The Xfinity Series, one of NASCAR's developmental series, was for years the playground of Cup Series drivers looking to start their weekends with a win or drivers who were looking to score a lower series championship. Drivers such as Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards all won championships in the Xfinity Series while also chasing the Cup Series championship.
In 2011, NASCAR forced drivers to choose the series in which they’d score points, effectively eliminating Cup drivers from winning the Xfinity Series title. Since then, seven drivers have earned the championship, all of whom have had the opportunity to make the move into the Cup Series.
The latest, Tyler Reddick, has won the last two Xfinity championships. He joins Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Chris Buescher, Daniel Suárez and William Byron as Xfinity champions who got the call to race on Sundays. Stenhouse, Dillon, Elliott and Buescher have all gone on to win in the Cup Series, and for Byron — who races for powerhouse organization Hendrick Motorsports — that first win is just a matter of time.
So, just like the catchphrase says, names are indeed made in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
Reddick will be joined in the Cup Series this season by his championship challengers in both 2018 and 2019 — Cole Custer and Christopher Bell. Their departure opens the door for three others to slide in and take their place as championship contenders.
Anyone who wants to take home the Xfinity Series championship will have to deal with a trio of young drivers in the Joe Gibbs Racing stable. Brandon Jones returns for his third season in JGR equipment, and he’ll be joined by rookies Harrison Burton and Riley Herbst. Jones improved, earning his first series win in 2019. Burton was the 2017 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East champion, and Herbst, who hasn’t raced a full season in any one series in two years, was the 2017 ARCA Menards Series Rookie of the Year.
The Gibbs trio will be joined at the front of the field by perennial title challenger Justin Allgaier. JR Motorsports’ Allgaier, 33, is one of the true veterans of the series with 306 starts spread over 10 seasons. An 11-time series winner, Allgaier ended a season-long drought with a win in 2019’s penultimate race at Phoenix to lock himself into the Championship 4 at Homestead. Allgaier has been a part of the final round in three of the last four seasons and should prove to be a contender again in 2020.
Allgaier’s teammate Noah Gragson ran the full Xfinity Series for the first time in 2019 and made the playoffs, but an ill-timed run of misfortune in the Round of 8 locked him out of the Championship 4 at Homestead. In the final 11 races of the season, Gragson posted a double-digit finish only three times, but they came at Kansas, Texas and Phoenix at a time of year when finishing at the front of the field meant the most. Gragson, who finished second in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series standings in 2018, did finish eighth in the final standings, and he had a career-best second-place finish at Michigan and a total of 22 top-10 finishes.
The third JRM driver, Michael Annett, also earned his first career series victory in 2019, taking home the checkered flag in the season opener at Daytona. Annett’s production was the best in his nine-year career, with 19 top-10 finishes, his first career pole and 94 laps led. Annett finished ninth in the series standings in 2019, his second top-10 finish in the last three seasons.
JGR boasts the Toyota camp’s contenders, and the bulk of Chevrolet’s contenders are concentrated within the RCR and JRM organizations. The Ford contenders are split between Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing.
Penske’s Austin Cindric had a breakout season in 2019. He won twice, back-to-back road course wins at Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio, and finished among the top 10 24 times on his way to sixth in the final series standings. Despite a background in road racing, Cindric has adapted well to turning left, earning 10 top-5 finishes on ovals in 2019. He will be a threat at all four of the series’ road course events, and he will be equally hard to beat on ovals.
The other Blue Oval contender is SHR’s Chase Briscoe, the 2016 ARCA Menards Series champion. After an upset win on the Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2018, Briscoe started 2019 filled with confidence. Tony Stewart’s protege put up career numbers, with 26 top-10 finishes, half of those top 5s. He led 197 laps, won two poles and won for the second time in his career at Iowa on his way to finishing fifth in the series standings. Briscoe could be the driver to beat in 2020, as his teammate in 2019, Custer, won seven times on his way to second in the series standings.
Justin Haley is back for another run at the Xfinity championship with Kaulig Racing, a team that has a close technical alliance with RCR. Haley made news when he stole a rain-shortened Cup win at Daytona in July, but he’s proven to be a solid contender in every series he’s raced in since the start of his career. A former NASCAR K&N Pro Series East champ, Haley has also won races in the Truck Series and finished third in the Truck standings in 2018. The Kaulig team was strong throughout 2019, also scoring an upset win with Ross Chastain at Daytona the day before Haley’s improbable Cup victory, leading toward enhanced expectations in 2020.
It’s not just the powerhouse organizations that should draw all of the attention in 2020. Several of the mid-tier teams have positioned themselves well.
Ryan Sieg had a career-best 12 top-10 finishes in 2019, including top-5 finishes at Daytona and Richmond. Sieg finished 11th in the series standings with a 14.6 average finish, almost a full five positions better than his 2018 average. SS Green Light Racing, owned by longtime series owner Bobby Dotter, put two drivers in the top 16 in the standings, with Gray Gaulding in 13th and Ray Black Jr. in 16th. Jeremy Clements scored a huge upset win at Road America in 2017 and has since been on the precipice of the playoffs, narrowly missing each of the last two seasons. Sieg, Gaulding and Clements could each play the spoiler role at the “wild card races” at Daytona and Talladega and on the road courses.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)