It’s not easy by any means. I feel like you go into it and play to your strengths. I feel like we’ve done a good job of honing on those as the (No.) 18 team. That’s our play.
“We have to rely on our strengths. We have to go through the race weekends and execute to those strengths. You can’t control everybody else. You can’t control the decisions that they are going to make, how they are preparing, how they attack – but you can control yourself and that can take you far if you stick to that.”