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XFINITY

JR Motorsports is Chasing History Heading to Phoenix

AVONDALE, Arizona — As the NASCAR Xfinity Series gears up for the semi-final race at ISM Raceway, team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. finds himself in a position to achieve something only done once previously in series history. With JR Motorsports currently taking up three spots in the Round of 8 – Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett and Noah Gragson, a third consecutive title is very possible. 

Allgaier is the lone driver in position to advance to the Championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway sitting fourth in the standings, 18 points ahead of Chase Briscoe. Annett finds himself 28 points out of the final spot and Gragson is essentially in a must-win situation sitting in a 47-point hole.

JR Motorsports has won two consecutive championships. The first coming from the current driver of the No. 24 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, William Byron in 2017. The second was with current reigning Xfinity Series Champion is Tyler Reddick – who now races for Richard Childress Racing.

Should Allgaier, Annett or Gragson advance to Miami and win the 2019 Xfinity Series Championship they would eclipse a feat only done once in the series history. BACE Motorsports successfully won three-consecutive championship in NASCAR’s lower division from 1995-97. The first came from Johnny Benson Jr.; Randy LaJoie then drove his way to back-to-back titles from 1996-97.

This will not be an easy task for Annett and Gragson, who both find themselves in essentially a must-win scenario at ISM Raceway.

Annett is in the midst of a career-year driving the No. 1 Chevy Camaro for the 15-year Most Popular Driver recipient, Earnhardt. The driver of the No. 1 captured his first win across all three of NASCAR’s premier series in the season opener at Daytona International Speedway. This comes in addition to a season where he has totaled six top-fives and 18 top-10’s with an average finish of 10th through 30 races.

For Annett, he believes his path to Homestead will reside in qualifying.

“Tomorrow is going to be crucial because qualifying at a track like this is at a premium,” Annett said. “This was probably the most beneficial track for group qualifying.”

The 33-year old driver is referring to the transition back to single-car qualifying that was mandated by NASCAR in May. At the start of the 2019 season, many drivers voiced their displeasure with the new group qualifying rule that had just been implemented.

“It’s all about putting the whole weekend together,” Annett further elaborated. “Winning the race is the only way we can go into this. Justin [Allgaier] is so good here and being 28 points behind him, it’s going to be difficult to out-point him.”

The driver of the No. 9 finds himself in the most difficult position of the JRM trio heading into the Desert Diamond Casino West Valley 200 at ISM Raceway. It will be an uphill battle for Gragson who sits eight in the standings, but he is no stranger to success at the Arizona-based track.

While the 20-year old driver is still in search of his first win in the Xfinity Series, he almost found victory lane in the Valley of the Sun in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series for Kyle Busch Motorsports last season, ultimately finishing second. Gragson has not been able to notch a top-10 at ISM Raceway in the second-tier series, but he does have an 11th place average finishing position in both of NASCAR’s lower divisions.

On the flip side, Allgaier is in a favorable position heading into a track where he’s had immense success. The driver  of the No. 7 Brandt Chevrolet found victory lane in the desert Spring of 2017 after leading 85 of 200 Laps. The 33-year old started on the pole last Spring and has led an additional 145 Laps since his last win in Avondale, Arizona.

He also posts a 9.1 average finish in 18 starts with six top-fives and 11 top-10’s at the track formerly known as Phoenix International Raceway. This is all in addition to a career-high top-10 streak the Riverton, Illinois-product has strung together over the last 15 races.

But the 10-year series veteran is no where near satisfied.

“The crazy thing is – even with the top-10 streak – I still feel like it’s been a terrible year,” Allgaier said. “There’s been so many races that haven’t gone our way, but it’s definitely helped us grow as a team. We’ve done a great job at rebounding and managing the adversity.”

Allgaier acknowledges the fact that the series is being dominated by “The Big Three,” in Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer. However he believes there’s one thing that sets him apart from the young guns – experience.

“I’m the only driver who’s made the Playoffs every year since they started this format,” Allgaier shared. “Those three guys have had a lot of speed this year and they’ve been very good, but we’ve also noticed that when their days don’t go the way they want to go that they’ve had some challenges dealing with that.”

The odds are in the series veteran’s favor and he is going into the final two races with a must-win mentality. Allgaier is aware that these last events will not come without adversity, but also expressed great joy in the fact that the series finale will be ran at this track where he’s had so much success over his career.

Expect to see the trio of JR Motorsports drivers tomorrow with a heavy emphasis on a positive qualifying effort. If NASCAR superstar Dale Jr. wants to achieve the historical feat of three-consecutive Xfinity Series Championships, the road must go through the 1.5-mile track that is ISM Raceway.

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management to other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered and endorsement.

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Commentary

CALINOFF: Kyle Busch Won the Title, But…

The scenarios were set, and the critics were ready to pounce. And regardless of who won the title – the ‘yeah, but…’ factor was going to be in play. I guess that’s where we differ from other sports.

The Royals beat the Mets in Game 5 to win the World Series. They continually scored the most runs over their opponents – and they won the ultimate prize. Kansas City fans were happy, New York fans weren’t. But that’s how it shook out, and everyone went home – with the high hopes for next season.

It doesn’t seem to work that way in NASCAR. There’s always a ‘yeah, but’ if your favorite driver doesn’t fair well. And it was inevitable way before the green flag flew at Homestead.

Here’s what, in my opinion, the potential fallout would have been for the other contenders had they taken home the grand prize.

KEVIN HARVICK WINS: The defending Champ had a strong season – one good enough to bring him to the last dance. Because when it counts, Harvick and company can make that magic happen, right? Yeah, but, that final restart at Talladega allowed him to advance to the next round. He manipulated the end of the race. That’s what we’d be saying.

MARTIN TRUEX, JR. WINS: Truex was the epitome of consistency for most of the year. There was a handful of unfavorable finishes, but he won at Pocono and, at least, ensured himself a spot in playoffs. And in the end, he was able to keep himself in play and make it to the finale, right? Yeah, but, NASCAR wanted a feel-good story. The single-car team operating from afar beats the superpowers. And, what about all that longtime girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, has gone through and her courageous battle with ovarian cancer? That sure would have made a great story. NASCAR wanted that to happen. Somehow, some way, they figured out a way for Truex to be our Champion. That’s what we’d be saying.

JEFF GORDON WINS: There would have been no better story than having the guy who changed the face of NASCAR’s modern era to retire as the Champion. Could you imagine? It would have been the ultimate send-off. It would parallel Tom Seaver, arguably the best starting pitcher in MLB history, throwing a no-hitter in his final game. It would have been the story of stories and a great way to end the season, right? Yeah, but, if Kenseth didn’t knock Logano clear into Roanoke, Gordon wouldn’t have made it to Homestead anyway. His year was up and down. That’s what we’d be saying.

KYLE BUSCH IS THE CHAMPION: Now, we’ve got a lot of ‘yeah, buts’ to contend with:

  1. Busch missed close to the first third of the season. He didn’t run all the races, therefore he’s ineligible. That’s a pretty popular one.
  1. NASCAR changed the rule and gave Busch a waiver. Why? Well, they felt bad about Daytona. There should have been a soft wall where he hit – so they’ll take the blame and exercise their right to make an exception.
  1. There were fill-in drivers who kept the team in contention. Those allegations come from the ignorant. Informed fans understand that driver points and owners points are separate. Erik Jones and David Ragan scored points for the team, but Busch earned every marker that brought him to the final race.

And there were plenty more.

Social media lit up when the final caution was displayed. There was debris under the flag stand and a water bottle on the track, but out of the groove. Was it warranted? I don’t know – but I’m glad I’m not charged with making those calls.

There was an outcry by fans – and some media – that NASCAR wanted the Champion also to win the race. I guess, to some people, that’s a good story.

I don’t easily get my feelings hurt and it’s okay if you disagree — you’re entitled to think what you want.

Kyle Busch hasn’t always cast himself in the best light. He’s come across brash and cocky at times. He doesn’t take losing very well either. He’s had his moments for sure. However, in my opinion, I think he’s done a great deal to shed that persona. Having a well-grounded wife and becoming a dad certainly hasn’t hurt. I’m not looking to change your opinion of him personally but, just for a moment in the interest of objectivity, put aside the past and let’s live in the present.

Kyle Busch missed the first eleven races of the season. He wasn’t stricken with the flu – he broke his right leg and left foot. That would have sidelined most professional sports players for the season. Maybe ended the career of others.

Rookie Sprint Cup Crew Chief, Adam Stevens, had to keep all the plates spinning. He needed to rely on drivers he hasn’t worked with – including a rookie — for feedback to remain competitive. Nothing against the substitutes, but it’s chore to get into a rhythm when you’re accustomed to the information your regular driver is giving you.

Nevertheless, they had some good finishes and tried to build as much momentum as they could, in anticipation of Busch’s return.

Now he’s back.

Five races in, he wins at Sonoma. Legs and feet are pretty important there too.

Two races later, he scores at Kentucky. And then the following week at Loudon. And then the following week at the Brickyard. Still, he’s outside of the top-30 in the standings – the caveat for Chase eligibility.

Busch penetrates and maintains top-30 status at Watkins Glen and then it was game-on.

Aside from a few miscues on pit road, a flat tire or two, scrapes with the wall and a day-ending wreck, Kyle Busch and the No. 18 team positioned themselves to win the Championship.

RELATED: Will Kyle Busch Be the Best Ever?

To those who take an ardent stance on the fact that Busch didn’t run all the races, I ask you to think about this:

Let’s say Carolina Panther’s quarterback, Cam Newton suffers an injury right before the NFL season starts — maybe he fell off his wallet or something. He’s benched for half the season and the back-up guy just needs to help keep the team relevant and competitive during his recovery.

Now, he’s back. And hitting his targets better than ever. Everything is in sync, and they win the Superbowl. Is it legit? They won without their starter. Is Newton the Championship quarterback? He didn’t play in all the games, right?

Yep, I agree, there’s a lot of rhetoric in what you just read. But the facts are the facts and the numbers don’t lie.

If you miss the first 11 races, get yourself into the top-30 in the standings, complete 97.7% of the laps, lead 732 of them, win five races, have a great final pit stop and beat your three opponents – you deserve to be the Champion.

It would have been a good story had Harvick won back-to-back titles. Or Truex showing that consistency still matters or, of course, Gordon going out on top. Those are all great storylines.

But, for me, Kyle Busch and Joe Gibbs Racing made 2015 a spectacular season on many levels.

It was a testament to teamwork, determination, overcoming adversity, athleticism, and perseverance. It was about keeping your eye on the prize and grabbing it.

This wasn’t just a good story for NASCAR – it was a great story for sports.

 

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, it’s owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.