NASCAR
Bob Pockrass, NASCAR 29d

JR Motorsports juggernaut dominates Xfinity playoff conversation

NASCAR, AutoRacing

JR Motorsports was a favorite to win the Xfinity Series title when the season started. It still is.

In the Camping World Truck Series, defending champ Johnny Sauter and Christopher Bell were expected to shine. They have.

The Xfinity and Truck playoffs start Saturday, with Xfinity at Kentucky Speedway and the Truck series at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Both playoff formats are two three-race rounds before the four-driver, best-finisher-take-all championship at Homestead

JR Motorsports holds the top three spots in the Xfinity standings: Rookie William Byron -- whose three wins are the most of any driver in the playoffs -- holds a two-point lead on Justin Allgaier and a five-point lead on regular-season champion Elliott Sadler.

"It's interesting because when we're good, we're usually good as a company," Allgaier said. "When we're bad, we're usually bad as a company. If we make it to Homestead and we're not on our A-game, we're in trouble.

"On the flip side, if we can use each other as help to be able to make it to the final round, that's going to be big."

Allgaier won at Chicagoland on Saturday thanks to help from his team. His crew chief opted Friday night to use some parts that Sadler had on his car.

"I've been with teams that really try to help each other, and I've been with teams that draw the line in the center of the shop and [say], 'You do things your way and we do things our way,'" Sadler said. "And at the end of the day, nobody wins."

Sadler and Austin Dillon didn't get along during their championship run at Richard Childress Racing, so Sadler knows the difference. Byron, who had Bell as a teammate as they competed for the truck title last year, had a good experience in 2016 with his Kyle Busch Motorsports teammates.

"[Last year] Christopher and I [were in contention] and we were going after it, and we had a lot of good races where both of us were up front," Byron said. "I feel like it was very similar to that. You go out there and do the best you can, and when you're around those guys, race them clean and race them with respect."

Given JR Motorsports' alliance with Hendrick Motorsports (Rick Hendrick co-owns JRM), many of the crew chiefs have been working either at Hendrick or JRM for several years. Hendrick has been sending crew chiefs to JRM so they can gain experience.

They all go to lunch together and are in tune with each other, Sadler said.

"The crew chiefs all have a close relationship that goes beyond JR Motorsports, so they work really well together," said team co-owner Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"The drivers have each other's mutual respect. That's why we're so successful."

Only four drivers in the Xfinity playoffs won races this year, and only Allgaier and Byron have multiple wins. Daniel Hemric, Brennan Poole and Cole Custer haven't won this year, but each has earned at least 12 top-10s this year and could challenge the JRM juggernaut (which also includes playoff driver Michael Annett).

"They're definitely the team everybody is looking at, that if you're going to win the championship, that's who you're going to have to beat," Hemric said. "I personally feel like Elliott Sadler is the guy over there that you are going to compete against. Everybody says he hasn't won a race yet [this year], but the guy has won races; he knows how to win races.

"He was able to feel that defeat of finishing second last year, and in any form of sports, that makes you hungrier."

Hemric said his own recent performance makes him think he can challenge JRM. He isn't alone.

"There's no reason why we can't beat them," Custer said. "We have plenty of speed. I don't think they're going to outspeed us or anything like that. The biggest thing is they set themselves up really good for the playoffs."

The following playoff drivers need to improve their regular-season showing significantly in order to challenge for the title: Jeremy Clements, Blake Koch, Matt Tifft, Brendan Gaughan and Annett.

Daniel Suarez, the defending Xfinity Series champion, moved up to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series for the 2017 season. He didn't make the Cup playoffs.

In the Truck series, Bell's four race wins are twice as many as any driver in the playoffs, so he enters with a 15-point lead over Sauter.

"Our tactic as the playoffs start is to go out and win races," Bell said. "Ultimately, if you go out and win races, you are going to make it all the way to Homestead, and that's our No. 1 goal."

Bell made it to Homestead last year and finished third among the four finalists.

"I wouldn't consider us a favorite," Sauter said. "I wouldn't consider [Bell] a favorite. There are too many things that can happen. ... Christopher has had a flawless season so far.

"I don't think last year anybody would have counted us as the championship favorites with the season we had. We just got hot at the right time. So maybe there's somebody lurking in the weeds that nobody is thinking about."

Among those are two-time Truck champion Matt Crafton and Brad Keselowski Racing rookie Chase Briscoe. Underdogs include Kaz Grala, Austin Cindric and Ben Rhodes.

"I don't want to compare it to last year, honestly," Sauter said. "I feel like this is a totally different deal because everybody's experienced the playoffs once.

"We've all got a little bit more experience with it. If we think we're going to do what we did last year, I don't think that is going to be good enough or circumstances aren't going to work out that way. We've just got to work hard."

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