Race Weekend Central

Eyes on Xfinity: Horseshoes and Hand Grenades

Talladega Superspeedway is the prime location for a surprise winner. At least, that’s what we’re led to believe.

On the final restart of the Ag-Pro 300 last Saturday (April 20), there was only one driver in the top 10 who had a prior NASCAR Xfinity Series win: Riley Herbst, who restarted ninth.

Jesse Love, meanwhile, got his first career win that day. A win that, while impressive in how he did it, few would call an upset based on how he’s performed this season, how he ran in the ARCA Menards Series and the current team he drives for.

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We had most of the makings of a big upset. Underdog fans everywhere were licking their chops. But it never came. Saturday’s finish was the continuation of a fact that may be hard to hear. Underdog wins in the Xfinity Series, even at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega, are rare.

Jeb Burton, Jeremy Clements, and Brandon Brown have all pulled off major upsets at restrictor plate tracks in recent years. But the races they won all had tons of wrecked race cars. In the race Clements won, only 14 cars finished on the lead lap and most of those were badly damaged.

Every year we look at these restrictor-plate races as the best chance to get a surprise winner. But unless the attrition is absurdly high, history says it probably isn’t going to happen.

Saturday’s final restart had the following drivers in the top 10: Love, Leland Honeyman, Joey Gase, Hailie Deegan, Brennan Poole, Caesar Bacarella, Ryan Ellis, Josh Billicki, Herbst, and Mason Massey. From that group, the two drivers least resembling an underdog finished first and second (Love and Herbst.)

The other eight drivers? Only three of them (Honeyman, Poole and Bacarella) finished in the top 10.

Some of the moves made by the other drivers show there is more to it than Love and Herbst simply having the best cars. Those underdog drivers just aren’t as familiar with running at the front of the field, and what experience they do have has mostly come before crunch time.

There is no doubt that tape will be watched and lessons will be learned. All of those drivers should be more equipped to handle the moment at their next opportunity, but that illustrates the crux of their problem. They simply weren’t ready for prime time. It’s not their fault. Experience lends itself to skill here. When you’ve not been in the position before, how do you know what moves to make? How do you deal with the nerves? The simulator rig can’t replicate the surge of adrenaline in these moments.

Honeyman told me his thoughts in that moment. “Surreal,” he said. “We rode around and then all of a sudden we were in contention to win the whole thing.

“I wanted to show everyone we can run up front and work with other teams.”

Honeyman has been quietly impressive in his rookie season. His ranking in the points matches his age, 19. He is ahead of veterans like Clements, Burton, and Josh Williams. Honeyman held his own on that restart and finished fourth, his first career top five. Still, he acknowledged things he would’ve done differently if given another chance.

“I would’ve stayed on the bottom and backed up to the 35,” he said. “To get that win you need a push and some friends to help you get out front, when I went up top we lost that momentum.”

A calm and experienced spotter’s guidance helped Honeyman bring home a solid result, and the experience gained has him feeling ready for next time.

“Frankie Kimmel my spotter, did a fantastic job at keeping me calm and helping me miss all those wrecks at the end. We have talked and we are pumped for when we get to go back to a superspeedway.”

Several other drivers from the top 10 on that restart fared worse than Honeyman. Deegan ran as high as second on the final lap before fading to ultimately finish 12th. It was the best finish of her young Xfinity career, but you have to think about what could’ve been. We were incredibly close to seeing the first female winner in a NASCAR race, but on the final lap she was hung out to dry by fellow Ford driver Herbst. When Herbst got a run and went high, Deegan didn’t block and faded quickly.

“Are you f****** kidding me, 12th?” Deegan said on her radio on the cooldown lap. “I can’t believe the No. 98 did that.”

Poole may have had the best chance among the crew to pull out a big upset. For a fleeting moment on the final lap, he nosed into the lead coming out of turn 4. As Love side-drafted back into the lead, Poole held his line and got split on each side by Anthony Alfredo and Herbst.

This was the 133rd start for Poole, who famously had a win overturned by review at Talladega in 2016. While he has plenty of experience to fall back on, he’s only had two top 10s in his last 50 starts, so the recent experience competing against these drivers in that type of moment wasn’t there for him either.

“I was just looking at my mirrors trying to defend,” Poole said. “I had [Herbst] coming, I had [Alfredo] coming, I was trying to put myself in the best spot and I kind of hesitated and they kind of got on each side of my quarter and I had to just hold my ground where I was or we were gonna get wrecked.”

Of all the drivers who had a shot to win, the plight of Ellis is the most heartbreaking. He was seventh on the restart but was spun at the start-finish line taking the green and finished a brutal 26th. Ellis’s No. 43 was one of several cars dangerously low on fuel, and as he came up through the gears the car stumbled, leading to being spun and the disappointing result that followed. The 34-year-old was making his 107th Xfinity start and is still looking for his first top 10.

He’s been close, with seven top 15s. But you can tell the top-10 goose egg is weighing on him. After the race he was dejected.

“It sucks,” Ellis said. “It feels like it’s not ever gonna happen … Pretty miserable.

“We’ve got a seven hour drive home to cry it out a little bit and get back after it.”

You know the old saying, “Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.”

Honeyman, Poole, Deegan, Gase and Ellis are probably feeling some of the truth in that saying. But the only way to get better in these moments is by actually living through them and learning from them. That experience isn’t easy to come by when your team is getting outspent several times over.

“We’re parking ahead of guys spending $5 million and we’re spending $1 million,” Poole said.

Even if he was disappointed over what could’ve been, Poole has a lot to be happy about. The 33-year-old is tied with Sam Mayer for 15th in points. Poole’s Alpha Prime Racing team is quite a bit different than Mayer’s at JR Motorsports.

“The way that we’re doing it on such a tight budget to be that close, to be in the top 20 as many times as we have this year, to be 16th in the points headed into this weekend putting pressure on those top 12 guys, I think its a pretty big statement from me as a driver and and from this race team,” Poole said. “If they’re not too careful, we’re gonna knock somebody out of the playoffs.”

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It’s all about perspective. If you ask Honeyman, sure, he’d have loved to win, but he exits Talladega walking tall.

“It definitely brings the morale up in the shop and motivates us to keep pushing day in and day out,” Honeyman said. “We can show other teams, fans, and our partners and future partners that our team is getting stronger each week … We are exceeding everyone’s expectations every week and can’t wait to watch our team grow and prove that we are here to stay.”

Talladega didn’t give us an underdog win. The playoff bubble drivers like Brandon Jones, Parker Kligerman and Sheldon Creed can breathe easier knowing they survived the weekend without a driver like Honeyman or Deegan stealing a playoff spot. It did give us a look at some new names competing for a win in the best series in motorsports. It also gave those drivers some priceless experience that will pay dividends in the future. Lastly, it gave us a first-time winner in Love, whose future seems incredibly bright.

We also saw great points days from Alfredo and Poole, who are showing that against all odds, they could factor into the playoff race. We’re now into the second quarter of the season, with nine races down, 24 to go and just 17 until the playoffs.

We’ll head to Daytona a few weeks before the playoffs begin. Perhaps one of these drivers will shock the world and throw a hand grenade into the playoff picture. With the experience they gained this weekend, maybe all they need is a horseshoe.

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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