John Hunter Nemechek took home the checkered flag in the final race at Auto Club Speedway as we know it. Nemechek was one of a handful of cars that appeared to have winning speed, but aside from one slow pit stop, he and the No. 20 team made the fewest mistakes, running a clean race Sunday (Feb. 26) and emerging victorious. Sam Mayer scored a runner-up finish, followed by Justin Allgaier, Chandler Smith and Josh Berry to round out the top five in the second NASCAR Xfinity Series event of the season.
The Production Alliance Group 300 was initially scheduled to run on Saturday afternoon; the cars took the track for pace laps before an onslaught of rain postponed the race to Sunday evening. It seemed fitting for a great race to finish under the lights, after the sun set on a track that has been a favorite of fans and drivers alike for two decades. The five-lane, 2-mile oval is set to undergo reconfiguration following this race and the track will not be part of the schedule for any NASCAR series in 2024.
Nemechek has now scored finishes of second and first to start the season. After stepping down from the Cup Series to the Craftsman Truck Series two years ago, Nemechek scored seven wins in two seasons to parlay that success into a full-time ride in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota in NXS. So far, he should be thrilled with the results and is becoming one of the early favorites to earn the NXS championship this season.
His biggest rival? That could be Allgaier, the JR Motorsports veteran collecting finishes of third and third to start the season. At times, Allgaier showed great speed at Auto Club, but he got off sequence early and had to pit under green due to a vibration. That would cost him a lap, but eventually, Allgaier earned that lap back and charged back to salvage a top-five result.
JRM had another race that must have been stressful for team owners Kelley Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Coincidentally, three JRM drivers had issues with JRM alum Tyler Reddick from the very first lap, when Mayer made contact with him. Mayer would continue, but the contact initially appeared significant enough to cause lasting problems, leaving the No. 1 car trapped in traffic and battling at the rear of the field in stage one.
Brandon Jones was next up, going two laps down due to a battery change early in the race. He got back onto the lead lap only to make contact with Reddick on lap 86, causing him to spin and sustain significant damage to the front end after clipping the rain-soaked grass.
Then, there was Berry, involved in at least three separate on-track incidents. The most serious involved Sheldon Creed, who threw a late block on Berry which led to contact and a spin by Creed. Berry later got into the wall by himself, also making significant contact with Reddick.
Despite all of these JRM incidents, all but Jones would rebound, with Mayer coming home second, Allgaier third and Berry fifth.
Brett Moffitt brought his No. 25 AM Racing entry home inside the top 10. He showed solid speed throughout the race and finished about where he was running all night. AM Racing is new to the Xfinity Series and they’ve shown speed in the first two weeks. They got caught up in a crash at Daytona International Speedway but tonight, they got the finish they deserved.
Cole Custer came into this race as the defending winner, having driven Bobby Dotter’s No. 07 car to victory last season in this race. He seemed to be on his way to a repeat in the No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing entry, winning the first two stages and building sizable leads during green flag runs.
But after dominating early, Custer found himself back in the pack following a poor restart. Then, with 60 laps to go, a flat tire caused him to pancake the wall going into turn 1 on another restart. Custer was able to continue but his car was badly wounded, leaving the dominant driver of the night limping home 27th.
It was an up-and-down day for Creed. Early on in the race, he threw a late block on Berry that sent him careening toward the inside retaining wall at high speed. Just before what seemed like an inevitable, high-speed, head-on collision, he was able to spin the car around and mash the gas, causing only minimal rear-end damage.
Creed would rebound all the way up to the lead after that save. But the ordeal left him on the wrong side of a limited Xfinity Series tire allotment, and when a late caution came out, Creed was unable to get fresh rubber.
Stuck on old Goodyears, the abrasive Auto Club Speedway surface did not help him out. Creed would sink back to a 23rd-place finish after finishing 34th last week. Creed needed a herculean effort to come back from a huge hole last season, ultimately falling short of the playoffs, and will need to right the ship quickly to avoid a repeat this year.
Cup Series ringers did not fare well in this race. Austin Dillon led the charge with an eighth-place finish and was fortunate to do so with substantial right-front damage after getting collected in Custer’s wreck. Ross Chastain had an uncharacteristically quiet night, finishing 24th, while Reddick found himself in multiple incidents and finished 36th.
Fuel for Thought
We are still early in the season. Way too early to make wild predictions, right? Well, based on what we’ve seen now on two different types of tracks, it appears we have a quartet of favorites to reach championship weekend.
Allgaier is no stranger to the NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship 4, and he has started the season with back-to-back third-place finishes. Nemechek is picking up where Ty Gibbs left off, finishing second and first to start the year with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Austin Hill of Richard Childress Racing has a season-opening win at Daytona, following up with another top-10 finish this week. And Custer hasn’t had a good finish yet but his speed, experience and the fact that he drives for Stewart-Haas Racing makes him a good bet to compete for wins on a weekly basis. Those are the four to me who have an early edge.
Of course, there are others who will be in play to crash this party in another year where the playoff field should be stacked from top to bottom. How about Berry? Creed? Sammy Smith? What about Kaulig? Can Chandler Smith or Daniel Hemric replicate the success AJ Allmendinger had driving for them last season? Can Jones bounce back from this slow start and bring the No. 9 car back to its former glory?
Where to Next?
We’re headed to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the Alsco Uniforms 300. The green flag drops on Saturday, March 4 at 4:30 p.m. ET, and as usual can be found airing on FOX Sports 1 along with the Performance Racing Network.
Gibbs won this Las Vegas race last season while Berry won the most recent event held here last fall.
About the author
Steve Leffew joined Frontstretch in 2023, and covers the Xfinity Series. He resides in Wisconsin and has been a NASCAR fan as long as he can remember. He has served honorably in the United States Air Force and works during the week as a Real Estate Lender.
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