What a week for John Hunter Nemechek.
On Wednesday (Sept. 6), he confirmed the rumors that he’ll move up to the Cup Series next season, driving the No. 42 for Legacy Motor Club.
On Saturday (Sept. 9), he absolutely waxed the field and won the Kansas Lottery 300. Nobody in the field had anything for Nemechek, but he absolutely stunk up the show after a few of the somewhat-contenders were caught up in on-track incidents.
In the end, Nemechek led a whopping 154 of 200 laps, winning by well over 7 seconds. Despite a hectic race with 10 caution flags, Nemechek’s dominance left only 11 cars finishing on the lead lap. Justin Allgaier and Sammy Smith seemed like they were at least in the same arena as Allgaier, but both drivers were badly wounded in a lap 98 wreck. From there, it was the Nemechek show.
The much-anticipated playoff battle between Parker Kligerman and Riley Herbst fizzled out after an incident involving both drivers. Kligerman struggled on a restart, leading Herbst to run into his left-rear. Herbst suffered more damage and it led to his undoing, Kligerman easily bestingHerbst in points to become the final driver to lock into the playoff field.
Behind Nemechek it was Brandon Jones, finishing second and coming up one spot short on his Hail Mary attempt to make the playoffs. Sheldon Creed finished third, followed by Kligerman and Austin Hill to round out the top five. Josh Berry, Brett Moffitt, Derek Kraus, Joe Graf Jr., and Kaz Grala completed the top 10.
By finishing fifth, Hill locked up the regular season points title. Nemechek finished in second, five points behind Hill. With playoff points factored in it will be Nemechek starting first on the playoff grid, with a 10-point advantage on Hill. Behind Hill is Allgaier, 23 back of Nemechek. Rounding out the top five on the playoff grid are Cole Custer and Sam Mayer, 32 and 34 points back, respectively.
Nemechek scored his series-leading sixth win of the season. This was a statement win for the entire No. 20 team, that statement being ‘we’re the best team here with the most speed and can win on any track. Good luck keeping up with us.’
Hill can celebrate the regular-season championship, for whatever it’s worth. He is a worthy Robin to Nemechek’s Batman on the season. Hill hasn’t quite had the speed of Nemechek this year, but his race-craft has been so good all season, and if he can keep it going, he will stick with Nemechek all the way to Phoenix.
Creed’s third-place finish continued his hot streak. The 25-year-old has now finished in the top 10 in five consecutive races. If NASCAR had podiums, Creed would’ve been on them in three of the last four races.
This finish wasn’t without controversy, though. On lap 19, Creed ricocheted off the wall into Mayer, ultimately ending the day of the JR Motorsports driver from Wisconsin. Creed and Mayer are both in the midpack of the playoff grid, and we’ll have to see if there’s any retribution coming.
Ironically, the only stumble in an otherwise rock-solid day by Kligerman, was the event that knocked his chief rival out of contention. On a lap 65 restart, Kligerman appeared to have trouble getting his car into gear on acceleration. Herbst attempted to dive below Kligerman to take advantage, but the two made contact and Herbst had enough right-front damage to set him two laps down and ultimately, into the race for 13th in the standings. Kligerman’s team reportedly brought a brand-new car, and it had great speed.
Kligerman and Big Machine Racing will try to advance through their first playoffs in team and driver history. If they can replicate the speed they had today, they could be a factor to turn the field on its head and make a deep run.
Moffitt’s seventh-place finish was another good effort for he and his AM Racing team. They, like so many others, needed to win the race to make it into the playoffs. They fell short, but the overall speed and effort have to give them some consolation. For a new team, they’ve surprised some people this year. They wound up as the third car on the outside looking in, behind Herbst and Jones.
Kaulig Racing has Daniel Hemric and Chandler Smith safely in the playoffs. But it was their third car that had the best run at Kansas. While both Hemric and Smith dealt with mechanical issues, Wisconsin native Kraus brought home his No. 11 Chevrolet in 8th. Running a limited schedule this year, Kraus has now finished top 10 in three of his five starts.
Herbst’s day was a microcosm of his season. Speed and potential flashed early, but mistakes by driver and team lead to their undoing. Their effort was admirable, at one point getting back on the lead lap and into the top 15 after having been 2 laps down. But their issues would persist, leading to another green-flag pit stop and going back down multiple laps once again.
After the seventh race of the season at Richmond Raceway, Herbst and his team were 2nd in points. Since then? 10 finishes outside the top 20 in the 19 races since Richmond. That is just not going to get it done, folks.
It worth noting that Herbst and his team did finish 11th in points during the regular season. With 12 cars making the playoffs, they should be in, right? Wrong. They are missing out thanks to the win-and-in format. Both Sammy Smith and Jeb Burton finished below Herbst in points, but they did what he couldn’t do: win.
It wasn’t a great day for building playoff momentum for several playoff drivers. Five of them finished outside the top 30 due to incidents or mechanical issues. Kaulig teammates Smith and Hemric finished several laps down in 32nd and 34th, respectively. Sammy Smith came home 35th after the incident with Allgaier.
Custer finished 36th after a fluke incident where a recently-shed tire carcass from Jeremy Clements was sitting in the groove. After Nemechek and Allgaier narrowly missed the tire, Custer hit it and was sent hard into the wall.
Mayer was the lowest-finishing playoff driver, coming home second-to-last, just ahead of Kyle Weatherman.
Fuel For Thought
Is 12 the right number for the Xfinity Series playoffs? Is it too inclusive, too exclusive or just right? With two high-budget Cup Series-affiliated teams missing the playoffs, that conversation may pick up steam now and into the offseason.
The championship is Nemechek’s to lose. I think we can all agree on that. But we’ve seen heavy favorites falter in the playoffs before, including Nemechek himself last season in the Craftsman Truck Series. How about Kevin Harvick in 2020? Harvick won 9 races that year, led the points for most of the season, then failed to make the Championship Four.
Nothing will be guaranteed for the championship favorites. They must avoid overconfidence and complacency. They must continue to execute at the highest level. With guys like Hill and Allgaier right behind them, there is no margin for error.
The round of 12 consists of three races: Bristol Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and the Charlotte ROVAL. After these three races, four drivers will be eliminated. Which four do you expect to be the first to be cut? Let us know in the comments.
My picks are Burton, Smith, Smith and Hemric. Kligerman will carry on the momentum and move on to the next round.
Where to Next?
Where better to begin the playoffs than at the “Last Great Colosseum?” We’re headed to Bristol Motor Speedway for the Food City 300.
It’s a rare Friday night race for the series, so be sure to tune in or set your DVR. The action gets going at 7:30 p.m. ET on Friday, Sept 15. You can watch the race on USA or listen in 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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