AVONDALE, AZ — All the attention is on the NASCAR Cup Series’ Championship 4 and rightfully so too. We’re headed to a colossal matchup between Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing. The thing is, both the NASCAR Xfinity Series as well as NASCAR Camping World Truck Series are also settling their championships this weekend too.
Here are some storylines to watch from that.
Both Championships Could Be Won By Drivers Without Any Wins
How ironic would it be in this new era that rewards victories that we could have two separate series’ won by two drivers that didn’t win a race all season.
For the Truck Series, Matt Crafton hasn’t won in the last 37 races. His last victory came at Kansas last year. But, here he is in the Championship 4 with a shot at his fourth title on Friday night. He has a great shot of doing so too. Crafton has eight top 10 finishes in his last 10 starts on the year overall and is obviously no stranger to the situation where two of the other three drivers are making their first Championship 4 appearances.
He also won the title in 2019 without winning a race that year too. Can he do it twice in a three year span?
Then you have Daniel Hemric in the Xfinity Series. Not only has he not won a race at all this season, he’s never won a NASCAR race in general. He’s 0-for-207 (50 in Trucks, 38 in Cup and 118 in Xfinity). He too has ran well this season and in his third Championship 4 of his career.
What would happen if Hemric wins the title on Saturday night but has never won a race before either? That would be huge.
All these two have to do is finish second in their respective races and hope a non championship eligible drivers wins in the process and the title is indeed theirs without ever winning a race in 2021.
While non playoff winners have been a plenty in both series this postseason, I think a championship driver still has to win in the sense that all their cut races have been won by a playoff eligible driver still.
Owners Championship Varies Than Drivers A Bit
We have one driver in each race this weekend that is racing for their own championship too. See, John Hunter Nemechek is racing the No. 54 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing on Saturday and that car is eligible for the owners title but obviously not the drivers.
The 54 car has won 11 times in 2021 and has a legitimate shot at winning the owners championship trophy this weekend. As a result of this car being in, the No. 18 Toyota from the same team at JGR isn’t in the owners race.
Same situation in Trucks. Todd Gilliland’s No. 38 Ford has been stout and they’re into the Championship 4 on the owners side of things. That bumps out the No. 88 Ford from ThorSport for the owners title as well.
Championship Could Come Down To Final Restart
The crew chiefs all agree that pit strategy may not be much of a factor this weekend at the Phoenix Raceway. They all felt that if the cautions didn’t fly in bad situations, then they should be pretty straight forward races this weekend.
See, they also felt like they had to be perfect in every aspect of the race too. You can’t get caught up in any crash damage on track. No way could you afford a slow pit stop, a speeding penalty, loose wheel’s, missing lug nuts, etc. The crew chiefs also felt like they had to be perfect on their pit calls too.
With only 1-miles of real estate to race on, you don’t have the same luxury at Phoenix than you did at Homestead to make up lost ground.
But, two of the three races here last year came down to pit calls. They very much decided the final outcome of the Truck Series and Xfinity Series’ races in 2020.
Brett Moffitt had the championship won in the Truck Series last November. He was all but checked out from the field and trying to hold off Grant Enfinger for his second championship in three years. Enfinger, had pit earlier from sixth place for new tires. He had nothing to lose. His Truck was fading backwards and unless they went off strategy, a championship wasn’t going to be won. He gave up sixth for new tires and would restart 12th. Five laps later, he was back up to where he pit from in sixth. Then, a few laps later, he was in the top five. Then, the top three. Then, the caution came. Moffit, couldn’t afford to pit now. He had already set his path. Enfinger was there and had fresher tires. No need to pit.
Instead, the other two contenders did pit. Sheldon Creed and Zane Smith restarted eighth and ninth respectively on the final overtime restart. They’d finish the race 1-2 and show that tires and pit calls do mean something at Phoenix.
A day later, a similar thing occurred.
Ausitn Cindric had the best long run car. He had the best car in general. He inherited the lead after his final pit stop when a caution came out on Lap 169 for Joe Graf Jr. Justin Allgaier had to make something happen. He pit again for his final set of tires. He would get a big jump on the ensuing restart and move up to second, but Cindric was pulling away. He was just too good. The championship was in his sights.
Unfortunately, Chase Briscoe spun in Turn 4 with three laps-to-go in regulation and here we were with another pit call to set up the overtime ending. Cindric, saw what happened to Moffitt when he didn’t pit from the lead on the Friday night before. So, he gave the lead to Allgaier knowing that Allgaier had no new tires and also knew that only 10 cars were on the lead lap too. The worst he would restart was ninth due to Briscoe bringing out the caution and would definitely have to pit. Eight lead lap cars would end up pitting which put Cindric in third on the final restart with much fresher tires.
Does it happen again?
You know not all four cars each day can pit under the final caution if it does indeed happen because some have to go off strategy and put themselves in a position to win.
Ben Rhodes came out of the gates hot. He won not only the Truck Series season opener on the Daytona International Speedway oval, but backed that up with a win on the road course a week later too.
Austin Cindric started his Xfinity Series campaign with a win in the season opener for them at Daytona too. Now, both are at Phoenix with a shot at a title. Can they book end the season with wins in the season opener as well as the season finale and take home some championship hardware in return?