After a winless opening round of the 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs, regular-season champion Austin Cindric is eager for the three race venues that comprise this all-important semifinal countdown portion of the playoff schedule.
Cindric ties Ross Chastain with nine top-10 finishes in 10 races this season on 1.5-mile tracks such as Kansas Speedway, where the series resumes postseason competition Saturday night in the Kansas Lottery 300 (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
In fact, eight of Cindric’s nine top-10 efforts were top-five finishes — three of them wins (twice at Kentucky and once at Texas). The driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford is putting up an impressive average finish of 4.35 on these 1.5-mile tracks, and he’ll need every bit of that confidence this week as enters this playoffs round second in the standings, 10 points behind the season’s eight-race winner Chase Briscoe.
Among the eight drivers who have advanced this far — Briscoe, Cindric, Justin Allgaier, Noah Gragson, Justin Haley, Chastain and Ryan Sieg — the 1.5-mile tracks have predominantly been the highlights of their season work. Seven of those drivers have earned top-10 finishes in at least six of the 10 races at 1.5-milers. In addition to Cindric and Chastain, who have nine top 10s, Briscoe has eight and Allgaier and Haley have seven each.
Brandon Jones, who has won the last two races at Kansas Speedway, including a dramatic final-lap pass for the win in July, is the only driver in the playoff standings with a previous trip to Kansas’ Victory Lane. His win this summer was a nail-biting .405-second better than Cindric, who had led a dominating 131 of the 175 laps – the most laps led at Kansas since Erik Jones paced the field for 186 laps in 2017 and finished 15th.
Brandon Jones has finished 11th or better in four of his last five Kansas starts and has been solid in the early playoff run with three finishes of 11th or better.
With back-to-back 1.5-mile playoff venues – Kansas and then Texas Motor Speedway next week – this is the bread-and-butter of these drivers’ championship hopes. And the statistics indicate there should be some tightly-contested races — in particular at these venues — to decide which four drivers will ultimately advance to earn a shot at the Championship 4 in the Nov. 7 season finale at Phoenix Raceway.
With their work on the 1.5-mile tracks, Briscoe and Cindric have to be considered the heavy favorites coming into the weekend. Briscoe has already collected a playoff win (at the Las Vegas playoff opener) but didn’t score a top 10 in the two races afterward at Talladega, Ala., and the Charlotte Roval. His best finish in three Kansas starts is third in last year’s playoff race.
“Our first trip there [to Kansas] was one of the worst races of the year,” Briscoe said of his 14th-place finish in the No. 98 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford at Kansas this summer. “We just missed the balance, but we’ve run well there in the past and we’ve come so far since then.
“I’m confident we we’ll be good this time going back. We know we need to win early in this round and lock ourselves into Phoenix, but we can’t make any huge mistakes to give away our points lead, so we went back and found some things to work on for this race. We’re taking the car we won with at Vegas, so I feel really good about our chances of taking our Ford Performance Racing School Mustang to Victory Lane again.”
Cindric finished sixth at both Las Vegas and on the Roval road course, but 34th at Talladega. His last wins were back-to-back in August at the Daytona Road Course and Road America. His best showing in three Kansas starts was that runner-up effort in July.
Although Briscoe’s win at Las Vegas and Haley’s win at Talladega earned them automatic berths to this part of the playoff schedule, JR Motorsports driver Noah Gragson has actually put together the best three-race run among the championship contenders. Gragson shows up in Kansas ranked fourth, 35 points behind Briscoe, but he scored top-five finishes at every race in the opening round of Playoff competition.
The 22-year-old driver was runner-up to AJ Allmendinger at the Roval last week and also second to Briscoe at Las Vegas. He finished third in the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet at Talladega. He has finishes of 13th and 15th in two previous Xfinity Series starts at Kansas and is still looking for his first career top 10 at Texas.
Gragson’s veteran JR Motorsports teammate Justin Allgaier — who sits third in the championship, 27 points behind Briscoe — boasts seven top-10 finishes in 10 Kansas starts, including three career-best fifth-place finishes at the track. He has 10 top-10 finishes in 20 Texas starts with a career-best of third there in July.