Race Weekend Central

Xfinity Breakdown: John Hunter Nemechek Comes Through in the Clutch at Atlanta

Austin Hill led one lap all night. No, it wasn’t the last lap. Hill entered the evening as the favorite after winning the last two Xfinity Series races at Atlanta Motor Speedway, dominating both. In the race before those two, he finished second. But Saturday night (July 8), the dice just didn’t roll his way.

John Hunter Nemechek, meanwhile, ran inside the top 10 most of the night but never appeared to be a threat to win. His car looked out of control and too loose to be fast. He had trouble pushing the cars in front of him and looked to be trying just to salvage a good points night.

Enter overtime.

Hill spun with two laps to go after an almost-contact air disturbance from Parker Kligerman as the intensity ramped up near the scheduled end. The ensuing caution set up an overtime finish where worn tires and near-empty fuel tanks were pushed to their limit.

After Richard Childress Racing teammate Sheldon Creed was wrecked in the big one on lap 89, Hill was a lone wolf. Other drivers elected to work against him instead of with him, knowing that if he got the lead, he may have been unbeatable.

Kaulig Racing had filled the power vacuum created by the field’s unwillingness to work with Hill and the fact that both RCR cars had to start from the rear due to transmission issues diagnosed in qualifying.

On the final restart, Kaulig had the field right where they wanted it. Justin Haley had the lead on the outside with teammate Chandler Smith behind him and Daniel Hemric inside of row two, behind Nemechek. Smith ran out of gas, leaving Haley without help. Nemechek zoomed away with Hemric as his only threat. Haley eventually gathered himself up but, instead of helping Hemric in patented Kaulig fashion, ducked to the inside, assuring the win for Nemechek.

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Late Caution Unravels Kaulig Racing's Hopes of Atlanta Sweep

Hemric brought it home in second, followed by Cole Custer in third. Haley settled for fourth. Sam Mayer was involved in ‘the big one’ but managed an impressive fifth-place finish.

Ty Gibbs, Kyle Sieg, Kligerman, Josh Williams, and Sammy Smith rounded out the top 10.

Winners

Nemechek’s comeback arc continues. After running Cup in 2020 for Front Row Motorsports with just three top 10s and a 27th place points finish, the son of front row Joe stepped down to the Craftsman Truck Series to reiterate his talent to everyone paying attention. He won a total of seven races in two seasons and secured the full-time Xfinity ride with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Now, he has three Xfinity wins and sits as the points leader. He has to be the odds-on favorite to win the championship. With Martin Truex Jr. waffling on retirement and Denny Hamlin not getting any younger, nights like tonight help Nemechek make his case to graduate to the Cup Series again for JGR.

Hemric hasn’t lit the world on fire this season. He’s underwhelmed since winning the Xfinity title in 2021, going winless since that one and only win in Phoenix to enter the history books. For as disappointing of a season as he may have had so far, he is still in pretty good shape. The Kannapolis, N.C. native has now scored three consecutive top-10s. He is warming up at the right time.

Speaking of warming up, Custer is on fire. This quiet third-place finish was his 11th straight top 10! With several Cup Series races recently announced for this season, could we see Custer put together a comeback arc similar to that of Nemechek?

Six years ago, those two drivers fought after a crazy Truck Series finish in Canada. Who would’ve projected back then that after all these years, they’d be battling for an Xfinity Series title and fighting to get back into the Cup Series for their second stint?

Sieg qualified 34th. After all the dust had settled, he brought it home seventh. He spoke to Frontstretch after the race to talk about his career-best finish.

Losers

After winning the ARCA season opener at Daytona International Speedway, Greg Van Alst slowly fell out of love with that series. This weekend he debuted in the Xfinity Series, driving for Alpha Prime Racing. The 42-year-old from Anderson, Ind., spun in qualifying and started shotgun on the field.

Early in the race, Van Alst lost the draft and went a lap down. He then got a ‘Lucky Dog’ on a caution and returned to contention. He continued to ride near the back of the pack until lap 63, when his car snapped loose, leading to hard contact with the turn-four wall. Van Alst finished dead last in 38th.

Riley Herbst had a tire going down on lap 89 and trigged ‘the big one’ while trying to control his squirrely car. Once as high as second in points, his downward spiral has been epic. Briefly considered a championship contender; lately, he’s reverted to his previous form. I’m trying to think of a nickname for it. Terrible Herbst. That’s it.

He finished second at Nashville Superspeedway and defiantly said the finish was “earned, not given.” This was a perceived dig at his team owner Tony Stewart who had commented about not wanting to hire any kid with a rich father to replace Kevin Harvick in the No. 4 Cup Series entry. Since Nashville? A 24th at Chicago and a 35th at Atlanta. Terrible Herbst came in on the cutline and exits the weekend with an even smaller margin, just six points ahead of Kligerman for the final spot.

While little brother Kyle had an impressive finish, big brother Ryan Sieg went home disappointed. The elder Sieg was a force to be reckoned with. He ran up front early and led twice for a total of 15 laps. He looked like a top-five car who would compete for the win. Pit strategy got him back in the field and collected in the Herbst-induced big one. This was one of his last best chances to get into the playoffs and the win column. Instead, he finished 37th.

I am beginning to sound like a broken record with Brandon Jones. The JR Motorsports driver was collected in the big one and is now 15th in the standings. He is in must-win territory, and if he wins, I will do the Lake Michigan Polar Bear challenge. It ain’t happening, folks! You have to start to wonder, at what point does the lack of results become more than the sponsorship is worth?

Scheme of the Week

There is just something about the way black and neon green go together, especially at a night race. Add the black and green walls at AMS courtesy of Quaker State, and you had one good-lookin’ hot rod with the backdrop to match. Chandler Smith ran up front all night in this ride, but on the final restart, he ran out of fuel and coasted to the end, finishing one lap down in 20th.

Fuel for Thought

When Atlanta was reconfigured, the reception was divided, at best. We loved the old Atlanta. The severely worn-out track where tire fall off was at an absolute maximum. What we saw tonight in the Alsco Uniforms 250 approached being worthy of replacing our old worn-out friend. The track is a hybrid of Charlotte Motor Speedway and Daytona International Speedway. We saw pack racing, but we also saw handling matters in a big way.

Now, if anyone at NASCAR is reading this, I am not suggesting we create six more tracks just like Atlanta. But maybe this new configuration will carve out its place on the schedule as a worthy stop. This race was something distinctly between what we usually see at Daytona and Charlotte, and the result was great racing.

We saw multi-lap duels for the lead. We saw mid-tier teams mixing it up in front. We had Kyle Sieg finish seventh, and Williams finishing ninth. We had the big one. Still, we had intermediate elements too. The field was more spread out than ever at Daytona or Talladega Superspeedway.

Are you coming around to the new Atlanta?

Where to Next?

The circuit is headed north to the ‘Magic Mile’ in Loudon, N.H. The last time the Xfinity Series was at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Justin Allgaier led 47 laps en route to victory. Trevor Bayne, Brandon Brown, and Jeremy Clements finished second through fourth, which goes to show you never know who might mix it up out front with the leaders at this flat 1.058 mile oval.

The Ambetter Health 200 gets started at 3:00 p.m. ET on Saturday, July 15. Follow the action on USA Network, or listen on the Performance 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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