The NASCAR XFINITY Series will race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway for the final time of the season in Saturday’s Drive For The Cure 300 (3 p.m. ET/NBCSN/PRN). With that being said, the race on Saturday at the 1.5-mile North Carolina track will also serve as the final race of their opening round of the playoffs.
Here are the top five storylines for this weekend’s race.
Round 1 Playoff Finale
Why would this not be the top storyline? At the moment, I’d say six drivers have to be feeling pretty good about advancing to the next round. Justin Allgaier (+54), William Byron (+51), Elliott Sadler (+41), Cole Custer (+40), Daniel Hemric (+37) and Brennan Poole (+29) are all far enough ahead to sleep comfortably this weekend.
But, the final two playoff spots will be intense.
There’s six drivers going for two spots as it’s anyone’s guess who can get them. Currently, Matt Tifft (+14) and Ryan Reed (+2) hold onto those positions. But, Brendan Gaughan (-2) and Michael Annett (-7) are hot on their trail. Blake Koch is only 12 points out himself and Jeremy Clements in 20 points behind.
With stage points up for grabs and just seven points separating three drivers for the final spot, this weekend could get interesting.
Matt Tifft (No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota) is currently seventh in the Playoff standing with 2,067 points; just 14 points ahead of Brendan Gaughan in the first cutoff spot (ninth in the standings). Tifft can clinch a spot in the Round of 8 this weekend on points with 44 points and a new winner, otherwise he would clinch on points with 42 points. Tifft can also advance to the next round with a win this weekend. Tifft has made two series starts at Charlotte posting one top 10 and an average finish of 17.0.
Ryan Reed (No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford) is currently in the eighth and final transfer spot of the Round of 12 Playoff standings with 2,055 points; just two points ahead of Brendan Gaughan in the first cutoff spot (ninth in the standings). Reed’s best chance to clinch a spot in the Round of 8 this weekend is with a win. Otherwise, he can clinch a spot in the Round of 8 on points with 53 points. He could also clinch on points with a new winner and help. Reed has made eight series starts at Charlotte posting an average finish of 13.9.
Brendan Gaughan (No. 62 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet) is currently the first Playoff contender outside the cutoff to advance to the Round of 8, in ninth, with 2,053 points. Gaughan is only two points behind eighth-place Ryan Reed in the final transfer position. Gaughan can advance with a win, but can only clinch on points with help. Gaughan has made 11 series starts at Charlotte posting one top five, three top 10s and an average finish of 14.4. He finished ninth at Charlotte earlier this season.
Michael Annett (No. 5 JR Motorsports Chevrolet) sits 10th in the NASCAR XFINITY Series Playoff standings with 2,048 points; seven points behind eighth-place Ryan Reed. Annett can advance to the Round of 8 with a win, but can only clinch on points with help. Annett has made 11 series starts at Charlotte posting two top 10s and an average finish of 20.0.
Blake Koch (No. 11 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet) is 11th in the NASCAR XFINITY Series Playoff standings with 2,043 points; 12 points behind eighth-place Ryan Reed in the final transfer position. Koch can advance to the Round of 8 with a win, but will need help to clinch on points. Koch has made eight series starts at Charlotte posting an average finish of 23.9. Koch posted his career-best finish at Charlotte (12th) in last season’s Playoff race, ultimately advancing him to the next round.
Jeremy Clements (No. 51 Jeremy Clements Racing Chevrolet) is currently ranked 12th in the NASCAR XFINITY Series Playoff standings with 2,035 points; 20 points behind eighth-place Ryan Reed in the final transfer position. Clements is not out of it yet, he can advance with a win, and still could clinch on points with help. Clements has made 18 series starts at Charlotte posting an average finish of 21.8.
We saw how this worked last weekend on the Cup level. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. stole seven points in the first stage at Dover. He advanced to the second round only because of that. Can Gaughan, Annett or Koch get lucky on Saturday? Can they keep Tifft and/or Reed out of stage points this weekend while they accumulate some themselves? If so, the final two spots can come down to stage points.
Due to points, qualifying is key this weekend. With the stage lengths being shorter in the XFINITY Series, the bubble drivers can’t afford to start too far outside of the top 10. They need to get inside of the top 10 and stay there for the first two stages. There’s an even more added importance on that this weekend. If any of those said bubble drivers can’t get stage points, it could cost them at advancing. In order to get stage points though, you have to qualify well.
Non Playoff Winner?
Through the first two races of the opening round, no XFINITY Series regular has won a race yet in the playoffs. Tyler Reddick won at Kentucky while Ryan Blaney took the checkered flag first last weekend at Dover. Will that trend continue?
We all know that the JR Motorsports trio of Justin Allgaier, William Byron and Elliott Sadler will be strong, but can they win and guarantee their way into the next round? Neither driver has to win, in fact, none of the top six really has to win in order to advance. That means they can drive conservatively and just capitalize on a top 10 run and not push the issue too much in return. That also means a Cup regular or part-time XFINITY Series driver can land in victory lane as a result.
The drivers that need to win haven’t won this season, so this is shaping up to be a clean sweep of non XFINITY Series regulars winning in the first round.