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NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoff preview and watch guide: Survive and advance

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Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

The pressure cooker of the NASCAR Playoffs are now set to begin for the Xfinity Series starting on Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Austin Hill enters the three round, seven-race, countdown as the four-win regular season champion but six wins and counting leaves John Hunter Nemechek as the top-seeded contender and championship favorite. It’s a safe bet to write both drivers names in pencil for the final four but the other two spots is where the drama will be found over the next two months.

And when looking at the remaining 10 contenders, it’s a really tight field and compelling cases can be made for each of them, so let’s start there.

The grid

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John Hunter Nemechek +43
Austin Hill +33
Justin Allgaier +20
Cole Custer +11
Sam Mayer +9
Chandler Smith +3
Josh Berry +3
Sheldon Creed +2

Sammy Smith -2
Jeb Burton -2
Daniel Hemric -5
Parker Kligerman -6

The rules

Just like the Cup Series, the first round will eliminate the four lowest drivers in points who haven’t won a race over the course of three races. That sets the Round of 8, which will again eliminate the four lowest drivers in points who haven’t won a race over the course of three races, sending the final four to race for a championship at Phoenix on November 4. Playoff points carry over from round-to-round, meaning races or stages won in the first round are added to the reset total for the second round so there is always something to race for even after advancing via a win. At Phoenix, the final four drivers will race amongst themselves, with the highest finishing driver of the four claiming the championship.

The favorites

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The distinction isn’t something he particularly cares about but John Hunter Nemechek is the favorite to win the championship and he knows that narrative is out there.

“To be honest, that’s just extra noise to us,” Nemechek said during media day on Tuesday. “We’re not focused on being the favorites to win the championship or not. We’re focused on running every race how we always do and going out and racing every single racetrack every single week.”

Nemechek is the son of the 1992 Xfinity champion Joe Nemechek, who won the title back when it was called the Busch Grand National Series and would be the first father-son duo to have earned the honor at NASCAR’s second-highest level.

“For me to win an Xfinity Series championship would mean a lot, and to be the first father-son duo to accomplish that would be special,” Nemechek said. “Hopefully we can do it. That’s what we’re here for.”

This may also be his last shot, having run the full season in 2019 before returning this season, en route to a full-time Cup Series ride with Legacy Motor Club and Toyota Racing Development next season.

With six wins, Nemechek has the clearest path to Phoenix, and anything less than that outcome would be unacceptable.

“I think the way we’ve run this year and with the speed we’ve had, we want to make the final four and definitely feel we have a shot to do so,” he said. “We just can’t beat ourselves to get there.”

Austin Hill has four wins, and has the second easiest path to Phoenix, but there is a narrative that he can’t seem to shake off — that he’s only a superspeedway specialist since four of his six career Xfinity Series wins have come on drafting tracks.

“I kind of laugh anytime someone says that because if you look at my wins at the Truck level, I won on all different types of tracks,” Hill said. “I won on the dirt track. I won at Watkins Glen. I won on superspeedways and mile-and-a-halves so a lot of different race tracks.

“I’ve always felt like I could win on any given track we go to. … but it gives me a little bit of a chip on the shoulder. I’ve always been the guy no one really talks a lot about, always been the dark horse, so it kind of just gives me a little chip on my shoulder and want to prove to everybody that I can win on all these sorts of race tracks. All you have to do is look at what we’ve done this season.”

He does agree the Nemechek is the favorite, though.

“They’ve just been really fast all season long, they have six wins on the year,” Hill said. “The main reason why we were able to win the regular season championship was that we were just very consistent all year where the 20, they had more roller-coaster finishes going, and we were more even-keel.

“I don’t’ see us being a clear favorite, I think the 20 probably is, but we’re a good enough organization to make it to the final four and if you can make it to the final four, anything can happen.”

Related: How the modern NASCAR playoff system has forever changed the game

That leaves two open spots and you have to look between the most dominant organization over the past two years in JR Motorsports. Sure, Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress has produced champions since the turn of the decade but that path tends to go through JRM so the obvious picks would be Justin Allgaier and Josh Berry.

For one, Allgaier has come on strong as of late with a win at Daytona but constantly in the mix as well. He has also made the championship race five out of the seven years since this format came to Xfinity Series.

Allgaier isn’t sure that experience means anything either.

“I think as a veteran and somebody that’s got experience, you sometimes come in a little more tentatively, maybe you don’t put yourself in positions you would even in the regular season to try to win races because you know that maybe sometimes being safe is a better route,” Allgaier said.

“But winning races is also really ultra-important. If you can win a race each round and lock your way into Phoenix, it’s a lot easier than it is to point your way in. I think sometimes with experience comes reservation. I’ve got plenty of gray hair here to prove that I’ve done my fair share of crashing. I think you just race differently than you would if you’re kind of young and tenacious and have a little bit of a different outlook on what it takes to be successful.”

Allgaier, despite being just 37 years old, isn’t sure how many more years of racing at this level with this kind of equipment he has either.

“You never know when that next opportunity is going to come to have a shot to go for a championship,” he said. “So you try to almost hold it in close and not let it go and sometimes I think, maybe throwing caution to the wind would be a better approach.”

Berry is such a tough challenger to peg.

On one hand, he became the feel-good story of the past three years with his five wins in 2021 and 2022 after being plucked out of the Late Model ranks, a story that will culminate with a full-time Cup Series season next year with Stewart-Haas Racing.

But he’s gone winless this year despite nothing obviously being different or wrong.

“We’ve just needed to clean up our races,” Berry said. “We just need to make better adjustments. We need to be more consistent throughout the race. We’ve had these big swings of where we start up front and fall back at the end or it’s the other way around. We need to clean that up these next seven races.”

His 12.1 average finish is fifth best in the division so it’s not a bad season by any stretch.

The contenders

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You could really make a case for anyone outside of the four expected favorites to make the championship race. Cole Custer has two wins this season and is four years removed from a seven-win season in 2019 before he went Cup racing. His 11.8 average finish is fourth best over the regular season.

It’s probably recency bias that prevents him from being an obvious favorite but that’s such a silly subjective intangible notion. 

Sam Mayer won two races, at Road America and Watkins Glen, but both are on road courses with only the ROVAL remaining as a non-oval track this season. At the same time, Mayer is carrying a certain swagger this summer now that he’s won.

It inspires confidence in just being around him.

“I feel like the biggest thing for me was learning ‘I can do this now’ and that’s done,” Mayer said. “I have so much more confidence in showing up to the race track. I did it before and I can do it again. It’s just a matter of putting full races together now.”

It’s taken this story this long to get to Daniel Hemric, literally the 2021 series champion, but one whose lone victory at the NASCAR national touring level was that title race at Phoenix. At the same time, Hemric also has three championship race appearances across Richard Childress Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing.

That’s valuable.

Chandler Smith raced in the Truck Series final four last year with Kyle Busch Motorsports and earned his first career victory, but only one to date, in April at Richmond. With that said, he has also shown flashes of brilliance in between the peaks and valleys.

“It’s a reset, right, everyone resets and it’s a clean slate,” Smith said. “I went from being almost 200 points behind Austin Hill to now, John Hunter is up by just 40, so we just need to trust our process.”

The underdogs

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It’s hard to immediately imagine Parker Kligerman as one of the contenders or even an underdog because for the past two months, the Big Machine Racing No. 48 has been as good as anyone except the Nemechek and Hill teams.

And remarkably, Kligerman has done it all under the pressure cooker of simply trying to race his way into the playoffs. He entered the final race of the regular season down by one point.

It’s almost like they unlike something in themselves in trying to make the playoffs and now it’s time to carry that through into the start of the playoffs proper.

“I wanted to force myself to lock into a high-pressure scenario for a 100 laps and perform at a high level,” Kligerman said. “That was what I felt like allowed us the best chance to compete for a win with a lot on the line and I feel like just the last four or so weeks, we’ve done that every week as a race team and I feel like it’s really has kept us on our game.

“It’s kept us pushing and I think now going into the Playoffs we don’t have to change a thing. We don’t have to rachet anything up, we don’t have to change our thought process or mentality, we just can keep doing what we’ve been doing because we’ve been under this pressure cooker for the last month or so. I think there’s other teams that have had a chance to relax or change their mentality or be more aggressive and they’re going to have to adjust. We’re already there. We’ll just keep doing this for another seven weeks and see what happens.”

Kligerman doesn’t think it’s unrealistic that they could make it all the way to the championship race, even acknowledging how unrealistic that sounds as the lowest-ranked seed but consider their finishes over the past 13 races.

The short version is that there has only been two races outside of the top-11. During that time, they’ve averaged a 9.6 result. That’s a legitimate championship team pace and it’s hardly a small sample size for that matter.

“I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I have to think we’re a top seven or eight car over that span,” Kligerman said.


“So if we just bring that same level of performance to the next three weeks, that gets us to the next round. Could we win Vegas? I think so. Can we go win a race and make the Championship Four? Absolutely.

“I embrace the reset. I see that seeding and that we’re dead last. I don’t think that’s where our team stacks up. We were 10th in the regular season points and eclipsed the 18 team, close to catching the 16 of Chandler. We have been on a roll and the stage points don’t reflect that because we didn’t hit our stride until this summer.

“If we keep racing at the level where we’ve raced the past eight weeks, we can go race for a championship.”

Related: Champions and superstars at risk of NASCAR playoff elimination after Kansas

Sammy Smith also embraces the reset because unlike Kligerman, his last two months have been absolutely awful. He hasn’t finished better than 17th over the past seven races. During that span, he went from P8 to P12 in the standings.

This is the same car and driver that looked like the obvious rookie of the year at worst and a real championship threat at best.

What happened?

“I think it has just wrong place, wrong time,” Smith said. “I feel like we’ve been in good positions, where we were running, and got wrecked. I think we have had a lot of speed and brought speed to the track every week. I just think it’s been a rough couple of weeks to where we’ve had speed, and running up front and we just get taken out.”

With that said, he doesn’t like the word ‘luck’ and ultimately believes its up to him to make those places and times play out in his favor. He has the same equipment as top-seeded Nemechek and welcomes the reset to effectively restart his season.

“I don’t believe in luck, I don’t believe in any of that stuff, so I don’t know what to call it, but we have just kind of have to reset like we did last week in Kansas,” Smith said. “We were really fast there. We had a good practice, good qualifying, good first two stages, just got taken out there with nothing I could do about it. I think just try to reset and have a strong mental side of things and try to go into the Playoffs with a good mindset. I know have the team and the cars to do it, we just have to go execute.”

Like Smith, Sheldon Creed has a teammate at RCR that is a de facto favorite in Austin Hill and needed the reset just to apply the improvements they’ve made this summer. Creed also has the bonafides of having won the Truck Series championship in 2020.

He knows what he’s doing in this format if the cars and his comfort level in them are where it needs to be.

Then, there is the ultimate underdog of this tournament in Jeb Burton, who won earlier this season at the superspeedway in Talladega. His Jordan Anderson Racing team is not a powerhouse. It’s a definition underfunded operation.

Burton won his way in but probably doesn’t get enough credit for his consistency and how good he is at simply finishing races. His 14.4 average finish is 10th best in the division. That is going to be key for their No. 27 car to advance past this first round.

“For me, I want to win every week but I have to realize for now, we’re not capable of doing more than what the car is going to give us and if I try to do more, it’s not going to end well,” Burton said. “If the car will run first, we’ll run first and it’s a fifth place car, we’ll run fifth with it. We need to just finish races and let others make mistakes.

“If it wasn’t for stage racing, we would be seventh or eight in points but we don’t have the speed to run up front and get those stage points. But with that said, we can point our way in but we just can’t make any mistakes and we need to capitalize on our best days.”

The schedule

Round of 12

Bristol Sept. 15
Texas Sept. 23
Charlotte ROVAL Oct. 7

Round of 8

Las Vegas Oct. 14
Homestead Oct. 21
Martinsville Oct. 28

Championship 4

Phoenix Nov. 4

Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.