Justin Allgaier beat long odds to race for a NASCAR Xfinity Series title
AVONDALE, Ariz. — As Justin Allgaier sat in his No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet during a 28-minute red-flag period late in last Saturday‘s race at Martinsville Speedway, he calculated his odds for winning the event and qualifying for the NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship 4.
He might as well have been playing roulette, trying to hit a single number.
“Sitting under the red flag at Martinsville truly was probably the best thing that ever happened,” said Allgaier, who was fifth in the running order at the time. “I looked at the odds of making the final four. I gave myself a five-percent chance, and that‘s probably being a little bit generous.”
But Allgaier hit the number when Richard Childress Racing teammates Austin Hill and Sheldon Creed took each other out of the running with a bumping-and-rubbing overtime battle for the lead. Allgaier found an opening to the inside off the final corner and beat Creed to the finish line.
“I don‘t know if there‘s any destiny in it, but in order to win a championship, you‘ve got to be in the final four,” Allgaier said. “And if the five percent doesn‘t happen last week at Martinsville, I don‘t even have a shot at it, right?
“I think that‘s truly something for me that does go a long way. Whether we win or we don‘t win, this year has been phenomenal. We‘ve had fast race cars. Shoot, I‘ve made more mistakes in 2023 than I‘ve made probably in entire career combined—pit road speeding penalties and just dumb stuff.
“But when I look at the cars we‘ve brought to the race track, this is arguably the most speed week-in, week-out, and a lot of it just comes down to preparation for me.”
A case in point was last Saturday at Martinsville, where Allgaier did not have a winning car—until he did.
“I knew we weren‘t in position to win the race,” Allgaier said. “We didn‘t have the car to win the race. But my team stayed relevant. They stayed behind me, they kept pushing me, and we had a five-percent chance, and we came out with a win.
“And the Red Sea parted—listen, at the end of the day, everything had to be exactly as it was, and it worked out in our favor, and I can‘t be more thankful for that… we‘re kind of playing with house money. When I sat under that red flag and I knew we didn‘t have a shot at it, it kind of changed my perception of the season, and it‘s all for the better. I feel like I come here with a new invigoration to be successful and to win races, and it‘s good.”
Further buoying Allgaier‘s confidence is the preparation of the track. Gone this year is the resin treatment that has made Phoenix top-lane dominant in recent seasons.
“We‘re getting back to the old Phoenix, and I‘m excited,” Allgaier said. “Hot, slick, all the things that I want it to be, so we‘ve got it all.”
The 37-year-old Allgaier has two victories in 26 starts at Phoenix. Collectively, his Championship 4 competitors—John Hunter Nemechek, Cole Custer and Sam Mayer—are winless at the track.
“When we leave here,” Allgaier said, “I‘d just like everyone else‘s win column to stay zero still and ours to have one more.”
Cole Custer brings cool confidence to Xfinity Championship race
Even at just 25-years old, Stewart-Haas Racing driver Cole Custer is used to the NASCAR championship weekend vibes and expectations.
A two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series championship runner-up — in 2018 and 2019 — Custer brings a strong title resume into Saturday afternoon‘s finale. And he earned this opportunity the hard way — on fire, rolling backwards across the finish line last week in a wild Round of 8 finale at Martinsville that was good enough to secure a title bid.
“I think if we can make it through that (Martinsville finish) as a team, we can do anything,” Custer allowed with a smile.
And as much as he likes his chances on Saturday, the two-race winner this season concedes he expects stout competition amongst himself and the other championship contenders, John Hunter Nemechek, Sam Mayer and Justin Allgaier.
Custer has finished sixth or better in four of the six races leading into Saturday‘s championship contest. Twice — at Bristol and Homestead-Miami — he‘s led at least 100 laps in the No. 00 SHR Ford and did not win. His 20 top-10 finishes mark the third time he‘s earned at least 20 top 10s in a season. And only one other driver (Nemechek) has bettered Custer‘s season-to-date 490 total laps led.
“It‘s been an extremely proud year for me, just because I think we built things,” Custer said of his team. “We started the year off and weren‘t exactly where we wanted to be, but we were a young team with a lot of young guys and were able to really build it through the year and communicate well and through that turned ourselves into a championship team.
“I think it just comes with experience, knowing what to expect (in the title race), knowing not to get too riled up through the weekend. You‘re going to be up at times, and you‘re going to be down at times, but knowing that you‘ve just got to put it together for that last run. I‘m confident we‘re going to have a fast car and should be able to compete for a win there.
“At the end of the day, it‘s a pretty equal playing field,” Custer added. “We‘ve all been fast through the year, and all been fast in the Playoffs it just a matter of how that last run plays out.
“It seems like it‘s always the top four racing each other there at the end, and I‘m planning on winning it.”
Corey Heim hoping to turn regular-season dominance into CRAFTSMAN Truck Series title
NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Regular Season Champion Corey Heim insisted Thursday morning there is no absolute clear-cut championship favorite among the four drivers racing for the big trophy Friday night. But of course. … he certainly likes his chances.
Despite one fewer start than the rest of the full-time field — Heim missed the Gateway race because of illness — the driver of the No. 11 TRICON Garage Toyota leads the series in top fives (12), top 10s (19) and stage wins (seven). He brings a streak of 15 consecutive top-10 finishes to Phoenix. And his 564 laps led is double that of any other full-time competitor.
The 21-year-old Georgia native — who is competing in his first full-time season — has only a single previous Phoenix start; leading five laps and finishing seventh last year driving for Kyle Busch. But he‘s been preparing for this race since locking himself in early in the final round of the Playoffs.
“I‘ve heard it go both ways, so I don‘t know, but I think we‘ve earned that (favorite) label,” Heim said. “I guess it doesn‘t really matter at the end of the day until you win it. I feel like we have just been so rock solid and consistent since the springtime. We‘ve done a good job of executing every week and we show up with fast Toyota Tundra TRD Pros.
“I feel like ever since around Martinsville when our first win happened, we kind of knew that we were capable of it. It was just a matter of executing from that point.”
Since his maiden national series victory at the Martinsville half-miler in April, Heim has led laps in all but one race (Talladega) and finished outside the top five only three times. It‘s the kind of track record that has helped generate confidence and expectation.
Heim said he‘s got plenty of family coming in from all over the country to support him this week, and he‘s been relying on other Toyota Racing Development (TRD) drivers such as John Hunter Nemechek and Christopher Bell, who have had championship experience, for tips on the sim and what to expect this weekend.
“It was nice to be able to kind of spread out some of my studying and really just sit on it and study on it for six weeks and show up and knowing what I need to do, and that has been really big for me,” Heim said. “I understand the circumstances and with this being my first fulltime season and my first Playoffs, being able to sit on it and under the circumstances and the pressure has really let me just come here and feel a lot better about it.
“It would be a lot different if I just won my way in at (the last race) Homestead or something and had a week and a half to think about it. But I feel like I‘d be more unprepared and coming in with a lot of pressure on me.
“But to be able to sit on it and study on it for six weeks and show up, kind of know what I need to do, was really big for me.”
Carson Hocevar won‘t be unprepared for Truck Series Championship race
Carson Hocevar doesn‘t consider his flat tire an omen. He‘d prefer to think of it as bad luck that‘s now behind him.
“A few days ago, I hit a curb with my truck and got a flat,” Hocevar said during a question-and-answer session with reporters during Championship 4 Media Day at Phoenix Raceway.
Hocevar wasn‘t referring to the No. 42 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet he‘ll drive in Friday night‘s NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series Championship race at the one-mile track in the Sonoran Desert (7 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
The 20-year-old driver was happy the flat tire happened with his personal truck and not on the race track.
“We got it out of the way, hopefully,” Hocevar said.
The incident with the truck was a minor inconvenience during a week in which Hocevar has been running simulations to prepare for Phoenix, not only for his own Truck Series effort but also for the NASCAR Cup Series teams at Hendrick Motorsports. Hendrick drivers Kyle Larson and William Byron qualified for the Championship 4 on the Cup side.
“We‘ve done at least a hundred runs of sim just on Phoenix alone from the start of the Playoffs till now,” said Hocevar, who will graduate to the Cup Series in a Spire Motorsports car next year. “I‘ve done hours and hours. I‘ve done Cup sim these past few weeks for Phoenix, with HMS to run for the final four.
“I‘ve done days with (trainer) Josh Wise where we don‘t even work on the race car—we just work on myself. And obviously, with Niece, we‘ve worked since the beginning of the year even, just working on Phoenix alone…
“I think we‘ve gotten it a little bit better just in the last two days.”
Now, if Hocevar can just keep all four tires up, he expects to be a contender for the Truck Series title before he makes the jump to Cup.
Jamie Little making TV history
Longtime broadcaster Jamie Little will make history this weekend when she calls the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series championship race for FOX Sports 1 Friday night at Phoenix Raceway. The longtime racing reporter will handle the play-by-call call — capping a 12-race run in the role this season. It‘s the first time a woman has called the television play-by-play for any national motor sports series. Little will be joined in the booth by two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip and former NASCAR Cup Series driver Phil Parsons.
— NASCAR News Wire —