The Contender Boats 300 (Oct 21) was Cole Custer‘s race to lose. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver won the pole and led a dominant 114 of 200 laps. Anytime he got a poor restart and was passed, it didn’t take long for him to regain the lead.
With 50 laps to go, disaster struck. In a race with more Darlington stripes than Darlington Raceway, Custer got into the wall. As luck would have it, he cut down a tire. To make matters worse, he realized it too late to make it onto pit road and had to limp the car around the track for an entire lap with flat tire before getting to pit road.
If you think that’s bad, just wait. Custer was then penalized for too many men over the wall during his pit stop, requiring a pass through penalty. When the dust settled, he had fallen from first to 23rd.
Throughout the first half of the race, playoff driver Justin Allgaier was also a factor. Allgaier finished fifth in the stage two. He appeared to be the lone driver to challenge Custer, until he had to make an unscheduled stop of his own for a loose wheel on with just under 90 laps to go.
Both Custer and Allgaier had enough speed to rebound, somewhat, as both drivers went on to finish in the top-15. But the difference was significant. Instead of heading to Martinsville Speedway with a cushion to the playoff cut line, they are both squarely on the bubble.
While Custer and Allgaier experienced crushing tribulations, Sam Mayer was the main beneficiary. The Wisconsinite went on to hold off a surging Riley Herbst, brought home his fourth win of the season, and locked himself into the championship 4. Mayer won his first race on an oval, after the prior three victories occurred on road courses.
The afore-mentioned Herbst finished as the runner-up, and may have won if he had one more lap. John Hunter Nemechek finished third and Austin Hill finished fifth. Fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished fifth.
Daniel Hemric, Parker Kligerman, Brandon Jones, Sammy Smith, and Joe Graf Jr. completed the top-10. Two playoff drivers had dismal finishes. Sheldon Creed came home 26th and Chandler Smith finished 34th.
The fans! Homestead-Miami Speedway has become one of the best race tracks on the NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule. The ability to run four-wide, ‘rip the fence’, and manage severe tire falloff has made for incredible racing. For your humble author, its right there with Darlington as the best tracks we see all year.
Mayer is arguably the hottest driver in the series and peaking at the right time. He’s now won four of the last 11 races. He’s also seemingly shed his reputation of being unable to finish well at mile-and-a-halfs, with a fifth last week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and now a victory at Homestead. Mayer came in 16 points below the cut line, and now can go to Martinsville with no pressure, knowing he’ll get his first opportunity to race for a Championship.
Nemechek had a workmanlike third-place finish. He was third in stage one and second in stage two. He was able to lead seven laps during the race but never quite had race-winning speed. Still, he heads to Martinsville with a pretty comfortable 44 point margin above the cut line.
Has Herbst finally arrived? After smoking the field last week at Las Vegas, Herbst nearly went back to back here at Homestead. Can you imagine a guy going 0 for 138 and then clicking off back to back wins? It almost happened! Herbst passed Nemechek for second with 7 laps to go. At the time, he trailed Mayer by over a second and a half.
With four laps to go he had chipped away at the lead and brought it under a second. As the white flag flew, the lead was less than three tenths of a second. That was about where it would stay. Coming out of turn four, Mayer grazed the wall and Herbst drew closer to the lead, but it was too little too late. Margin of victory? 0.227 seconds.
For the second time this season, Earnhardt Jr. climbed into the No. 88 and put on a hell of a show for the fans. For the second time this season, he appears in our ‘Winners’ section. At Bristol, we called him a winner for how well he ran, but a fire inside the car prevented a strong finish. At Homestead, his finish reflected his effort. Despite qualifying 24th, Earnhardt Jr. climbed up the scoring pylon steadily throughout the day and brought home a top-5.
While one Wisconsin native won the race, another won a stage. Derek Kraus won the second stage. His stage win was an impressive display of the power of fresh rubber at Homestead. With the limited tire allotments in the Xfinity series, Kraus was one of the only drivers to pit. He restarted outside the top-20 with 18 laps to go in the stage. Within five laps he drove all the way up the lead.
That strategy play left Kraus with fewer tires than his competitors, and he would’ve needed a lot of luck for it to work out in the end. He didn’t quite get there, but still came home 11th.
In the process, he ruffled the feathers of Kaulig Racing teammate Smith. On lap 97 racing three-wide, Jones got into Kraus, who got into Smith and caused the no. 16 driver to get into a crash that ended his chances of a good finish. After the wreck, Smith told Frontstretch Kraus was a “boneheaded” driver.
Custer and Allgaier both came away from this race as losers. While Custer had the dominant car and seemed destined to win and lock in to the championship 4, he’ll got to Martinsville tied with Hill, just three points above the cut line. Allgaier is now on the other end, 3 points below. This now sets up a battle royale between Custer, Allgaier, and Hill at Martinsville. With Mayer locked in and Nemechek safely ahead, only two of the three can advance.
Creed finished fourth in stage one and looked to have good enough long-run speed to compete for a win. He had driven from outside the top-10 into fifth under green in the final stage. Had the race run green, could he have won? We’ll never know. A caution came out with 36 to go and Creed’s team decided to throw a Hail Mary for a win.
When all the leaders came to pit road, Creed stayed out, hoping to catch a caution just right and pit for fresh tires, while his competitors would have none left. The caution did come out just a lap after the restart. Creed’s team decided to stay out and hope for another, but it never came. Creed was swallowed up by the field on both restarts, and ended up crashing with two laps to go. Creed went on to finish 26th. 65 points below the cut line, he faces a must-win scenario at Martinsville.
Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t the only big name former Cup driver in the field. Ryan Newman started alongside Jr. in row 12, driving for MBM Motorsports. The ‘rocketman’ drove up to 19th, before a rear gear failure ended his day. The 2023 SRX Champion finished last, completing just 27 laps.
Fuel for Thought
We’re off to the penultimate race of the Xfinity season. And what better venue than Martinsville to settle the Championship 4 field? Mayer is locked in, Nemechek is 44 points to the good. Then there’s Hill, Custer, and Allgaier all within 3 points. Which two drivers are your picks to make it to Phoenix? Who will be the odd man out?
Oh wait, I’m forgetting something. Sammy Smith, Chandler Smith, and Creed are all still in the mix, but they’re all in must-win territory.
When asked how confident he is heading to Martinsville, Chandler Smith gave Frontstretch a heck of an answer.
“Pretty damn confident. I’m willing to do whatever it takes.”
Where to Next?
Two to go. Next up, its Martinsville.
‘The Paperclip’ is home to high-contact old-school racing. With only Mayer locked into Phoenix, you won’t want to miss this one. The Dead On Tools 250 gets going on Saturday, Oct 28 at 3:30 p.m. ET. Catch the action on USA Network, or listen in on the Motor Racing Network and Sirius XM.
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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