Underdogs, oh what a magical thing they can be. And this year’s NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs have a fair share of them.
But first, what do we consider an underdog? Typically, it would be any team that has a significantly cheaper budget from its competition.
Jeremy Clements and his family-run operation fits right into that category. Other underdogs to make the Xfinity Series postseason in the past include Brandonbilt Motorsports and RSS Racing, though none have advanced out of the opening round.
“We‘re going to compete with everything we‘ve got and hope it‘s enough,” Clements said this past week on Xfinity Series playoff media day.”
What about Riley Herbst? No matter the racing series, he’s always competed in some of the best equipment, but has just a pair of ARCA Menards Series wins to show for it. But his rebound to end the 2021 regular season shouldn’t go unnoticed. Are the playoffs a second chance on life to save the season?
“I don‘t think it‘s really a second chance at all,” Herbst said. “I think our last month of finishes has kind of trended in that direction. Back-to-back top fives is a lot better off than I was last year going into the playoffs, so I think we‘re in a good mode right now.”
Then, there’s Brandon Jones. By no means is he a conventional underdog, but a Joe Gibbs Racing Goliath had to points race for the majority of the season to make the playoffs, as the No. 19 Toyota has 10 finishes of 33rd or worse in the opening 26 races. Not ideal.
Add in Jones’ two full-time teammates, Daniel Hemric and Harrison Burton, and those are the five drivers that are still looking for victory lane this season.
Sure, Jones could be a real darkhorse to make it to the Championship 4 in early November at Phoenix Raceway. He’s won twice before at Kansas Speedway, and even won in the desert last year, edging out Kyle Busch. But he’s got to get there, first.
“First round is a little bit skeptical, and that‘s the one that‘s probably the weakest as far as tracks go,” Jones said. “[Las] Vegas has always been phenomenal for us and we‘ve gotten our road course program really, really good lately. We‘re going to have to fight for it, but we can go win a road course.”
Of course, Jones is alluding to the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, which wraps up the Round of 12. The middle race consists of a wild card in itself, Talladega Superspeedway, where the “Big One” is always looming.
Clements just wants to survive Talladega.
“We just have to keep our nose clean and be there at the end and get some top 10s,” Clements said of his playoff outlook. “I‘m a little worried about next week at Talladega, obviously anything can happen there. The rest of it I feel good about.”
For Clements, though, he was primarily a mainstay in the top 10 of the Xfinity Series standings this season. However, the No. 51 car finished 13th last weekend and lost two positions in the regular season standings to 11th. Those two playoff points could be a dagger of making the Round of 8.
But compared to Clements’ other playoff appearance in 2017, he’s much more confident with the team, as it’s working with the most funding it‘s ever had.
“Being there the first time, we put some pressure on ourselves and this time I‘m saying, ‘We have nothing to lose,” he said. “It‘s awesome to be in the playoffs and we want to make the most of it, but we‘re going to go out and have fun and not worry about it too much. I don‘t see us going out and winning the race this weekend, but we can definitely run in the top 10. We‘ve been capable of that.
“I had three goals (for the year): Make the playoffs, don‘t run a blank car and win a race. Two of those goals have been met and it feels great. To be the only small team in the playoff is a huge accomplishment.”
Should the team make no mistakes in the opening round, Clements firmly believes it can advance in the postseason.
Herbst, who enters the playoffs with 11 top-10 finishes (the No. 98 car won nine races last year with Chase Briscoe), has five such results in the last six events.
The No. 98 team put it together at the right time, cracking the playoff grid following the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course last month. But Herbst believes the team has been strong dating back to May, when he sat on the pole at Charlotte.
“I think a big turning point for ourselves as a whole was after Charlotte, although we didn‘t get the finish we probably deserved,” he said. “But to be fastest in practice and to qualify on the pole by that big of a margin was a big morale booster for ourselves on the 98 team. […] We feel like we‘ve had this speed all year long; we just haven‘t been able to capitalize and finish in those spots.”
Hands down, Jones has shown the most speed of the bottom three seeds in the postseason. He tallied nine top-five finishes, as many as his two JGR teammates. So maybe it’s a good problem to have when his misfortunes this season have primarily been while running inside the top 10 (wrecked at Daytona; wrecked by Zane Smith at Dover; engine issue while in second at Daytona in August; the list goes on and on).
Still, an average finish of 18.5 won’t cut it in the playoffs.
“The speed is there,” Jones added. “That‘s not the concern for us anymore; the speed is there for us to win the race. I feel like our program has stepped up night and day compared to the times we did win last year. I feel like everything has gotten a lot better, we‘ve all made the right steps in the right direction to get better and we‘re all putting in the time and work to do it.”
The Xfinity Series playoffs begin on Saturday, shortly after 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.