Instituting the Playoff system in the NASCAR XFINITY Series was meant to be a way to level the playing field for NASCAR’s Triple-A division, a goal furthered when Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series regulars were further limited in the XFINITY Series attempts. However, while that has paved the way to the XFINITY regulars standing up and being noticed, it’s clear that the 2019 title campaign has instead brought three contenders to the forefront: Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer, and Christopher Bell.
While other drivers have managed to find their way to Victory Lane, such as series regulars Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe, it’s the Big Three of Reddick, Custer, and Bell who have been switching the lead in terms of most wins on the season; Bell currently leads with seven wins to Custer’s six and Reddick’s five. While this posits them as the primary contenders for the championship, this also draws parallels to the championship battles of the late 90s, when Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett, and Jeff Gordon were constantly duking it out for NASCAR supremacy.
In 1997, Gordon took home the title with 10 wins in a 32-race season, with Jarrett finishing runner-up in the standings with seven wins, while Martin came home in third with four wins. Gordon again took the title in ’98 with 13 wins, while Martin came home in second with seven wins, while Jarrett finished third in points with three wins. The trio made up for 23 wins in the season’s 33 events. This was diced up a bit in ’99, as the Joe Gibbs Racing Pontiacs of Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart finished second and fourth, respectively, winning eight of the season’s 34 events while season champion Jarrett won four times to Martin’s two (Martin finished third in points). Series win leaders Jeff Burton (6) and Jeff Gordon (7) finished fifth and sixth, respectively.
Granted, that was in the Winston Cup Series. But looking at the NASCAR Busch Series (today’s XFINITY Series) results in the same time period, Randy LaJoie took the ’97 championship with five wins, while Todd Bodine finished second with a single win and Steve Park took third with three wins. But business picked up in ’98 when Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the championship with seven wins to Matt Kenseth’s three and Mike McLaughlin’s two. In ’99 Earnhardt repeated as the champion with six wins to Jeff Green’s three and Kenseth’s four.
To be champion, a driver needs to be consistent. But winning often also plays a big hand in winning a title, and while Reddick, Custer, and Bell have already surpassed their Busch Series counterparts of the 90s, they’re also making the title fight their own due to their constant winning. Bell is undoubtedly the odds-on favorite; with 15 wins in 68 starts since May 2017 he’s been a championship threat ever since he began his first full-time XFINITY Series campaign in February 2018. He won the 2017 Camping World (now Gander Outdoor) Truck Series championship, and in 2016 made it to the championship round at Homestead as a rookie. Bell’s known nothing but title fights, and he could seal the deal in 2019 as he has proven himself versatile on all types of tracks.
However, Custer and Reddick haven’t been far behind Bell, with both having breakout years despite Reddick having won last year’s championship. Both have also proven themselves to be adept at every type of track this season, with both of them looking to and possibly matching Bell’s Playoff performances in the upcoming races. They’re almost evenly matched, and it is difficult to say how each will fare in the upcoming events. Bell’s already crossed off a road course victory on his list, and he may very well prove himself to be adept at the upcoming Roval as he finished fifth there a year ago. But Reddick and Custer also recorded top-10 runs in that same race.
Point being, despite this being a Big Three battle in the XFINITY Series, this is anyone’s fight. Reddick, Custer, and Bell are winning with the same frequency and dominance as Gordon, Jarrett, Martin, Burton, Kenseth, and Earnhardt, but the Playoff campaign is actually magnifying their efforts and truly turning this battle into a Winner-Takes-All event, not unlike the 1992 Winston Cup campaign.
Then again, something to consider regarding the championship round at Homestead there’s always the fourth playoff driver to act as a foil to the Big Three. It was evident in last season’s Cup and XFINITY finale; could it happen again in November with shades of Alan Kulwicki in 1992? No matter what, this XFINITY battle is shaping up to be one for the ages.