John Hunter Nemechek overcame a late-race pit penalty to rally through the field and take his second career NASCAR Xfinity Series victory Saturday in the Andy’s Frozen Custard 335 at Texas Motor Speedway – the first of three playoff events that will determine the Championship 4 field for the season finale.
Nemechek, whose full-time job is contending for a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship, is the fourth driver to win an Xfinity Series race in the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota this year, joining Kyle Busch, Ty Gibbs and Christopher Bell – the quartet combining for 10 wins in 2021 in assorted part-time starts.
Nemechek’s victory by 1.316 seconds over Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Daniel Hemric marked the third win in four series playoff races by a non-playoff driver this season. It was the second Xfinity Series win in the 24-year-old Nemechek’s career – the other coming at Kansas Speedway in 2018.
A penalty during a pit stop – a crewman coming over the wall too soon – took Nemechek from the lead to 18th position for a restart with 51 laps remaining. Far from crushing his hopes, it motivated Nemechek and his team.
During a pit stop on the 10th and final caution period with 28 laps remaining, Nemechek’s team called for a two-tire change while the rest of the contenders took four tires. The strategy put him on the front row for the restart, and he navigated his way forward and retook the lead for good with 20 laps remaining.
“(Spotter) Stevie Reeves and (crew chief) Chris Gayle kept me calm,” said Nemechek, who led a race-best 92 laps. “I’ve grown a lot as a driver and been put in positions like that in the truck series as well.
“Man, I can’t say enough about this whole team. The 54 has been fast every single week. My goal coming in was to win. I had to win to prove to myself I can do this.”
It marked the third runner-up finish for Hemric this season and the 10th of his Xfinity Series career as he races for his first career victory. He was the top playoff driver Saturday.
“They just made a really good call to take two (tires) there, obviously,” an understandably subdued Hemric said of Nemechek. “Congratulations to those guys. We just weren’t quite good enough.”
Those two Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas were pretty much the story of the day. NASCAR Xfinity Series championship leader AJ Allmendinger led the opening 13 laps and then his chief challenger, defending series champion, Austin Cindric, took the lead, earning his 10th stage victory.
The JGR Toyotas pushed forward and started racking up the laps led. Nemechek won Stage 2 and primarily exchanged the lead with Hemric for the remainder of the race. The exception was a bold pit move – defending Texas winner Harrison Burton (also a JGR driver) opted not to pit on the last caution and led six laps before Nemechek overtook him and held the lead until the checkered flag.
JR Motorsports driver Noah Gragson finished third, rallying from damage early in the race, followed by his teammate, Justin Allgaier, and Cindric.
Allmendinger was sixth, followed by Justin Haley, Burton, Michael Annett and Brandon Jones. All eight of the playoff drivers were among the top 10 with Nemechek and Annett the exceptions.
Allmendinger and Gragson each faced early adversity, making contact with each other on Lap 33, then each enduring pit-road trouble during the Stage 2 break. Both teams made extra pit stops before the final stage began.
The sixth-place finish for Allmendinger was good enough to keep him atop the championship standings by four points over Cindric. Allgaier is third, 26 points back, and Gragson is fourth.
Despite his runner-up effort, Hemric is fifth, two points behind Gragson. Haley is sixth (-6), Burton (-21) and Jones (-32) round out the playoff standings.
The NASCAR Xfinity Series moves to the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway for the second race of this playoff round next Saturday, the Kansas Lottery 300 (3 p.m. ET, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Current NASCAR Cup Series rookie Chase Briscoe won last year’s race. Jones is a two-time Kansas winner, taking back-to-back wins in fall 2019 and spring 2020.
Note: Inspection in the Xfinity Series garage at the Fort Worth track was completed without major issue. Two cars were found with one unsecured lug nut each in a post-race check — the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota driven by Jones and the No. 98 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford driven by Riley Herbst.
Contributing: Staff reports