Despite a combined seven wins a season ago, Joe Gibbs Racing’s current stable of full-time NASCAR Xfinity Series drivers has yet to reach Victory Lane this season. But the trio still has sights set on the ultimate goal — winning a championship.
Brandon Jones, Harrison Burton and Daniel Hemric are no strangers to success in the Xfinity Series. The three wheelmen total 377 starts, 92 top-five finishes and 194 top 10s among them. Despite leading 760 laps this season — 510 belonging to Hemric — none of them have been able to cross the finish line in first. A much different story than their No. 54 full-time entry, filled by drivers running a part-time schedule, that has cranked out nine 2021 wins from Kyle Busch, Ty Gibbs and Christopher Bell.
“It’s been surprising to me that we (full-time drivers) haven’t clicked off wins as an organization,” Jones said. “The 54 has been really strong. But I think at times during these races that car has won, we’ve been just as good, if not better. I think it’s just about aligning yourself there at the end of the race to go get it.”
If there’s any time to go get it, it’s now. All three drivers are in the playoffs, preparing for a seven-race sprint for the title. The Round of 12 begins Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN/NBC Sports App, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
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Jones leads the three JGR drivers with four consecutive appearances in the playoffs. After a career-best season in 2020 set him up to be a top contender this year, a mix of strong finishes and eight DNFs has him entering as one of the underdogs.
“The speed is there to win the races,” Jones said. “We’re capable of winning these races. It’s just got to all line up for us at some point. Our program, to be honest, has stepped up night and day compared to the times that we did win last year. We’ve all made the right steps in the right direction to get better.”
Hemric’s position is even more unique.
Prior to a full-time Cup Series stint in 2019, Hemric reeled off back-to-back Championship 4 appearances in the Xfinity Series in 2017 and ’18 and his 2021 laps-led total is second only to title-favorite Austin Cindric. But the No. 18 JGR driver is still searching for his first NASCAR national series win.
Hemric has come close multiple times after a pair of runner-up results earlier this season and a heartbreaking end to a victory bid at Atlanta Motor Speedway in July. But instead of dwelling on the past, he is looking on the bright side.
“I know we are going to have an opportunity inside this 18 team to win races here in these next seven weeks to position ourselves to make that championship run,” Hemric said. “If the opportunity (to win a race) is there, we are going to do all we can to take it.”
For Burton, this season’s playoff run is a chance to handle unfinished business from a season ago.
“Last year, we ran decent at Las Vegas and not great,” Burton said. “That kind of put us behind (in the playoff standings), like, ‘Gosh, we have to get some points at Talladega,’ and we go out there and get in a crash. The biggest thing is just controlling what you can control. We need to go out and attack this weekend like it’s a must-win scenario. ”
Burton already has a Cup Series ride locked down for next season with Wood Brothers Racing in the iconic No. 21. That knowledge has not created any complacency on his part.
“I want to win (in Xfinity) regardless,” Burton said. “But there is some pressure there. Going to the Cup Series next year is a big jump no matter how you run. Hopefully we can win some races here and win this championship. That’ll give me some confidence for next year. But at the end of the day, I know that they (Wood Bros. and Team Penske) believe in me.”
Either way it shakes out, the three teammates find themselves trying to rev up their performance in the postseason. And with all three vying for the trophy, they know it creates a different sense of urgency.
“The first task at hand was to get all of our Toyota Supras locked into the playoffs, and we did that successfully,” Hemric said. “Now, you have to approach it as even though there’s three other teammates that I’ll be racing with from time to time, that’s also three or four positions, points. You’ve gotta tiptoe that line. That line becomes a little bit more narrow when you get into the playoffs.
“That’s something that’s so integral to NASCAR. It’s not one specific organization against another in each game. You’re competing against your own. That’ll be all of our mindsets and if it’s not, I’m sure Coach (Joe Gibbs) would be disappointed. As much of a team as it is, you’ve gotta go get the job done for yourself.”