MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Daniel Hemric clinched a shot at the ultimate season-long prize Saturday, landing the final Championship 4 berth in the NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs after a hard-fought third-place finish at Martinsville Speedway. Not winning after holding the lead with 10 laps left, though, left quite the short-term sting.
Hemric joined race winner Noah Gragson, defending champ Austin Cindric and regular-season champ AJ Allmendinger in the title-eligible field for next Saturday’s Xfinity Series finale (8:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Phoenix Raceway. Justin Allgaier, Justin Haley, Brandon Jones and Harrison Burton were eliminated from the postseason picture.
Hemric advanced by just six points, and he has made the Championship 4 in each of his three full-time Xfinity Series season. But Hemric was relegated to his ninth top-three finish without a victory this season, reaching an agonizing 0-for-119 for his career. The big-picture goal provided some solace that could be fully realized next week.
“Nothing matters right now, right? All we’re doing now is putting all our eggs in one basket this week,” Hemric said. “We started the season out with the ultimate goal of trying to run for a championship and we started these playoffs not in the best spot, not the most playoff points. For all we had, winning obviously would be a lot more fun. It don’t matter as long as we have and can conquer the ultimate goal next week.”
Hemric had taken the lead cleanly from Gragson on Lap 232 and built a modest cushion in the Dead On Tools 250 until Haley’s spin on Lap 244 of a scheduled 250 sent the race to overtime. Shortly after the green flag re-emerged, a nudge from Cindric — who had already clinched on points by Stage 2 — got Hemric’s Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota out of shape in the first overtime session, clearing the way for Gragson to scoot to a lead he would not surrender.
Any conflict between the two contenders seemed to have smoothed over by the race’s end. Cindric fist-bumped with Hemric post-race in a welcoming gesture before they compete for the title at Phoenix, and Cindric further defended Hemric’s record and credentials when a reporter brought up his winless mark. For No. 18 crew chief Dave Rogers, the reaction was less than cordial.
“I think we had the fastest car here today,” Rogers told NASCAR.com. “Our Toyota Supras are really fast, our guys worked really hard and deserve a win. We controlled the race on a green-white-checkered and got used up. I hope to goodness that Daniel uses up people next week, if that’s what it comes down to. It’s unacceptable. We should’ve won that race. Got moved out of the way.”
Asked if the late-race bump was filed away for the No. 18 team’s memory bank, Rogers said “absolutely. I’m really upset that we didn’t win this race. It’ll take more than a week for me to forget about that. I’m not driving, which is probably a good thing, but it’s frustrating. Guys worked really hard, had a lot of speed there and controlled it. Just another (playoff) contender got in the back of us, and then we got put in a position where we had to points-race for the final green-white-checkered. Unfortunate, but this team has been extremely fast. Really proud of him. Man, I wanted that one bad.”
The points-racing that Rogers mentioned was a sore spot for both driver and crew chief. When the time to choose lanes for the final overtime came, Hemric lined up on the inside of Row 2, behind Gragson on the low lane and with Cindric starting up top on the front row.
The conservative choice, meant to avoid calamity and protect the team’s meager points margin instead of assertively vying for a win, left a sour taste.
“The racer in me did not make the right decision to be a racer,” Hemric said. “First off, you don’t get beat on the first restart. The 22 (Cindric), he can be way more aggressive, shoved me up in the middle and that let the 9 (Gragson) get a run, then the caution comes out. Then I have a choice, right?”
That decision was either to go to the high side and be surrounded by Gragson and his JR Motorsports teammates Allgaier — who wound up being the first driver eliminated, six points back — and Sam Mayer, or to make the safer bet, lining up behind Gragson on the low side to avoid a potential fracas at the front.
“We were all in together and choose the bottom,” Hemric said, “but the racer in me wanted to go to the top and race it out for the win. I knew we had the race car that should be sitting in Victory Lane right now, and it’s situational awareness, trying to minimize damage. You’ve got to hope for the best, plan for the worst and that’s what the last choose was about.”