NASCAR‘s Xfinity Series drivers are eager to resume the race schedule on Thursday with the Toyota 200 (Noon ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) from Darlington Raceway — the second major NASCAR race to take place since a two-month long pause in action during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Youth certainly served notice in the early portion of the season with 19-year-old Harrison Burton scoring top-five finishes in the opening four races to date, scoring his first career Xfinity Series victory at Auto Club Speedway in March. The driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota holds a three-point edge atop the standings over Chase Briscoe, who drove the Stewart-Haas Racing No. 98 Ford to victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and has a pair of top-five finishes himself.
Austin Cindric, driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford, is third in the standings — 21 points behind Burton — with a pair of top-five finishes, including a season-best runner-up to Briscoe at Las Vegas. Brandon Jones, the series most recent winner — March 7 at Phoenix Raceway — is fourth in the standings, only 28 points off Burton.
Popular driver Ross Chastain is fifth in the championship with three top-10 finishes in the Kaulig Racing No. 10 and 21-year old Noah Gragson, the JR Motorsports driver who won a dramatic season-opener at Daytona International Speedway, is only 33 points off the standing leader’s pace, sharing sixth place with Ryan Sieg.
The top nine drivers are only separated by 38 points heading to Darlington, where that ninth-place driver, veteran Justin Allgaier holds an enviable track resume. The 33-year-old perennial championship contender has six top-10 finishes in nine starts there, including the last three years. And his 140 laps out front in the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet is the high mark of the 2020 season.
None of these talented drivers has ever won at Darlington before. And in Burton‘s case, he‘ll be making his Darlington debut with absolutely no practice. As with the NASCAR Cup Series, the race lineup was set by a draw. Burton will start 12th, alongside Briscoe. Gragson drew the pole position and will start on the front row alongside his JR Motorsports teammate Michael Annett.
“I had that conversation with my team trying to figure out how we could keep momentum rolling and kind of stay in the swing of things,” Burton said. “And we came to the conclusion we kind of just had to be ourselves and do what we were doing right in the beginning.
“The more we focused on trying to just over-analyze everything and focus on just trying to come back with the same momentum and all this, it would probably be detrimental. We figured if we can start the season good the first time, we can re-start it good the second time. We‘re going to approach it that way.”
Cole Custer, now a rookie in the NASCAR Cup Series, is the most recent Darlington Xfinity Series winner — earning the trophy last Fall over fellow 2020 Cup Series rookie and eventual 2019 Xfinity champion Tyler Reddick. Briscoe‘s sixth-place finish last year was best among those competing this weekend.
“What makes it tough is it‘s just so different from every track we go to,” Briscoe said. “The groove, the surface and the shape are unlike any on the schedule, and it‘s so narrow. You‘ve got to take care of your tires or you aren‘t going to be able to make any moves for position and move around on the racetrack to find speed. Under the lights at Darlington is going to be different, for sure. It‘s easy to make mistakes — we saw that on Sunday — so patience is going to be the most important thing.”
Reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch will roll off 26th on Thursday. He‘s scheduled to race in all seven of NASCAR‘s first races back — three at Darlington (NASCAR Cup Series and Xfinity) and four events at Charlotte Motor Speedway next week (two NASCAR Cup Series races and one each in the Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck series).
He’s a two-time winner (2011 and 2013) in the Xfinity Series at Darlington.