AVONDALE, Ariz. — One set of corners. Austin Cindric was that close to securing a repeat NASCAR Xfinity Series championship Saturday night, all before shipping off to the Cup Series next season.
Cindric wound up a full fender and that pivotal last couple of turns short, getting the shorter end of a full-contact pass from eventual series champion Daniel Hemric in the season finale. The runner-up finish by a scant .030 seconds ended the Team Penske driver’s title defense in a blink, and his No. 22 Ford showed the battle scars on the driver’s side — all stemming from the right side of Hemric’s No. 18 Toyota.
The title bids also went awry for Championship 4 contenders Noah Gragson, who scrubbed the outside retaining wall in the late going and finished 12th, and AJ Allmendinger, who spun less than 20 laps left from the scheduled 200-lap distance and never quite raced back into contention, ultimately placing 14th. Cindric, however, came closest — not being able to put Hemric away in a series of late restarts, leaving the door open for him to bruise his way by on the final lap.
“With the final restart I think the catalyst there was not getting clear off of Turn 4,” said Cindric, who move up to the Team Penske Cup program in the No. 2 Ford as a Cup Series rookie next year. “Obviously he drove it in stupid deep and left reared me, was still able to stay side-by-side. I feel like that was the catalyst for him still being close heading into Turn 3. That was all he needed to be was close.”
Cindric was denied by a driver perhaps not known for an overly aggressive style, but one who had tired of answering the questions about his 0-for-119 career winless mark. Crew chief Dave Rogers was in Hemric’s ear over the No. 18 radio before each of the late restarts: “Offense, offense, offense,” he said before the two-lap run to the end. “I don’t care what lane you’re attacking from, but just attack.” Hemric is now 1-for-120 with a title, to boot.
Rogers said post-race that he was hoping any final-lap contact wouldn’t result in Cindric spinning or crashing. Cindric showed his disappointment as he stood silently by his car on pit road, but didn’t cry foul later over Hemric’s winning move.
“I’ve certainly had worse,” Cindric said of Hemric’s bump. “Wasn’t enough to wreck it. Until you spin somebody out, it’s not dirty racing.”
Gragson was next-closest to contending for the title, keeping pace with the lead pair after rallying from a sluggish pit stop at the Stage 2 break. But Gragson’s No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet first brushed Hemric’s car, then later popped the outside wall as he tried to mount a charge. He dropped outside the top five, then eventually the top 10.
“That’s what the Xfinity Series is, it’s hard racing,” said Gragson, who said the team fought to strike the right balance over the course of the 204-lap finale. “Once I got into Turn 1, just in tight, on the splitter. I hit it really bad. But we never quit. I don’t know, 12th. Not where we wanted to be, but we were a little off today. Had to try something on the restarts and stuff. Just came up short.”
Allmendinger’s lazy spin with less than 20 laps to go in regulation touched off that fateful series of restarts, prompting him to apologize later for changing the complexion of the race. His No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet had begun to develop a vibration some 20 laps earlier, and Allmendinger speculated that a wheel had worked itself loose.
Though Allmendinger ended up last among the title contenders, he found plenty of solace in his post-race remarks. The 39-year-old driver has rejuvenated his career, claiming the series’ regular-season championship by a whisker over Cindric, scoring five Xfinity wins and adding a Cup Series win at Indianapolis in a part-time role.
“It was truthful when I said I wouldn’t change having an OK year or a good year, somehow you make it to the final four, and if you become the champion, then you win the championship,” Allmendinger said. “For me, I’ve gotten to kiss the bricks in the Cup race at a track I’ve always dreamed about running at. We’ve won five Xfinity races. We were able to win a regular-season championship. Sure, it stings not having a shot at it today really. But we knew it was going to be a tough challenge to come here and contend against these three and have a real shot at it.”