2021 Xfinity Martinsville
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Expect sparks to fly in Xfinity Series elimination race at Martinsville

It’s hard to imagine this season’s NASCAR Xfinity Series becoming more competitive for Saturday night’s Dead On Tools 250 at Martinsville Speedway (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN/NBC Sports App, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), but short-track racing for a shot at the Championship 4 round has all the makings of a highly-dramatic title set-up.

The Xfinity Series has only run at the 0.526-mile Virginia track twice in the last 15 years, with playoff contender Harrison Burton winning last year’s playoff race and Josh Berry taking the trophy earlier this season.

MARTINSVILLE: Weekend schedule | Xfinity Series Playoff picture

The first two playoff races in this round have been won by non-playoff contenders – John Hunter Nemechek at Texas Motor Speedway and Ty Gibbs at Kansas Speedway. And that’s put an interesting spin on the playoff points heading into Martinsville.

Defending series champion Austin Cindric from Team Penske and 2021 regular-season champion AJ Allmendinger from Kaulig Racing are tied in points atop the standings. Veteran Justin Allgaier, who races for JR Motorsports, and Daniel Hemric, who is leading the Joe Gibbs Racing’s charge, hold the final two positions above the Championship 4 elimination line going into the elimination race at Martinsville. However, Allmendinger’s Kaulig teammate, Justin Haley (in fifth), is only seven points behind Hemic (and nine points behind Allgaier).

Noah Gragson, who was collected in an accident last week at Kansas, is ranked sixth, 24 points below the elimination line. The 23-year-old JR Motorsports driver boasts the best average finish (2.5) in the series’ most recent two races at Martinsville. He was runner-up to Berry, his teammate, back in April.

Joe Gibbs Racing driver Brandon Jones is a full 40 points behind his teammate, Hemric, in the final transfer spot to Championship 4 but has four top-10 finishes in five playoff races this season and a pair of top-10 finishes in both of his Martinsville career starts, including a best of fifth this year.

Harrison Burton, the defending race winner and a Joe Gibbs Racing driver, also finds himself in a must-win situation this week after having his day at Kansas cut short in an incident. He answered his 2020 playoff victory at Martinsville with a seventh-place effort this spring and has led a series-best 133 laps in the two races. Burton could use some Martinsville “magic” as he has yet to post a top five in the five playoff races this season and takes the worst average finish among playoff drivers (18.4) into this crucial race.

“We know the situation we are in,” said Burton, driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. “We are coming off a race where we had speed and were in contention to win, and in racing, that’s all you can do. My team and I have the confidence heading into Saturday and I’m looking forward to putting on a good show for all the fans under the lights at Martinsville.”

Three of the four drivers atop the standings – Cindric, Allgaier and Hemric – have scored top 10s in every Martinsville start. Allmendinger has yet to finish inside the top 10 in his two starts at the track but did lead a promising 68 laps in a 26th-place finish in 2020. And it’s worth noting, he finished runner-up twice (2012, 2016) in 21 NASCAR Cup Series races in Martinsville.

Cindric, 23, boasts the best average finish in the playoffs this season (4.2) with a perfect run of top-10 showings in all five playoff races, including runner-up finishes at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval and last week at Kansas. He has led at least 10 laps in the last seven races and was a runner-up at Bristol Motor Speedway in a dramatic side-by-side dash with Allmendinger for the checkered flag to conclude the regular season.

Allgaier, 35, was runner-up to Burton in 2020 and is on a hot streak in the playoffs with top-10 finishes in all five races. In fact, the two-race winner this year has finished inside the top-10 in the last 10 races – going all the way back to August.

Hemric, who is still racing for his first national series win, has come so close this season with three runner-up finishes and five third-place efforts. He has been strong in the playoffs with four top-10 finishes for a 5.8 average finish – just behind Cindric and Allgaier. Hemric finished third this year in his only previous Xfinity Series start at Martinsville.

Among these eight title hopefuls, Allgaier has the most Championship 4 appearances at four. He was runner-up to Cindric last year in Cindric’s first championship-round appearance in three seasons.

Last year’s Championship 4 finishing order was Cindric, Allgaier, Haley and Chase Briscoe (now in the NASCAR Cup Series). Hemric qualified in 2017 (fourth place) and 2018 (third place). Neither Gragson, Jones, Burton or Allmendinger have ever advanced to the Championship 4 Round.

Ty Gibbs, who now has four wins in 17 starts this season is entered again this week for Joe Gibbs Racing.