The Explore the Pocono Mountains 225 (July 22) came in like a lamb and went out like a lion. The first two stages were fairly uneventful, with polesitter Josh Berry winning both.
Stage three started with a bang. Varying pit strategy at the end of the second stage led to worn tires out front. The ensuing restart saw a big stack up that resulted in John Hunter Nemechek and Cole Custer sustaining significant damage.
Patented Pocono Raceway pit strategy came next. Lap after lap, drivers and teams pitted for fuel to make it to the end of the 90-lap race. A few topped off late during the final stage break and attempted to go the distance without a stage three pit stop.
With 11 laps to go, Justin Allgaier punted Joey Gase, who spun and brought out the caution. Allgaier took responsibility for the wreck, but it was a case of very rapid closing speed with a leader and a lapped car. This presumably rained on the parade of those cars trying to stay out and win on fuel mileage.
On the next restart, Berry got out in front of Hill and looked ready to run to an easy victory. With 4 laps to go another caution came out, this time for Connor Mosack.
Heading into what would be the final restart, Berry had the lead and a huge tire advantage, not to mention the potential that the others could still run out of fuel as the race had crept into overtime.
Going into turn one, Hill got a great restart and was glued to Berry’s rear bumper. Berry then overdrove the corner and got loose, went up the track and fell back to third. With a superior car and fresher tires, Berry caught Hill in turn one on the final lap. The two drivers made contact and Hill drew ahead with Sam Mayer in tow.
Berry had lost momentum and veered up the track to side-draft Mayer, but made contact with his teammate and cut his own right front tire. The tire didn’t survive the tunnel turn. Berry smacked the wall, and Hill cruised to victory.
Mayer finished second, equaling his career-best finish. Chase Elliott finished third in a rare Xfinity appearance, followed by Riley Herbst and Daniel Hemric rounding out the top five. The rest of the top 10 were Sammy Smith, Brandon Jones, Brett Moffitt, Parker Kligerman, and Daniel Suarez.
Hill scored his fourth win of the season. He has proven himself capable of winning races without the best car. He did it at Las Vegas Motor Speedway earlier this year, and this win at Pocono has to be one of the most impressive of his career. He was very low on fuel and had over 40 laps on his tires.
When it mattered, he bested the clear-cut best car in the field. He bested a driver who has been praised all season as a top talent. He bested a driver who has already been named to replace an outgoing NASCAR Cup Series champion.
Two weeks ago at Atlanta Motor Speedway it was Nemechek winning a race he had no business winning. At Pocono it was Hill. These drivers have each won four races on the season, and we are set up for a great battle for this championship.
After the race, Kaulig Racing president Chris Rice was spotted fist bumping Hill. With this week’s announcement of Kaulig driver Justin Haley moving to Rick Ware Racing next season, I’m sure this will do nothing to fuel speculation that Hill could be Haley’s replacement in the Kaulig Racing No. 31 Cup car.
Mayer’s second place finish was also pretty impressive. He was on the same strategy as Hill. Both drivers ended up executing their strategy to the maximum, saving enough fuel to get to the end even with overtime, and holding off the fresh rubber behind them on those late restarts.
This may be the one that got away from Herbst. He was still able to finish with a respectable fourth, and in doing so increased his point lead to 26 over Kligerman for the final playoff position. Had the race gone green the rest of the way, Herbst had a real shot to win. Thanks to the strategy, he would’ve been in the mix. After the race, he said he thought he would’ve won had the race gone green.
Eighth, seventh, second, fourth, fifth. Those are the last five finishes for Hemric. After qualifying second he slowly faded back throughout the race, but was able to survive and claw back for another top five. Hemric is seventh in the standings, 86 points above the cut line. The 2021 Xfinity champion was 11th after Sonoma, just six races ago. Now, he’s approaching playoff lock territory.
For a driver with an unknown status for 2024, this good run of late can only help.
Moffitt and Kligerman had solid runs, both finishing inside the top 10. As they both sit on the wrong side of the playoff bubble, they actually lost ground to the cut line due to the strong finish from Herbst. Kligerman and Moffit are 26 and 49 points behind Herbst for the final playoff spot.
I’ve been hard on Jones this season, but he showed some signs of life. He collected points in both stages, led some laps, and brought home a solid seventh. Let’s see if he can start to build anything off of this good run.
This was a berry bad look for Berry. He had a dominant car. Won the pole. Led 51 laps. Led the field to green on the final restart with older tires and fuel tanks on fumes all around him. If this wasn’t a ‘choke’, what is?
Hill didn’t wreck him. He just out-drove him. With older tires and a weaker car. Unless we’re at Martinsville, how can anyone say Berry is a more talented driver than Hill? Yet Berry gets all the hype and is taking over for Kevin Harvick next season.
Listen, I respect and appreciate the path Berry has taken to get where he is. He is a very good driver, seems like a nice guy, and its great that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has helped highlight his talents. But the guy is winless this season driving for one of the best teams, while Hill has four wins. Allgaier is a driver who had to step back to the Xfinity Series and hasn’t made it back to cup, yet he is outperforming Berry.
Hemric gets a lot of grief for not winning, but both are winless and Hemric only trails Berry by 24 points. Mayer only trails by 32. With the current struggles of Stewart-Haas Racing in the Cup Series, I would not be surprised to see Berry finish below 20th in points next year, even if Rodney Childers stays on.
Mosack had an impressive qualifying effort, starting fourth. He hung around the top 10 most of the day, until the wreck with four laps to go that caused overtime. He was left with little to show for his effort, finishing 35th.
Two weeks ago, I dug up the old footage of Custer and Nemechek fighting in Canada. These guys just have a way of finding each other. Both are sure to be factors for the title this year, but today was not their day. Their lap 46 wreck severely wounded both cars. Nemechek finished 32nd, Custer 33rd. Nemechek did somewhat salvage the day with top five finishes in both stages.
Scheme of the Week
By the end of the race this car was beaten, battered, and missing a rear bumper cover. Even in that condition, it was scheme of the week. The Reese’s colors bring back memories of Clint Bowyer during his Xfinity days. But it wasn’t just Reese’s that piqued our appetite, it was Reese’s ice cream.
There were moments where Allgaier looked primed for a win or runner-up finish, but it wasn’t in the peanut butter cup OR the ice cream bucket today. The No. 7 car led 8 laps but finished 23rd.
Fuel for Thought
We are now down to just seven races remaining before the playoffs get started. Nemechek and Hill each have four wins. Custer has two. Allgaier, Chandler Smith, Sammy Smith, and Jeb Burton each have one. Then you have Berry, Hemric, and Creed all winless but among the top 10 in points.
With all due respect to Burton, he isn’t going to be a factor in the playoffs. How many drivers could feasibly compete for a championship four berth? Right now it appears Nemechek and Hill are nearly locks. Custer, Allgaier, Chandler Smith, and Berry appear to be the other four drivers who could factor into that mix. Who are your picks?
Where to Next?
We’re headed to the Badger State. Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., hosts the Xfinity Series as its stand-alone NASCAR event this year. The Henry 180 gets going on Saturday, July 29 at 3:00 p.m. ET on NBC along with the Motor Racing Network.
Last year it was Ty Gibbs taking the victory after a showdown with Kyle Larson. With the Cup Series over 900 miles away at Richmond Raceway, this figures to be a battle of the Xfinity Series stars with little to no Cup Series spoilers.
Your humble author will be reporting from the track. My pick to win is Creed but look out for Jeremy Clements as a sleeper. Clements won at Road America back in 2017 and finished ninth last year.
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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