FORT WORTH, TX (AP) – All four spots in the NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship round are still up for grabs after non-playoff qualifier John Hunter Nemechek overcame a late Saturday penalty to win at Texas Motor Speedway.
Nemechek won the first of three races in the round of 16, giving the playoff drivers two more semi-final chances, in Kansas and Martinsville, to advance to the championship final in Phoenix.
Daniel Hemric led seven of eight qualifying for the playoffs across the finish line after Nemechek, finishing second in the 117th race of his career without a win. This was Hemric’s 10th place at second place in Xfinity.
“Since we have all of the playoffs, we’re going to keep bringing the same balls,” Hemric said. “That’s all you can do, keep introducing yourself, keep grinding it.”
Noah Gragson was third, followed by Justin Allgaier and Austin Cindric.
AJ Allmendinger, who won last week over The Roval at leading Charlotte, was sixth and kept the points lead on a tough day that included a pitfall incident.
Justin Haley was seventh and Harrison Burton eighth. Brandon Jones, who came last in points in the playoffs, took 10th place.
The order of the Xfinity point ranking has not changed, with Allmendinger’s lead over Cindric dropping from six to four points. Allgaier and Gragson hold the other two places among the top four. Hemric is first below the cut line, two points behind Gragson.
Nemechek was forced to the back of the lead lap in a pit stop with 56 laps remaining when he was penalized for a member of the pit crew having crossed the wall too early.
After the restart, Nemechek returned to the top 10 in under 20 laps and was seventh when the yellow flag came out with 26 laps to go. Most of the qualifiers made it to the pit lane, and Nemechek brought them all back to the track taking two tires while they took four.
Nemechek, the son of former Xfinity Series champion Joe Nemechek, faced Burton, also the son of former Cup Series driver Jeff Burton, on the restart. But Nemechek took the lead with 18 laps to go and escaped for his second career Xfinity victory.
“It reminded me of my truck here in the spring,” said Nemechek, who claimed one of his five Truck Series wins this season in Texas in June. “Just able to run down, able to run, able to move, to slide in traffic. Up, down, in the middle, it didn’t matter and coming back to the field there, I was a man on a mission.
The victory came from the # 54 Toyota that Kyle Busch drove to five Xfinity wins this season, and Ty Gibbs three more. Nemechek, named after an uncle who was killed in a crash at Homestead, is set to compete in the Truck Series for Busch again next year.
The win was a 15th best Xfinity win in Texas for Joe Gibbs Racing.
“The 54s have been quick every week,” said the 24-year-old. “My goal when I arrived was to win. I had to win to prove to myself that I can do it.
The first half of the race on the steeply inclined 1 1/2 mile Texas track saw many starts and stops with eight warnings in the first 100 laps before a long green flag race ended with the exit of CJ McLaughlin. The warning set up the penalty on Nemechek.
Gragson and Allmendinger continued from the opening laps of the last stage after longer pit stops and a second pit road trip after the second stage.
Gragson, who made contact with Allmendinger’s rear bumper at the start of stage two, needed some extra work on the right front as Allmendinger tried to pull away before the left front tire was in place. After stopping to let the crew finish, Allmendinger returned to check all the lug nuts.
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