An overtime finish allowed for some fireworks to determine the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship. John Hunter Nemechek and Cole Custer led 162 of 202 laps, trading the lead back and forth throughout the event.
With 43 laps to go in the scheduled distance, Custer passed Nemechek. It seemed as if Custer might coast to a title, but Connor Mosack brought out the yellow with 19 to go, setting up a potential classic finish.
With five laps to go, Anthony Alfredo spun, which led to an overtime restart. When Alfredo went around, Custer had already scooted out to a lead of about three-quarters of a second.
On what would be the final restart, the Championship 4 drivers lined up first through fourth. What could go wrong? Custer elected the top. Nemechek restarted inside of Custer, Sam Mayer on the inside of row two and Justin Allgaier on Mayer’s outside.
The quartet fanned out going through the dogleg and exited turn 2 four-wide. Nemechek’s handling suddenly went away and Custer crawled out to a sizable lead yet again. The rest of the Championship 4 drivers could do nothing to reel him in and Custer went on to win the 2023 NASCAR championship.
Sheldon Creed finished second with Allgaier third, Riley Herbst fourth and Mayer fifth. Josh Berry finished sixth and Austin Hill came home seventh. Chandler Smith, Sammy Smith and Kaz Grala rounded out the top 10. Nemechek had bad go to worse in overtime and wound up 28th after contact with Rajah Caruth and a hard impact with the wall.
This has to feel like a combination of vindication, justice, revenge and told-you-so for Custer. The driver, who won a NASCAR Cup Series race his rookie year, was demoted after three Cup seasons. Now, in his first full-time Xfinity season since 2019, Custer is a NASCAR champion. The night was never really doubt for Custer, who led 96 of 202 laps.
With Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola retiring, Josh Berry has already been named as Harvick’s replacement. Almirola’s replacement isn’t yet confirmed, but the rumor mill hasn’t made much mention of Custer. Is it still possible for that to change? With family ties to team management and a championship now under his belt, what’s next for Custer? Time will tell.
Speaking of vindication and revenge, how about the runner-up? After last week’s Richard Childress Racing fiasco at Martinsville, Creed led a few laps under green and ended up one spot away from his first career Xfinity victory.
After derogatory comments from his team owner about his intellect, some wondered if Creed would even race for RCR this weekend. Had things gone just a bit differently, we could’ve been looking at Creed as a NASCAR champion. Instead, he’s expected to driver for Joe Gibbs Racing next season and give it another run with an arguably stronger team.
Herbst’s fourth-place finish was another feather in his cap, beating two of the Championship 4 drivers. Herbst will be back with Stewart-Haas Racing next year and seems to have finally figured out how to run up front. He carries some momentum into 2024 and figures to be in the conversation for next season’s Championship 4.
Grala probably had higher hopes heading into the season driving full time for Sam Hunt Racing, but he can hold his head high after scoring his ninth top 10 of the season at Phoenix. He wound up 17th in the standings. Grala scored top 10s in four of the final eight races of the season.
Nemechek will be fine, moving on to a Cup ride with Legacy Motor Club next season, but when his driving career ends, he will likely look back at the 2023 Xfinity season as one that got away. He racked up seven wins and had the lead at Phoenix with two laps to go.
Unfortunately, something went wrong in a big way just seconds later. After the race, Nemechek wasn’t sure if it was a tire going down or what, but he quickly faded back through the field and ultimately brought a battered car home in 28th.
2021 champion Daniel Hemric had a rough night from the get-go. He made contact with another car early in the race, leading to a tire rub and eventually a flat left front. Hemric had to pit under the green flag and went two laps down. He spent the rest of the evening trying to battle back and finished 21st.
Derek Kraus brought out the caution with five to go in stage two, making hard impact with the wall coming out of turn 2. The incident marked the end of green-flag racing in stage two, handing the stage win to Custer. Kraus’ 2024 plans haven’t been announced, but I expect he’ll be in contention for a full-time ride in Xfinity or the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, based on his results this year.
Richard Childress reprises his role as a loser in this column one more time. In a race where few cars had anything for Custer’s Ford Mustang, both Hill and Creed were capable of hanging with him and at times, beating him. Both drivers could’ve been a factor in determining the championship, but thanks to their epic blunder last week at Martinsville, they were left fighting for fifth.
Fuel for Thought
Another season in the books. What was your favorite race? Who impressed you this season? What did Custer do for his career with this championship?
My favorite race, by far, was Road America. It’s a tragedy that the track was taken off of the schedule for 2024 and we can only hope it’s just a one-year hiatus. Mayer’s first win in his home state (and mine) featured excellent racing throughout, some wild wrecks and an unbelievable second-to-last lap.
I also happened to be covering that race from the track. I highly encourage all of my readers who haven’t been to a track recently (or ever) to try to make it to at least one race next season. Like complaining about TV coverage? Me, too. When you’re at the track you get to be your own director and nothing can match it, no matter how high the TV production budgets might be.
Hill really did impress this season. I know the finish wasn’t pretty and RCR didn’t have winning speed very often, yet Hill was able to win four races and compile 16 top fives.
Hill came into the year thought of as a restrictor-plate ace and not much of a factor elsewhere. Now, he goes into next season as a favorite to make the Championship 4, having won a race at two superspeedways, at a 1.5-mile track and at Pocono Raceway. Had Hill and Creed managed to avoid their melee at Martinsville, who knows what might’ve played out differently at Phoenix.
Custer has had to carry the weight of nepotism throughout his career. His father is a heavyweight at Stewart-Hass Racing and fans have never been sure how good the 25-year-old really is. This championship was achieved over competition from Nemechek, Hill, Allgaier, Mayer, Berry and the Smiths.
While SHR struggled in many ways throughout the season, Custer was consistently good. His finally tally was three wins and 21 top 10s, along with the championship. If he wasn’t on the short list for Cup teams, he ought to be. If SHR fills Almirola’s seat with a driver not named Custer, could he seek out a ride elsewhere after 2024? Or does he continue to stay loyal, hoping for another chance in cup with SHR should Ryan Preece, Berry, Chase Briscoe or the future driver of the No. 10 falter?
See you at Daytona on Feb. 17 to do it all over again.
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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