Team Penske's Austin Cindric keeps it classy
As Austin Cindric leaned against his No. 22 Team Penske Ford Mustang with fireworks going off behind him and Daniel Hemric celebrating a victory and NASCAR Xfinity Series championship in the distance, there was an unmistakable look of disappointment.
It was tough ending to the race for the 2020 series champion, who had five wins on the year and led a race best 113 laps Saturday night only to get edged out for the season trophy – in a door-to-door finish - by a slight .030-second.
“If everyone in the stands enjoyed it, it is good racing," a visibly frustrated Cindric said. “I’m appreciative of the opportunity to race on such a big stage, race for Roger Penske, represent Ford Performance, all of our sponsors that helped us this season.
“It would have been awesome to finish this out. I felt like we had a dominant race car, felt like we did everything right. Came up a little short.
“Thankful for the opportunity," he added, “Pissed to be second for like the third week in a row."
The four championship contenders fought for the victory all evening long in the Xfinity Series Championship Race with Cindric and Hemric exchanging the lead and having to fend off Noah Gragson and Regular Season Champion A.J. Allmendinger. Ultimately Hemric took his first ever race trophy in the biggest race of the season.
Cindric and the veteran Allmendinger paced the series all year with five wins each – a nice encore to Cindric’s tremendous 2020 championship season. And it all has resulted in a move to NASCAR’s “prime time” for the popular 23-year-old, who will be driving the No. 2 Team Penske Ford fulltime next year in the NASCAR Cup Series – following in the footsteps of a pair former Cup Series champions, NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace and 2012 series champion Brad Keselowski.
Noah Gragson missed in his first swing at an Xfinity title
Noah Gragson didn’t win his first NASCAR championship Saturday night, but he sure made his presence felt in his first title opportunity. The 23-year-old Las Vegas native finished 12th – disappointing but still impressive considering his No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet hit the wall hard while running in third-place in the closing laps of the race.
Gragson earned his position in the Championship 4 with a clutch victory in the last Playoff race at Martinsville, Va. – a sort of walk-off homer in the racing world. In all, he won three races and scored 20 top-10 finishes over the 33-race season and qualified for his first ever Championship Race.
“Just disappointed," Gragson said of the evening. “I’m not really sure what happened on that second to last restart
“We didn’t have the car nearly where we wanted it all weekend, practice, qualifying and the race," he added. “Those guys, they beat us tonight. Congrats to them. Hats off to them. We just didn’t have it this weekend.”
Dream season ends a little short for A.J. Allmendinger
This year’s NASCAR Xfinity Series Regular Season Champion A.J. Allmendinger won five races this season, but he came up just short of raising the championship trophy with a 14th-place finish in the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet in Saturday night’s NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship Race.
“I just probably need to be a little better here to lead us in a better direction," Allmendinger said of the one-mile Phoenix Raceway.
A problem with his right-rear tire caused Allmendinger to spin out bringing out a caution flag only 18 laps from the scheduled end of the race. It essentially ended any hopes he had of winning the race and Allmendinger apologized to Austin Cindric – who was leading at the time – for bringing out a caution and forcing a restart.
“I don’t want to be part of the storyline like that," Allmendinger said. “I’d like it to have been a better storyline. Part of the growth. Definitely not what we wanted today, tonight. But we’ll come back strong. My thanks to all the men and women at Kaulig Racing and Chris Rice for making this such a dream season.
“Congrats to Daniel, it’s going to be cool having him as my teammate next season," Allmendinger said of Hemric, who is moving to the Kaulig Racing team in 2022. “So for him to be the champion, looks like I’ve got something to shoot for next year. Congrats to him.”
Team Penske scores sixth NASCAR Xfinity Series owners title
Although Austin Cindric did not win the race, he did bring home the 2021 NASCAR Xfinity Series Owners Championship for Team Penske – by four points over Joe Gibbs Racing's No. 54 team. It was the organization's sixth owners championship in the series (2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2020, 2021).
“Yeah, that’s really poetic," Cindric said. “Obviously this 22-car has won so many owners championships over the years with so many great drivers. My first race in this 22-car was in 2017 and they won the owners championship then. I guess, I get to close that one out and ironic as that might be."
Larson to lead the NASCAR Cup Series field to green at Phoenix
Championship contender Kyle Larson easily won the pole position for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Championship race (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) with a top speed of 137.837 mph in the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – going out next to last among the 39 cars entered.
Larson, the Regular Season Champion and a nine-time race winner, easily out-ran the field. His time was .173-seconds faster than his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, defending series champ Chase Elliott who will start alongside him on the front row.
The other two Championship contending drivers, Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and his JGR teammate, Martin Truex Jr. will start sixth and 12th, respectively.
“A great start to the weekend," Larson said, downplaying the pole position a bit. “I don’t know if it’s a championship-winning moment, but either way, it’s great to get off to a good start."
Elliott, who is the defending race winner, said he remained encouraged about his chances and the front row start, a good sign.
“I feel like we were okay, I definitely feel like we need to be better though for tomorrow," Elliott said. “We kind of chased some things through practice, kind of wound up back in a familiar place I feel like for the race, kind of where we’ve been in the past.
“We’re going to live with that. We’ll see where it takes us."