Two rookies. Both named Smith, both in the win column early in the season. It was the slightly younger Sammy Smith who first won three weeks ago (March 11) at Phoenix Raceway. Saturday (April 1) at Richmond Raceway, it was Chandler Smith scoring his first career victory in the ToyotaCare 250.
John Hunter Nemechek finished second after mounting a huge comeback from being a lap down early in the race. Josh Berry looked like the man to beat for much of the final stage, but had to settle for third. Kaz Grala had by far his best finish of the season, fourth. Cole Custer rounded out the top five.
The race was exciting and unpredictable, as five different drivers led at least 20 laps during the 250-lap event. Berry seemed to have the race in hand when a late caution for Jeremy Clements led to pit stops and a few more cautions. On the final restart it was Smith on the outside and Nemechek on the inside, with Berry looking on from row two. Smith held off the field and brought home his first career victory.
Smith earned some sweet redemption with this win. Four weeks ago (March 4) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Smith led 118 laps and was the dominant car. But a long green flag run saw Smith use up his tires and get passed for the lead coming to the white flag. The 20-year-old from Talking Rock, Georgia once again led the most laps, but this time he came away a winner.
Nemechek fought through some adversity and still had a chance to win. Early in the race, he and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Sammy Smith both stayed out under caution while the rest of the field came in for fresh rubber. This led to the JGR duo getting used up and eventually lapped before the end of the stage. Nemechek was in position to get the free pass, Smith spent the rest of the day trying to get his lap back.
Nemechek would march on up the scoring pylon for the rest of the race. With 22 to go he restarted on the outside of the front row and was able to take the lead from Berry. Then on the next caution, he chose the inside lane at the last possible instant. This allowed Smith to get in front of him and the rest is history.
Berry had a great points day, outscoring everyone but Smith. He showed great speed on long runs all day and looked poised to win until the Clements yellow with 34 to go.
Grala has shown speed at times this season but didn’t have a great finish to show for it, until now. The Sam Hunt Racing driver scored points in stage two and brought the No. 26 car home in fourth place. After the race, Grala told Frontstretch, “Really, really fun and solid day … we were pretty good on the short run but we were, in my opinion, the best car out here on the long run.”
Custer has finally done it. It took seven races, but he finally beat his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Riley Herbst. The fifth-place finish was Custer’s first top five of the season and his first top 10 since Daytona International Speedway. This should provide a nice confidence boost for the former Cup Series driver from Ladera Ranch, Calif.
Who had Chris Hacker finishing in the top 15 on their bingo card? Hacker was making his first ever Xfinity start for RSS Racing. The 22-year-old has just 11 Craftsman Truck Series starts and an average finish of 26.5. And today? A clean run and a 14th-place finish. This kind of unexpected result should open more doors for the young driver.
After the race, he told Frontstretch, “It’s pretty awesome, it hasn’t quite hit me yet … next time we’ll go for a top-10.”
Joe Graf Jr. had a dreadful day. While his JGR teammates showed winning speed throughout the race, Graf couldn’t get out of his own way. The No. 19 car scrubbed the wall a few times and spun out on the backstretch. At the end of the day he finished 37th and scored just one championship point.
Josh Williams could not live up to the hype following his highly publicized antics at Atlanta Motor Speedway and his suspension at Circuit of the Americas. Williams spent the day as a non-factor, running mostly between 20th and 30th. Things went from bad to worse for the blue-collar driver, and he finished 33rd.
Justin Allgaier is the happiest of everyone included in this week’s losers section. The veteran finished 13th but still won the $100,000 Xfinity Dash for Cash. Known to do well on flatter tracks, Allgaier never showed winning speed at Richmond. A late race strategy gamble, pitting under green for fresh tires, looked like it might pay off. But after a few laps of making huge gains on the field, the caution flew, and Allgaier had to take a wave-around and hang the rest of the way with the older tires.
Brandon Jones and Riley Herbst combined to lead 51 laps. Both drivers suffered a crushing setback in the closing laps when they got into each other while running in the top five. Jones and Herbst went on to finish 21st and 23rd, respectively. For Jones it was yet another good run gone bad, and he has yet to score a top 10 the season. For Herbst, who came in second in points, his nine-race top-10 streak came to an end.
Scheme of the Week
Fuel for Thought
What big three? While Nemechek was a factor this week, Allgaier and Austin Hill were not. Instead we got a victory from Smith, the most laps led by Berry, and a top five for Custer. It’s only one race, but this one showed the series is really wide open. Even with three early victories, you can’t really say Hill is the favorite for the championship. As of now, there are about ten different drivers who could realistically win the Championship this season. Can things stay this wide open all year long? Will someone like Nemechek or Berry catch fire? Can Jones ever get the No. 9 team back into contention? Which Smith will be the first to win their second race? Only time will tell.
Where to Next?
The Xfinity Series will take the Easter weekend off. Then it’s off to Martinsville Speedway. The shortest of all short tracks on the Xfinity schedule. In last season’s spring race at ‘the paperclip’ Jones went to victory lane. Can the struggling driver get the monkey off his back?
The green flag flies on Saturday, April 15 at 7:30 p.m. ET, and will be aired on FOX Sports 1 and the Motor Racing Network.
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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