Sam Mayer would not be denied. Of the 67 laps in the Drive for the Cure 250 on Saturday (Oct 7), Mayer led 50. Further back in the field, the playoff battle was tight all day. In the end, the final elimination was decided by a few feet coming to the line.
The top-three finishers from last season’s event at the ROVAL weren’t racing in this event. In 2022 it was AJ Allmendinger scoring the win. Ty Gibbs finished second and Noah Gragson came home third. Their departure made for a wide-open race coming into the weekend.
Fast forward to 2023, where Justin Allgaier had four-tenths on Cole Custer, the next-fastest playoff driver, in opening practice. It seemed like it would be Allgaier’s race to lose. But in qualifying, it was Mayer who edged Allgaier for the pole, by a margin of just under four-hundredths of a second.
Throughout the race, different pit strategies and timely cautions could not prevent Mayer from continuously finding himself back in the lead. Meanwhile, back in the pack, it was Sammy Smith, Sheldon Creed, Daniel Hemric and Parker Kligerman duking it out around the cut line.
Mayer came into the race as a must-win following two finishes outside the top 30. By winning the race, he moved the cut line up one position among the rest, and Hemric was the driver eliminated as a result. Hemric had a strong race, finishing second in both stages. Still, he came up just short and was cut along with Kligerman, Josh Berry and Jeb Burton.
Custer was the runner-up, with Berry rebounding from a spin to finish third. Non-playoff drivers Riley Herbst and Kaz Grala completed the top five. Kligerman finished sixth, followed by Hemric. John Hunter Nemechek, Austin Hill and Creed rounded out the top 10.
This was Mayer’s third win of the season, and of his Xfinity Series career. All three wins have come on road courses.
“We love road courses,” Mayer told NBC’s Kim Coon after the race. “I guess I’m AJ Allmendinger 2.0 or something.”
With the points reset going into the next round, Mayer finds himself in fourth, two points above the championship four cut line.
Nemechek didn’t have the greatest race, but he and his team showed the grit they will need if they’re going to win a championship. The No. 20 had to start the race from the rear of the field due to unapproved adjustments. Slowly but surely, Nemechek rose through the field. Partly aided by pit strategy, Nemechek won the second stage. He finished eighth and will leave Charlotte as the points leader with a 37-point cushion to the cut line.
Herbst’s fourth was his best finish since July 22 at Pocono. The driver from Las Vegas still hasn’t announced where he’ll race next year. The two most likely landing spots seem to be a return to Stewart-Haas Racing, or a return to his prior spot, Joe Gibbs Racing. With Sammy Smith announcing his departure for JR Motorsports, Herbst could take his talents (and sponsorship) back to JGR. Scoring a top-five at the ROVAL should bolster his options, if they aren’t already set in stone.
Finishing 10th and collecting points in both stages was just barely enough for Creed. He edged Hemric by just two points. This is a heck of an improvement for the driver who missed the playoffs last year. After the race, Frontstretch caught up with Creed, who has repeatedly commented about his hopes to win at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Chandler Smith had a pretty quiet race. His finish of 12th was behind all but two playoff drivers. Thanks to top-fives in the last two races, 12th was enough to advance to the round of eight. After the race, Smith told Frontstretch of his prospects for making the championship four, “I honestly think its gonna take a win for us, we don’t have that many playoff points.”
Hemric couldn’t quite pull off the miracle. Coming to the checkered flag, he had an opportunity to get into the next round in spectacular fashion. Racing in seventh, he watched as a desperate Kligerman fought hard to get around Grala. Coming out of the final turn, Kligerman got into Grala and both drivers moved up the track. Hemric seized the opportunity and ducked low, going three wide. Hemric trailed by only two points and owned the tiebreaker over Creed. Close, but no cigar.
Kligerman was eliminated despite a valiant effort. If NASCAR had a Comeback Driver of the Year Award, he’d have to be one of the finalists: from washing out of the top three series completely, to now racing in the Xfinity playoffs. Kligerman was top-five in both stages and ultimately finished sixth. In the previous race at Texas Motor Speedway, Kligerman finished second.
You would think all of that would equal a trip to the round of eight. Bristol Motor Speedway, however, did not work out well for Kligerman. The 31st-place finish there due to a mechanical issue buried him in the competitive Xfinity points. Despite coming back with a vengeance, he fell just short of advancing by five points.
Burton was in a deep points hole coming in, and his team decided to throw a hail mary to try to get a win. It didn’t work out. Burton stayed out under caution in the final stage while most of the field pitted. He then overdrove turn 1 and took out Allgaier in the process. Burton went on to finish 34th. Despite the elimination, he and his team should be proud of the season they’ve had.
Fuel For Thought
We are on to the Round of Eight. Nemechek holds a 37-point cushion over fifth. Hill trails Nemechek by 15 points. Third is Allgaier, four points behind Hill and 17 above the cut line. With this third win, Mayer finds himself in fourth, just two points ahead of Custer. Then its Chandler Smith (-11), Creed (-12) and Sammy Smith (-14).
The top three have separated themselves a bit. Can they all pass through the next round and compete for the championship at Phoenix Raceway? We’ll go to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Homestead and Martinsville Speedway in this round. One misstep and any one of them could find themselves on the outside looking in.
Chandler Smith and Creed have both said they probably need to win to advance any further. Which track do you see as an opportunity for someone besides Nemechek, Hill and Allgaier to get a win?
Custer has quietly clicked off top-10 finishes in seven of the last eight races. Mayer has been more boom or bust. These two drivers enter the next round only two points apart. Which driver do you see having a better chance to move on?
Where to Next?
We’re headed to Sin City! The Alsco Uniforms 302 will kick off the round of eight from Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The action gets underway at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday October 14th. The race will air on USA Network, or listen in on the Performance Racing Network and SiriusXM. Last time the series was at Las Vegas, Hill claimed the victory.
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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