NASCAR: Why 2021 could see the best Xfinity battle yet

NASCAR, Xfinity Series (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
NASCAR, Xfinity Series (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) /

The NASCAR Xfinity Series is seeing an emergence of power teams, which could make for some interesting competition to fill the 12 playoff spots.

The battle to make the 2021 NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs could be the most interesting one yet.

For the first time since the addition of a 12-driver playoff system in 2016, the six teams that have emerged as the power teams in NASCAR’s second-tier series have enough combined drivers to fill the entire postseason field.

JR Motorsports (JRM), Richard Childress Racing (RCR), Kaulig Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR), Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing with Biagi-DenBeste (SHR) have a combined 12 drivers running for the Xfinity Series championship, which is an increase of two over 2020 and four over the lowest amount from 2016.

While teams such as JRM, JGR and Team Penske have been consistent frontrunners, the last few seasons have seen the additions of Kaulig Racing and SHR, which have both shown continued improvement. Meanwhile, RCR will field a full-time driver for the first time since 2019, when Tyler Reddick won six races en route to the championship.

The expansion and improvement of these power teams could lead to a competitive battle near the playoff cut line and for seeding in the standings.

Two of the new full-time drivers, Daniel Hemric and A.J. Allmendinger, enter the 2021 season with momentum from part-time rides.

Hemric recorded seven top five finishes, including two runner-up finishes, in 21 races with JRM last season. That number and his average finish of 16.2 could be blamed in part by his seven DNFs, which were mostly due to getting caught up in wrecks. This year, he is set to drive the #18 Toyota for JGR.

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Allmendinger recorded six top five finishes, including wins at Atlanta Motor Speedway and the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, in 11 races with Kaulig Racing last season.

The Atlanta win was his first on an oval and his average finish of 8.9 is extra impressive considering his average starting spot of 30.1, with no qualifying and the team’s part-time nature leading to his low grid positions. This year, he is set to return to Kaulig Racing, but he has moved to a full-time role in the #16 Chevrolet.

Three of the four Championship 4 drivers from 2020 are set to return, with the exception being Chase Briscoe, who has moved up to the Cup Series.

Defending champion Austin Cindric is once again set to pilot the #22 Ford for Team Penske before he moves up to the Cup Series next year. Cindric finished last season with six wins, 19 top five finishes and an average finish of 8.6.

The other two finalists from 2020 are also slated to return to their same rides, with Justin Allgaier driving the #7 Chevrolet for JRM and Justin Haley piloting the #11 Chevrolet for Kaulig Racing. Allgaier had three wins, 11 top five finishes and an average finish of 13.4 while Haley had three wins, 10 top five finishes and an average finish of 10.3 last year.

Also returning to their same rides on power teams are Michael Annett (#1 Chevrolet, JRM), Noah Gragson (#9 Chevrolet, JRM), Brandon Jones (#19 Toyota, JGR) and Harrison Burton (#20 Toyota, JGR).

Three other drivers round out the power teams’ lineups. Myatt Snider is set to drive the #2 Chevrolet for RCR after splitting last season between RCR and RSS Racing. Jeb Burton is set to replace Ross Chastain, who moved up to the Cup Series, in the #10 Chevrolet at Kaulig Racing, marking his first full season in a NASCAR national series since 2014. Finally, Riley Herbst is set to replace Briscoe at SHR after spending last season with JGR.

The six power teams can win races, but can they really sweep the playoffs?

With the increased limits on the number of Xfinity Series races that Cup Series regulars have been able to run in recent years, the number of wins by full-time drivers on the six power teams has also increased.

Last season, the full-time drivers on these teams combined for 30 of the 33 wins, which is up from 27 wins in 2019, 15 wins in 2018 and just seven victories in 2017.

In terms of a team-by-team breakdown, SHR had the most wins by full-time drivers in 2020 with nine, followed by JGR with seven, Team Penske with six, JRM with five and Kaulig Racing with three.

The limits on Cup Series drivers aren’t going anywhere and these power teams will continue to put more emphasis on drivers contending for the Xfinity Series championship. So there’s reason to believe that this trend will continue, with a variety of race winners from different teams leading to more depth and competition in the points battle.

But while these top teams will look to run away from the pack, there’s no guarantee that their 12 drivers will all make the playoffs.

RSS Racing have sent driver Ryan Sieg to the playoffs in three of the last five seasons. They have also worked to improve on equipment, partnering with RCR’s engine division, ECR Engines, in 2019 and now switching to Ford and Roush Yates engines for the coming year.

Sieg had a career-best seven top five finishes last season, including a runner-up finish in the October race at Talladega Superspeedway. His best average finish was 14.6 in 2019, with a best championship finish of ninth place in 2016.

If Sieg can pull off an upset win or consistently run well, he could push his family-owned #39 Ford into the playoffs over a driver from one of the bigger teams.

Jeremy Clements, who fields his own #51 Chevrolet, is also capable of pulling off an upset victory. In 2017, he pulled off a surprise win with a fuel mileage strategy at Road America, sending him to the playoffs. While he finished in last place among the 12 drivers, he has again come close to the playoffs in the last couple seasons, finishing in 14th in the championship standings in 2019 and 13th last year.

And Brandon Brown is another driver who could surprise after pointing his way into the playoffs and finishing in 11th place in the championship standings last year in his family-owned #68 Chevrolet. He recorded six top 10 finishes and an average finish of 16.0 last season, with his only career top five finish coming in the October race at Texas Motor Speedway. He finished that race in fifth.

The addition of new full-time drivers on power teams and the increase in wins among Xfinity Series regulars as well as the potential for upsets from mid-pack racers should make for an interesting battle to determine who will make the 12-driver playoff field and where they’ll rank entering the three-round, seven-race postseason.

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With this amount of depth and limits on drivers such as Kyle Busch, there’s reason to believe that this competition revolution can continue this season and create the most interesting playoff battle yet.