DOVER, Del. – One lap in, one was already out.
The NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs’ Round of 12 finale got interesting in a hurry Saturday at Dover International Speedway, seeing Brandon Jones eliminated from contention early and Justin Haley, John Hunter Nemechek and Ryan Sieg soon to follow.
On the opening lap of the Use Your Melon Drive Sober 200 at the Monster Mile, Jones was the unfortunate driver in the wrong spot at the wrong time, taking contact from a spinning teammate in Harrison Burton that was enough to end his day almost before it even began. Coming into the race one spot and 11 points shy of the final advancing spot, Jones didn’t get much chance to even try to overcome that deficit and will have to trophy hunt the rest of the year as he begins to put the pieces in place for next season.
RELATED: Full Dover race results
“I always try to find the positives with this kind of stuff. Obviously, none today,” Jones told NBCSN after being released from the infield care center. “But the good thing is, we can still go win one of these races. I think we can still get to fifth in points. You can’t do anything when these guys spin out.
“ … I don’t know man. I’ve had one race like this where I’ve wrecked at the start of the race, so these are tough. I know it’s going to be tough for my guys to rally back from them, but as I’ve mentioned, we’ve got some good tracks coming up. Texas (Motor Speedway) is on my mind. So maybe we will get there and I can win that track.”
Michael Annett entered in the eighth and final spot, and a strong, sixth-place run propelled him to the Round of 8, even if he was playing defense for most of the day at one of NASCAR’s most volatile tracks.
“Ton of relief (to advance),” Annett said on pit road after the race. “Obviously I have a ton of confidence in these JR Motorsports cars coming to Dover, but you’re also walking into the Monster Mile and there’s so many stupid things that can happen. I knew if we just ran our race we’d be fine, but there’s just the unknown … you’re kind of passive-aggressive on a deal like that.
“We had a goal when we came here and we accomplished it. I feel really good (about the Round of 8). Kind of what I’ve been saying all along, if we got through the first (round) we’re really confident about the round coming up. … it’s going to be a battle between the JR Motorsports camp but it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
As for the remaining trio to miss the cut, their reactions to their respective title hopes being dashed ranged from upset and angry to contentment and happy just to be here – all perhaps rightfully so.
Nemechek entered the race 10th in points, tied with Jones at 2,062 points apiece and 11 down from the bubble. An eighth-place run was not enough to make up ground, of course, but the GMS Racing driver thought he lost a viable shot at the win – and not by his doing.
Late in the race, the young driver was forced to come back down pit road after a routine stop because his crew failed to secure all his lug nuts, effectively ending his path to Victory Lane.
“We did everything that we needed to do, execution-wise. Had a loose wheel, didn’t get enough lug nuts on for one pit stop and it’s a team effort. Comes down to a team effort and it sucks,” Nemechek said “We gained points every stage, thought we were going to be good there at the end to gain some more but when we had to come down and put extra lug nuts on, pretty much killed our day. … Ended up being so far behind couldn’t make anything up. Frustrating day. … For sure (we had a shot.)”
Haley has shown contending speed at times this year but needed more than a solid finish after a rough start to the postseason with “bad luck” finishes of 17th at Richmond Raceway and 31st at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval. The Kaulig Racing driver never quite gave the leaders a run for their money at the front of the field but still had an outside shot at the win as late as the final restart – something the young driver is proud of his team for.
“No (I’m not disappointed), I expected us not to make it going into (today),” Haley said. “We obviously put the best car on the table. I’ve had three weeks to get over the disappointment. We’ve had fifth-place speed this whole round, just had stuff happen. Glad we could finally put it together this race and show that we’re top-five capable cars. First two races in the round, just had bad luck out of our control. Not much we can do, but still got races to win and plenty of time to make it happen.”
As for Sieg, who entered the race 11th in points and 37 down from Annett, there’s nothing to hang his head about at all – and he wasn’t. The 10th-place Dover finish was his 10th of the season, more than he collected in his five-plus previous Xfinity seasons combined.
It was a career year for the 32-year-old and one to build on for 2020.
“Pretty happy with the whole year, just got to get a little bit more and try to take some more chances on our calls and improve our performances a little bit more also, but all-in-all a great season all year,” Sieg told NASCAR.com. “ … Just glad we were able to race with the big-budget teams. It’s a great day for us that we were right there with them.”