AJ Allmendinger wins Xfinity playoff race at Talladega in photo finish

TALLADEGA, Ala. – Three times A.J. Allmendinger has led the white flag lap on a superspeedway track and not been able to lead that next lap to earn the big trophy.

On Saturday, the veteran waited and pulled ahead of the field in the final feet coming to the Sparks 300 checkered flag at Talladega Superspeedway and edged 19-year old Sam Mayer by .015 seconds – about three feet — in a photo finish to earn his first NASCAR Xfinity Series win at NASCAR’s biggest track.

RELATED: Race results | At-track photos

It marked the regular season champ’s fourth victory in the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet this season and first ever at a superspeedway venue. Most importantly, the win — coming in the second race of the opening round of the playoffs — is an automatic ticket through to the next round of Xfinity Series playoff competition.

“Let’s go,” an absolutely elated Allmendinger screamed into the grandstands after climbing out of his car and accepting the checkered flag at the iconic track.

“Gosh, we’ve been so close to winning one (superspeedway race) and I feel like I keep giving them away,” Allmendinger said. “Thought I might have given it away. I’m still learning, trying to know what too big of a lead is. But honestly, all credit to (Kaulig teammate) Landon Cassill.

“He kept shoving me. He stuck with me. That’s what is great about Kaulig Racing. When you have teammates like Landon and Daniel (Hemric) that you know wherever you go, they’ll go with you. So thank you Landon.

“Man, I just wanted to win a superspeedway and finally got it,” added a grinning Allmendinger, who now claims 14 career Xfinity Series victories.

Cassill finished third, followed by Ryan Sieg and JR Motorsports driver Josh Berry – all playoff contenders. Parker Kligerman was sixth, followed by Playoff drivers Ty Gibbs, Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones and Noah Gragson.

It marked quite the comeback for Gibbs, who qualified on the front row, but was involved in the only on-track yellow flag for incident on the afternoon. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver’s No. 54 Toyota was tagged from behind by Justin Allgaier while racing in a tight pack up front only three laps into the 113-lap event. Gibbs spun out but was remarkably untouched by any other car.

A quick pit stop and impressive pit strategy later, Gibbs was running around the top 10 in the closing laps of the race and managed to recover to that seventh place final effort.

Gragson, driver of the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet, was looking to become the first driver in NASCAR Xfinity Series history to win five consecutive races and was running among the top three with 10 laps to go.

RELATED: Appreciating Gragson’s recent dominance

His ultimate move forward for the win in the closing laps was blocked and he instead finished 10th. Although just short of that historic victory nod, he had already earned his automatic ticket to the playoffs’ second round by virtue of his victory last week at Texas (his seventh on the season and fourth in a row).

“We’re going to keep it going,” Gragson said after the race. “I have a super motivated team… you want to win them all, but you can’t do that sometimes.”

Pole-sitter and series rookie Austin Hill, who swept the two stage wins and led the most laps – 60 on Saturday – also dropped out of the lead group in the waning laps to the checkered flag. He finished 14th.

With Allmendinger and Gragson having earned automatic bids in ton the next round of the playoffs, Gibbs (-21) and Hill (-27) are ranked third and fourth in the standings, followed by Berry, Allgaier — who finished 15th Saturday – Mayer and Sieg in that eighth and final transfer position.

Defending series champion Hemric  (-6 to the elimination line), Brandon Jones (-10), Riley Herbst (-10) and Jeremy Clements (-47) are ranked ninth through 12th heading into the final race of this playoff round.

Up next is the Drive for the Cure 250 presented by BlueCross BlueShield of North Carolina on Saturday (3 p.m. ET, NBC, Peacock, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Allmendinger has won the last three races there.

NOTE: Post-race inspection concluded without issue, confirming Allmendinger as the race winner.