The cream eventually rose to the top on Saturday (Sept. 2) at Darlington Raceway.
Denny Hamlin brought home his sixth NASCAR Xfinity Series win at The Track Too Tough to Tame. Hamlin raced with Kyle Larson and Justin Allgaier inside the top five early in the event while John Hunter Nemechek led the way and swept the stages.
Austin Hill made up spots on pit road all day, catapulting him to the lead on several occasions. In the middle of the race, Hill repeatedly restarted first, but he struggled to get going on restarts and couldn’t hold the lead.
In the final stage, Hill finally got away clean on a restart and got out to a modest lead. It became a three-man race between Hamlin, Hill and Nemechek. On the overtime restart, Hamlin snuck away winning by several car lengths, while the points leaders fought hard for second.
The final running order behind Hamlin was Hill in second, Nemechek in third, Cole Custer in fourth and Josh Berry in fifth. Riley Herbst, Allgaier, Sheldon Creed, Kyle Busch and Daniel Hemric rounded out the top 10.
In the always-shifting playoff battle, Parker Kligerman held an advantage over Herbst coming into the event. Kligerman held a lead of 20 points or more throughout most of the event, until Sam Mayer got into him late in the race causing Kligerman to spin and go lose all his track position.
Kligerman clawed back a few positions in the final laps, but he exits Darlington one point behind Herbst. This sets up a battle royale at Kansas Speedway next weekend, where the playoff field will be determined.
Hamlin has cemented his status as one of the greatest drivers of all time at The Lady in Black. His six Xfinity wins combine with four on the Cup side. Those 10 wins draw him even with David Pearson. The driver known as Silver Fox reigns supreme as all 10 of his were Cup Series wins.
Unlike Larson’s win in the spring, there wasn’t much controversy here. Every time Hamlin took the lead, he did so cleanly without contact.
Hill qualified ninth and didn’t appear to have winning speed in the early going. Between his stellar pit crew and a race craft rivaled by few in the series, he found himself competing for another win nobody expected. At this point, though, we really should expect it every week. We can’t ever count this guy out.
Nemechek led an impressive 99 laps. He looked like the car to beat early on, until Hamlin found his rhythm in his only Xfinity start of the year. He raced hard with Hill in overtime for second, but appeared to put one in the karma bank and give up the spot when things got tight. These two drivers are going to give us a heck of a show for this championship.
Custer had a relatively quiet but good day. He collected points in both stages and brought it home behind a trio of cars that seemed to have just a bit more speed than he did. The fourth-place finisher is firmly entrenched as fourth in points.
Berry was dropping like a stone in the first stage while he fought an ill-handling car. Dale Earnhardt Jr. reminded viewers on the USA broadcast that Berry had similar problems in prior races at Darlington, only to end up finishing in the top 10. Low and behold, he called that one. Guess ol’ Junebug knows a thing or two about the driver he helped put on the map.
Perhaps this top-five finish will give Berry some momentum heading into the playoffs. He’ll look to shed his also-ran lame duck status.
Herbst’s sixth-place run was just what the doctor ordered after two straight disastrous showings threatened to knock him out of the playoff hunt. Herbst had a problem-free race and collected points in both stages, Thanks to Kligerman’s misfortune, he has a shot to earn a spot in the playoffs next week. All he has to do is score more points than the No. 48 and pray Brandon Jones or Brett Moffitt don’t catch lightning in a bottle.
Creed did not live up to expectations, but he still comes away a winner. Darlington has been one of his best tracks, but he spent most of the day racing around 15th. In the end, he was able to bring home a top 10. His 56-point buffer assures he will be in the playoffs this year after missing out last season.
Parker Retzlaff had a good showing and finished a respectable 13th. The rookie from Wisconsin stayed out on old tires at one point, inheriting the lead. Granted, the tires only had six green flag laps on them. Still, at Darlington, that’s a recipe for total disaster.
Old tires at Darlington? Check. Mid-pack car? Check. Rookie driver? Check. Retzlaff did well, leading a total of five laps before slowly falling back. He still managed to finish eighth in the stage and did well not to embarrass himself.
Let’s give a call to Rajah Caruth. The Craftsman Truck Series regular finished 16th driving for Alpha Prime Racing, the same team that had one of its cars earn the sad distinction of being the only one who failed to qualify. Caruth’s Truck Series team (GMS Racing) just announced it will close up shop after this season, and the 21-year-old from Washington D.C. does not seem to have anything lined up yet for next season. This solid run for a struggling team can only help his prospects for future opportunities.
Kligerman was the biggest loser this week. His semi-comfortable points lead coming in evaporated thanks to Mayer’s fading brakes and front bumper. Kligerman’s late race rally from 32nd to 24th gave us what we all want, a one-point playoff buffer for Herbst going into the final race of the regular season. Get the popcorn ready.
Mayer had a brutal race. The two-time winner qualified sixth, but had to start from the rear due to unapproved adjustments. He quickly drove through the field into the top 15, but then had to make an extra pit stop so the crew could work on his radio. For much of the race, Mayer and his team had no radio communication.
After passing over half the field for a second time, he had his run-in with Kligerman. This won’t do much for the karma bank heading into the playoffs. Fortunately, Mayer won’t have to deal with Ty Gibbs in the playoff races. Kligerman now joins Hill in the Sam Mayer-Hater club.
After the race, Mayer said his brakes were fading but still took ownership of the mistake. He sounded genuine and remorseful to me, but will his competitors care?
Anthony Alfredo was running well inside the top 20 when he made contact with Mayer and got into the wall. He was able to continue, but his wounded car could do no better than 33rd on the day. He finished eighth at Daytona, but was not able to put together a second consecutive good run for his BJ McLeod Motorsports team.
Larson finished third in both stages and looked like he’d compete for the win. Fuel pickup issues led to a lot of time off track, ultimately leading to the spring winner finishing dead last.
Schemes of the Week
Alpha Prime Racing sweeps the Scheme of the Week category for Darlington. The spring race was deemed to be the throwback race, so we didn’t get many throwback schemes this week. Alpha Prime took it upon themselves to carry the throwback banner. Their team numbers just so happened to match up with the old Petty Enterprises numbers, and they leaned into that.
Some throwback schemes are sad ‘feaux-backs’ that only slightly resemble the schemes they are trying to honor. Not so here. The number fonts were on point, the color layouts were dead on. The sponsor fonts were a direct match. This team has nailed the schemes all season and this was a great way to honor one of the greatest teams in NASCAR history.
Fuel for Thought
While the Cup Series and Truck Series are both into their playoffs already, we still have a week to go in the Xfinity Series. Does that seem strange? What are the pros and cons of having the Xfinity Series playoffs start later?
What do you expect to see at Kansas? Will drivers in key battles choose caution or violence? Hill looks to wrap up a regular season championship. He’ll have to hold off Nemechek and Allgaier, who are both within range should opportunity knock. Hill’s lead is 23 on Nemechek and 33 on Allgaier.
Meanwhile, Herbst and Kligerman figure to command a lot of attention as they battle for the last playoff entry. Herbst’s one-point buffer will be in focus all week. It goes to show how close these two have been throughout the season. They race around each other most weeks, and this one will come down to execution.
Who’s your pick to make it in? Are you going with the loveable journeyman who resurrected his career, or the Las Vegas native who was second in points earlier this season?
Where to Next?
We’re headed to Kansas Speedway for the Kansas Lottery 300. The last race in the regular season takes the green flag at 3 p.m. ET on Saturday, Sept. 9.
Last season in this race, Noah Gragson won with JR Motorsports teammate Allgaier finishing second. Gragson’s car is now driven by Jones, who needs a win to sneak into the playoffs. All the attention will be on Hill, Nemechek, Herbst and Kligerman. Can Jones crash the party and defend the win for his team?
Follow the action on NBC and streaming on Peacock, or listen in on 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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