After 32 races, it all comes down to this.
Exactly 4,900 laps have been completed in the 2023 Xfinity Series season. Only 200 laps at Phoenix Raceway remain before a first-time champion is crowned.
This year’s Championship 4 is contested by series veterans, young hot shots with great potential and returning drivers after stints in the Cup Series. Three of the four championship-eligible drivers have tested the waters at NASCAR’s top level on a full-time basis. Sam Mayer is the only outlier, as he has fewer than 100 national series starts in total. His JR Motorsports teammate, Justin Allgaier, has more top fives in the Xfinity Series than Mayer has started races alone.
Then, there’s Cole Custer and John Hunter Nemechek.
Ah yes, a moment more than seven years in the making after their memorable post-race scuffle at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park in the Craftsman Truck Series. Both have significantly matured since, however, and stand as polished veterans now, each vying for their first NASCAR championship.
Let’s preview each driver’s chances.
John Hunter Nemechek
By all measures, Nemechek has been the most consistent in 2023 of the four championship drivers. The No. 20 team leads the series in wins (seven), top-five finishes (17), top 10s (24), laps led (1,017) and average finish (8.9). Each week, Nemechek finds himself in contention, whether the team struggles throughout the race or not.
Nemechek came up empty-handed in his championship vow at Phoenix in the Truck Series in 2021, running for powerhouse Kyle Busch Motorsports. He’s with another powerhouse this year in Joe Gibbs Racing, which has won 13 of the last 22 Xfinity races contested at Phoenix. For the last two years, it was a JGR driver celebrating the championship (Daniel Hemric 2021; Ty Gibbs 2022).
There’s also this: Nemechek has never finished worse than ninth in six Phoenix starts. In March, he finished sixth, the best of the four Championship 4 drivers.
“I like the race track,” Nemechek said on Championship 4 Media Day at Phoenix Raceway. “I’ve yet to win here, so hopefully, we can accomplish that this weekend. It’s been a good race track to me.”
JR Motorsports team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. said on this week’s “Dale Jr Download” podcast that he told Mayer he was the favorite to win the championship this weekend. Since winning his first career race at Road America in late July, the No. 1 team has won four of the last 13 races contested. The caveat is that only one of those came on an oval – Homestead – which locked him into the championship race. He has zero stage wins and has led the fewest laps of the four championship drivers.
It’s been hit or miss for Mayer in the playoffs, too. He has two clutch wins, including winning the Round of 12 finale at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval to advance into the Round of 8. The No. 1 car has finished 25th or worse in three of the six playoff races, however
This is Mayer’s first crack at a championship at Phoenix. And it’s a track he hasn’t excelled at in four starts this far, posting an average finish of 20th. In last year’s season finale, he finished 34th, five laps down. That won’t get it done this year, and JRM and Chevrolet will need to have the upstart driver as prepared as can be for this weekend.
“I’m locked in this week,” Mayer said. “I’ve put so much effort into this weekend over the last couple of weeks to make it happen that I’m not going to let anything get in my way from being my best. I’m going to put it all out there and do my best. I’ve put my best into this week, last week as well, and it all comes down to Saturday.”
It took a last-lap pass to win at Martinsville, and Allgaier will now make his sixth Championship 4 appearance this weekend. He leads the series with 13 stage wins this season. His previous two Championship 4 opportunities at Phoenix ended in disappointment, finishing runner-up to Austin Cindric in 2020 before more heartbreak came just last season when he lost the lead late to Gibbs.
Allgaier doesn’t sugarcoat it, though. Phoenix is among his favorite tracks on the schedule and he expects to win this race – and the championship – outright, provided his team does what they’re all capable of. The 13-year veteran has a pair of wins at the track, with the last of those coming in 2019. He has 17 top-10 results in 26 starts and an impressive 9.5 average finish.
“It’s going to be a difficult battle,” Allgaier said of Saturday. “But when we come here, I feel like I have this peace with this race track, and I have a lot of peace with how the year has gone and where we’re at. This race is so important to have good practice, qualify well, and execute the stages properly. Anything here can and will happen. It literally takes everything perfect to walk out of here hoisting the trophy.”
Come Saturday afternoon, there’s a strong chance the No. 7 Chevrolet is pacing the field at some point, as Allgaier has led laps in 11 of the 15 Phoenix races that he’s been with JRM. He won both stages in the spring but was involved in a late wreck and finished 36th.
Custer is coming off three years in the Cup Series, where he won as a rookie at Kentucky. His lack of consistency wound up with Stewart-Haas Racing dropping him back to the Xfinity Series for 2023 – and, just announced, 2024 as well – where he has tallied the second-most top 10s of the playoff drivers remaining.
Custer has two previous Championship 4 appearances, though both came when the championship was fought at Homestead. The California native finished runner-up in the standings to Tyler Reddick in both 2018 and 2019.
Throughout Custer’s Xfinity tenure, he has always been solid at Phoenix. He’s yet to visit Victory Lane but did finish second in the penultimate race of the 2019 season. In five of his seven starts, he’s finished inside the top 10. Custer will need to excel this weekend on an oval, while his two wins this season have come on road courses at Portland and the inaugural race on the Chicago Street Course.
“I’m confident about it,” Custer said of his Phoenix chances. “I’ve won a race here in K&N and ARCA, which is different, but I know how to go fast here and know what I need in the car. I think we can go out there and compete with anybody; I’m not too worried about it.”