Three Championships On The Line This Weekend at Five Flags
Sep 20, 2022
If there was anyone knows how to game the system as an underdog in the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs, it would be defending champion Daniel Hemric.
A year ago, Hemric entered as a winless six seed with 14 playoff points to his name but went on to win his first career NASCAR race when it mattered the most as a Final Four driver at Phoenix. To repeat, Hemric will this time need to climb out of a deeper winless hole, as a 10th seed with just three playoff points.
From that standpoint, having already done it, Hemric has nothing to lose over the next seven races, even after making the move from Joe Gibbs Racing to Kaulig Racing.
"Obviously, it wasn't a regular season to be proud of in any shape or form," Hemric said. "There were a lot of moments we were on the cusp of being eliminated or eliminating ourselves through Bristol but how we rallied to give ourselves a buffer is something that taught us a lot about ourselves.
"If anyone knows how this system works, and understands how you can benefit from it, it's me. I'm looking forward to the clean slate knowing that what we've done at Kaulig to prepare for this moment, starting at Texas and winning, and putting ourselves in a path to get there."
To his point, Hemric entered the final regular season race with an outside shot of elimination, but his was teammate Landon Cassill who was left out of the playoffs instead. It has been that kind of season for the organization, even as teammate AJ Allmendinger claimed the regular season championship with three wins.
So how does a perceived underdog go on to win the championship like Hemric did a year ago?
"Honestly, go into it with no expectations, as weird as it sounds," Hemric said. "Go into it with the mindset that anything can happen, and no one is safe and my opinion, it's more dangerous for the guys that have had the incredible regular season and won all the races, all the stages.
"I come into it with nothing to lose. I've been fortunate to climb the mountain and win one of these things so now I want to do it for our team, my fans and family. If our playoffs don't go according to plan, we tried like hell, and our regular season wasn't great so, so what?
"If we go out there and hit a couple of walk off home runs and get to Phoenix, we can be as dangerous as anyone."
According to Hemric, that means all the pressure is on top seeded Noah Gragson and Ty Gibbs with their six and five wins respectively.
"I'm just going to do my job, do what they tell me and try to win races and make it to Phoenix, and the wins would take care of everything else," Gibbs said. "Same thing we've been chasing all year."
Not even the usually boastful, or at least competitively enthusiastic, Gragson was going to walk into Media Day on Tuesday and the NASCAR Hall of Fame and declare himself any kind of favorite to take the championship.
"We’re just trying to have fun," Gragson said of his approach. "Yeah, we have momentum right now, but you’re only as good as your last weekend."
Yeah, but his last three weekends have also resulted in trips to Victory Lane and two Waffle Houses.
"That motivates to keep it going, keep having good runs during this crucial and critical time."
The rules for the playoffs largely remain the same as the regular season but in much shorter bursts. The first two rounds are three races each and a playoff eligible driver can advance to the next round with a win. The first round is 12 drivers, then to eight and then a one-race highest finisher take all finale.
The races are:
The bottom four winless drivers in the standings without a win gets eliminated after each three-race round.
1. Noah Gragson +46
2. Ty Gibbs +33
3. Justin Allgaier +32
4. AJ Allendinger +31
5. Josh Berry +21
6. Austin Hill +11
7. Brandon Jones +5
8. Jeremy Clements +0
9. Sam Mayer -0
10. Daniel Hemric -2
11. Riley Herbst -3
12. Ryan Sieg -4
AJ Allmendinger isn’t feeling any pressure and was more interested in getting a rise out of Gibbs over his hairstyle on Tuesday at the Hall of Fame.
"Yeah, Ty’s a pain in the ass," Allmendinger said as he sat at this spot in the Hall of Fame next to the 19-year-old. "Is your hair getting lighter?"
Gibbs played along.
"You’ve been talking about my hair the whole time we’ve been here," Gibbs said back.
"I know, it’s just like a cloth. Like, what is going on. Can we get a little gel in that?"
"I just got a little gel. I don’t want to be wearing a hat or anything, so I’ve been trying to grow it out."
"It’s like you’re trying to start a boy band again. Like it’s got that NSYNC blond going to it."
That’s rich coming from Allmendinger, he of the frosted tips during the earliest days of his career, a comeback Gibbs could have employed if he were old enough to get it.
All of this to say, that Allmendinger and Gibbs isn’t feeling any pressure or tension before the next seven races either.
"My mindset is that I care more than I ever have, but I also accept everything as it comes now, good or bad," Allmendinger said. "Trust me, if it’s bad, I still get pissed off about it. I have a lot of fun off the race track. I don’t take any of this for granted and I love what I’m doing."
That’s the best way to sum up this second chance at a full-time NASCAR career for Allmendinger, who has won 11 races and counting since joining Kaulig in 2019. He says he is every bit the competitor he always has been, but that Kaulig also manages him in a way that no one has before, helping him stay level.
"Listen, I know I’m crazy and we all know who we are," Kaulig said. "I still drive the living piss out of the car and how I’ve won races and championships. You hear me on the radio, I still get mad on the radio and snap sometimes, but I’ve also learned what can be too negative and what can hurt you.
"Its about finding the best version of yourself."
So, to that point, Allmendinger doesn’t need this championship to validate anything -- especially after winning the regular season title again.
"I think that really matters and to a lot of people because of how well you have to perform most weeks," Allmendinger said. "And with the way the overall championship is decided, it’s about just getting to Phoenix now, because you could have the best season possible and be off at Phoenix and not win the championship.
"So to do this two weeks in a row, it shows that we have performed well, been smart, and executed. At the end of the day, and to do it two years in a row, we’re just super proud to have won these regular season championships."
Justin Allgaier also takes a que sera sera approach as the third seed.
"This is the best position I’ve ever been in," Allgaier said "But nothing’s guaranteed… I learned a long time ago that the more and more you feel like the universe owes you something, the less and less you really succeed.
"I think, for me, we’ve put the work in. We’ve put the effort in. The definition of luck is when opportunity meets preparation. We’re more prepared in 2022 than I’ve ever been. We just need the opportunity. And if we get the right opportunity, we will go win a championship."
Josh Berry, the career short tracker turned Xfinity Series contender over the past two seasons is just excited to be chasing his first NASCAR national touring series championship at 31-years-old.
"We've looked forward to this all year long," Berry said. "We obviously got off to a very good start. Two wins pretty early and locked in. We raced during the summer with a lot less concern towards that, we spent a lot of time getting prepared for the ROVAL with all the summer road course races.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't wish we had more momentum going towards this, but I also know that could change really fast."
Looking to replicate the Daniel Hemric championship model is Riley Herbst, still winless at this point of his career, but in his second season driving for super powered Stewart Haas Racing and in a car that previously won nine races with Chase Briscoe in 2020.
It’s also a car that has the advantage of being just a one car team and having an entire organization focused on that one entry.
"There is a advantage and disadvantage," Herbst said. "There is just one car that everyone is pulling forward, but it’s a smaller notebook when you’re struggling somewhere and don’t have some place else to pull information from.
"But we think the advantage outweighs the disadvantage and we’re feeling excited and prepared."
Austin Hill and Sam Mayer are making their first championship runs in the Xfinity Series and will do so for top teams in Richard Childress Racing and JR Motorsports respectively.
"We've gotten better as they year has went on and have been consistent."
"Texas has been really really good to me, great finishes last year and this spring. It's going to be 20 degrees hotter so that's going to be interesting. I'm hoping to have a solid 40-point day going into Talladega, maybe score some playoff points and get to the ROVAL, which I think is going to be my strongest race. If I can get through Texas and Talladega good, I'm home free in my own mind."
And then there’s the two perpetual underdogs in Jeremy Clements and Ryan Sieg, two drivers who race for independent, non-Cup Series teams, who arguably could consider their biggest success just reaching the last race of the next round with a shot at the Final Four as the best possible outcome.
"I feel good about one of those first round tracks, but not Texas and Talladega," Clements said of the ROVAL. "Like, just because we won (Daytona) does not mean anything about Talladega. We're just going to give it our all. We've got nothing to lose. From here on, after (winning at Daytona), everything is a bonus."
Sieg outlasted Kaulig's Landon Cassill for the final spot in dramatic fashion, claiming a playoff berth on Saturday at Bristol when the No. 10 dropped out with a mechanical failure.
"There is a lot of competition and a lot of money into this, so to be racing with these guys, JR, RCR, Gibbs, it’s a big deal for our team," Sieg said on Friday. "… It is [a David and Goliath situation]. They got the bucks and the backing behind them with Matt Kaulig, and they do a lot over there. For them to fall out the way they did is situational. Sucks for them, but we’re going to do all we can do."
And really, that’s what the next seven races is going to be, teams doing all they can do and either falling out due to situations or capitalizing on the situations.