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September 12, 2023

Xfinity Series Playoffs preview: Title up for grabs as top talent set for epic battle

nemechek and hill
Sean Gardner
Getty Images

The 12 NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs drivers met with the media Tuesday afternoon to discuss the seven-race slate that begins with Friday night’s Food City 300 at the famed Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, USA Network, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and concludes with NASCAR’s thrilling tripleheader 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.

MORE: Full Xfinity Series Playoffs standings | Meet the 2023 field

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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 quit fighting.”

The No. 21 RCR Chevrolet driver has four wins this season, including two of the first three races. With the playoff reset, Hill 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 (of 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.”

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 venue list.

“I kind of laugh anytime someone says that (I’m a 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 Hill vigorously for the Regular Season Championship, Nemechek will still start the playoffs ranked atop the leaderboard courtesy of his series-best six victories in 2023. Even with his position leading the series to start the Playoff run, the 26-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 an Xfinity Series championship with him to the new team, favorite or not.

“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.”

Justin Allgaier isn’t sure if experience is a plus or minus

The 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 championship 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 kind of 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.”