AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — John Hunter Nemechek went down so he could climb back up.
The second-generation NASCAR driver is headed back to the Cup Series next year after working his way up from the Truck Series. With a win Saturday at Phoenix Raceway, Nemechek would add another Xfinity Series championship to the family trophy case.
“I’m glad that we’re here,” Nemechek said on Thursday. “I wish that the season wasn’t over yet, just because the season that we’ve had.”
The Xfinity season championship will come down to a final four of Nemechek, Justin Allgaier, Cole Custer and Sam Mayer at Phoenix's dogleg oval mile.
Nemechek, son of former Xfinity Series champion Joe Nemechek, had an ill-fated Cup Series debut for Front Row Motorsports in 2020 after working his way up the ladder systems. Though theoretically ready for the promotion, he was handcuffed in a Cup car during NASCAR's COVID-19 “bubble” season, his only seat time coming during races because there was no practice or qualifying.
Wanting to prove himself again, Nemechek went all the way down to the Truck Series, where he had last run a full season four years earlier. The 26-year-old had a successful two-year Trucks run for Kyle Busch Motorsports, winning seven times to earn a spot in Toyota's development program and a promotion to a full-time Xfinity Series ride with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Nemechek made the most of his re-rise, earning a seat in a Cup car for Joe Gibbs Racing next season. He won seven times this season and can give JGR its third straight Xfinity Series title — in the car Ty Gibbs won with last year.
A win also would give the Nemecheks another Xfinity championship with the title Joe won in 1992.
“It would be nice to add another trophy to the case,” Nemechek said.
Allgaier is seeking his first Xfinity title after several close finishes.
The 36-year-old driver has bounced between the Cup, Xfinity and Trucks through a NASCAR career that started in 2005. He's in his sixth Xfinity Series championship round with a high finish of second in 2020.
Allgaier won four times this season, earning a spot in the championship round by beating Sheldon Creed in a door-to-door finish to win at Martinsville last week. Allgaier has been good at Phoenix Raceway through the years, winning twice with nine top-five finishes in 26 starts.
“The sport has a great way of humbling you, but it’s also got a great way of building you up,” Allgaier said. “I think how you manage that is truly, truly what makes this sport special.”
Custer is also looking for a breakthrough after finishing second in 2018 and 2019.
The 25-year-old had a Cup ride for Stewart-Haas Racing last season before being demoted this year. Custer won twice this season on the Xfinity Series, but not since the Chicago Street Race in July. He had three top-five finishes in the playoffs and finished the race at Martinsville on fire while going backward after being collected in a crash in overtime.
“It’s been an extremely proud year for me because I think we’ve built something,” Custer said. “I think we started the year off and we weren’t exactly where we wanted to be, but we were a young team and I think we were able to really build it through the year.”
The 20-year-old Mayer has had a quick rise in NASCAR, starting with the Trucks Series in 2019. He crashed in the first two Xfinity playoff races this year before winning Charlotte and Homestead to make the playoffs for the second straight year.
“There’s nothing different about Saturday’s race than the 32 other races of the year,” Mayer said. “If anything, I’m racing less cars. I’m only racing three, so at the end of the day, obviously I have to beat those three to be champion.”
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