Austin Hill knows he will have to beat John Hunter Nemechek for the title
The 12 NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoff drivers met with the media Tuesday afternoon to discuss the seven-race Playoff slate that begins with Friday night‘s Food City 300 at the famed Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on USA Network, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and concludes with NASCAR‘s thrilling triple-header championship week at Phoenix Raceway where a driver will be crowned the 2023 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion.
Joe Gibbs Racing driver John Hunter Nemechek holds a 10-point edge over the Regular Season Champion Austin Hill, of Richard Childress Racing. JR Motorsports‘ Justin Allgaier is third, 23 points back, followed by Stewart-Haas Racing‘s Cole Custer and JR Motorsport’s Sam Mayer.
Kaulig Racing‘s Chandler Smith, JR Motorsport‘s Josh Berry, Hill‘s RCR teammate Sheldon Creed, Nemechek‘s JGR teammate Sammy Smith, Jordan Anderson Racing‘s Jeb Burton, Kaulig Racing‘s Daniel Hemric — the 2021 series champion – and Big Machine Racing‘s Parker Kligerman round out the group of 12 drivers eligible to contend for the 2023 Xfinity Series trophy.
Hill, 29, earned the Regular Season Championship last week at Kansas Speedway saying, “It just shows no matter how tough the battle is and how tough the uphill climb is we never quite fighting.”
The driver of the No. 21 RCR Chevrolet, has four wins this season, including two of the first three races and with the Playoff reset, will start 10 points behind the six-race winner Nemechek heading to Bristol this weekend.
“No not at all,” Hill said of considering himself an odds-on title favorite. “I think the 20 car [Nemechek] has to be the favorite, they‘ve just been really fast all season long, they have six wins on the year. 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.”
And although Hill has two Xfinity wins and a NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series victory on the Daytona superspeedway – he bristles at being labeled merely a “big track specialist,” noting that during his career he‘s won on every style of race track. And he‘ll need to in this seven-race run for a title that includes the half-mile Bristol high-banks and the Charlotte ROVAL among its Playoff venue list.
“I kind of laugh anytime someone says that [superspeedway specialist] 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 (road course). 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.”
John Hunter Nemechek is focused on the goal at hand
Although he battled Austin Hill vigorously for the Regular Season Championship, John Hunter Nemechek will still start the Playoffs ranked atop the leader board courtesy of his series-best six victories in 2023. Even with his position leading the series to start the Playoff run, the 32-year-old North Carolinian refuses to consider himself an odds-on favorite for his first major racing title.
Legacy Motor Club announced last week that Nemechek will drive the No. 42 Toyota for that team next year in the NASCAR Cup Series — a huge opportunity for the well-tested driver. He‘d like to take a Xfinity Series championship with him to the new team.
“To be honest, I think it‘s just noise to us,” said Nemechek, who led a dominating 154 of the 200 laps in his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in last week‘s regular season finale at Kansas Speedway.
“We‘re not really focused on being the favorite or not being the favorite. We‘re focused on just running every race like we know how to do and to go out and race every single race track, every single week and put some emphasis on trying to win, but also having good weeks and not letting bad weeks affect your Playoff run.
“I don‘t think the standpoint of being a favorite or not being a favorite really affects us or the mental side of things.”
Parker Kligerman is riding momentum of securing final Playoff spot
Parker Kligerman goes into the NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs on a high-momentum finish to the regular season, grabbing the 12th and final Playoff berth in the last regular season race. And the driver of the No. 48 Big Machine Racing Chevrolet thinks that kind of high-energy rally the team pulled off only a week ago will be important to maintain as he embarks on his first career Playoff run.
Interestingly, he said his team actually approached the race in Daytona — even before the regular season finale — as if it were the cutoff race to set the Playoff field. His team has had to perform at a full-volume high level every week to earn a Playoff spot.
“I wanted to force myself to lock into a high-pressure scenario for a 100 laps and perform at a high level,” said the 33-year-old Kligerman. “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, who is a well-respected pit reporter for NBC Sports in addition to his racing role, said he would not work the Phoenix race for the network should he advance to the Championship 4 in the season finale.
“They‘ve been so gracious and supportive through this. … where if I‘m a part of the Championship 4 most likely you won‘t see me on the broadcast on Sunday and that‘s out of respect, personally for myself and the race team knowing what media goes along with an event that week,” Kligerman said, adding, “Out of respect for both entities that would be one of the adjustments I‘d make but outside of that, I‘m committed to doing my TV work the same level I have through the season and I don‘t see it being an issue.”
Justin Allgaier isn’t sure if experience is a plus or minus
The NASCAR Xfinity Series veteran and perennial championship contender Justin Allgaier said Tuesday that sometimes being that experienced competitor works against him. Ranked third in the Playoff Standings with wins at Charlotte and Daytona (2), the 37-year-old driver of the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet likes his title chances, but warned that having a lot of experience doesn‘t necessarily translate into a season trophy.
“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,” said Allgaier, whose best title run was runner-up in 2020.
“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 kinda young and tenacious and have a little bit of a different outlook on what it takes to be successful.
“I also don‘t know how many more opportunities I‘ll have,” Allgaier continued. “You never know when that next opportunity is going to come to have a shot to go for a championship, 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.”
Quick Notes: JR Motorsports announced this week it has re-signed driver Sam Mayer for a third season. The 20-year-old will be competing in his second NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs this year and was optimistic about an extended future with a championship team. “It really has become a home for me, and we‘ve obviously had a lot of success together as an organization.” Mayer earned his first two career series wins this year and conceded with a smile “winning solves everything”. … Mayer‘s JR Motorsports teammate Josh Berry will be making his second NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoff run in the No. 8 JRM Chevrolet before moving to the Stewart-Haas Racing NASCAR Cup Series team next year seceding retiring driver Kevin Harvick in the team‘s No. 4 SHR Ford. Berry said he definitely thinks about his decade-long tenure with JRM driving late models and in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. “I‘m still trying to process that. At this point, I‘m trying to enjoy it a little bit and not worry so much about the last seven races and reflect on the past decade. No matter what happens this last Playoff run, I‘m extremely grateful for all the opportunities I‘ve had at JR Motorsports. They changed my life. Dale changed my life and Kelly and everybody there had an influence on me.”
— NASCAR Wire Service —