Dale Jr. set for lone Xfinity Series start at Richmond as playoffs loom for series regulars

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Dale Jr. set for lone Xfinity Series start at Richmond as playoffs loom for series regulars
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Only two races remain to set the 12-driver NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoff grid and the Regular Season Championship remains very much up for grabs with only a single point separating five-race winner Austin Cindric and three-race winner A.J. Allmendinger.

That means there‘s certainly a lot on the line in Saturday‘s Go Bowling 250 (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at the 0.75-mile Richmond (Va.) Raceway — the Xfinity Series‘ first trip to the track this season.

And to top it all off, one of the sport‘s most popular drivers — ever — NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr. returns to the track for his annual one-race competition. With four wins in eight NASCAR Xfinity Series starts at Richmond, Earnhardt leaves the NBC television booth Saturday afternoon and climbs into his JR Motorsports team‘s No. 8 “United for America” Chevrolet an absolute favorite to win.

RELATED: Richmond schedule | Lineup for Xfinity race | Paint schemes for Richmond

His teammate, JR Motorsports driver Justin Allgaier, a two-time winner in 2021, swept both events at Richmond last year and is the only full-time series driver with a previous win at the track. He‘s finished fourth or better in the last four Richmond races and his 494 laps led is second only to Earnhardt‘s 829 laps led.

The competitive level for Saturday‘s race will be extremely high with Team Penske‘s Austin Cindric and Kaulig Racing‘s AJ Allmendinger involved in a tight regular-season title fight. Cindric‘s third-place effort at Darlington, S.C. last weekend along with Allmendinger‘s 20th-place showing has certainly tightened the standings and increased the competitive drama for these final two regular-season races.

“It‘s gonna be a fun two weeks,” Cindric promised with a smile.

Although he has yet to win at Richmond, Cindric has been very good at the track scoring five top-10 finishes in six starts. He was runner-up in both 2019 races and led 64 laps in the spring Richmond race last year, finishing fourth. Allmendinger, on the other hand, has only one Xfinity Series start — a 14th-place finish back in 2007. The veteran competed in 23 NASCAR Cup Series races at the track with only three top-10 finishes — his best showing a sixth place in 2014.

As productive as Allmendinger has been this year, it‘s easy to forget he‘s only had 51 total Xfinity Series starts in his career and that this is his first full season in Xfinity.

Conversely, the 12th and final Playoff position is also still very much up for grabs — via a new race winner who would automatically transfer in or simply the points battle between Riley Herbst and Michael Annett.

The JR Motorsports driver Annett held that Playoff position before a leg injury forced him to miss four of the previous six races. Meanwhile, Herbst, who drives the No. 98 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, has earned four top-10 finishes in the last six races. Herbst has two top-10 finishes in three Richmond starts. Similarly, Annett has scored top-10 finishes in the last three Richmond races.

The latest driver to lock himself into the postseason is Noah Gragson. Gragson, 23, earned his first NASCAR Xfinity Series victory of 2021 this past weekend at Darlington, S.C. and has top-10 finishes in four of his five Richmond starts, including a runner-up showing in 2018.

Gragson, as with the rest of the field, can count on a legitimate threat from his boss Earnhardt, who has been a master at Richmond. In eight Xfinity Series starts, he has four wins and seven top-10 finishes. He won three consecutive starts in three decades – 1999, 2002 and 2016 — four of five starts including a 1998 win as well.

And Earnhardt‘s No. 8 carries a special nod to the Sept. 11 race date. The Chevrolet‘s paint scheme will include tributes to the people lost in the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks – with the two World Trade Center Towers, the Pentagon and the Flight 93 Memorial in the design with the phrase, “Never Forget” on the quarter panels.

“It‘s hard to believe it‘s been 20 years since that terrible day,” Earnhardt said. “The spirit of unity and togetherness our country felt on Sept. 11 is just as relevant now as it was then. I‘m honored to be driving this car and championing Unilever‘s United for America program.”