‘Weird feeling’ for Sam Mayer after brush with first Xfinity win in Talladega nail-biter

TALLADEGA, Ala. – Sam Mayer can hang his hat on what was a career-best finish Saturday in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, but narrowly missed out on a victorious day by about the length of a ballcap’s brim.

The range of emotions hit Mayer in the form of a may-as-well-laugh gut punch after Saturday’s Sparks 300 at Talladega Superspeedway, where he came up a scant .015 seconds short of his first Xfinity win. Instead, he was unable to stave off the final-lap charge of AJ Allmendinger, who drove his No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet past the No. 1 JR Motorsports Camaro of Mayer in the tri-oval with the checkered flag in sight.

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“Nothing probably to laugh about, but I just can’t help but laugh. It’s weird,” Mayer said. “But I will say finishing second place like this puts a weird feeling in your stomach. I had a lot of confidence going into today that the car was gonna be fast. Our Accelerate Camaro is always fast when they come to the superspeedways, and today was no different. Obviously we were leading with the white flag. So, proud of my guys, they kicked ass today, did everything right, pit-strategy wise and everything else. But we were obviously three feet short. You can’t do anything about that, really.”

Mayer had taken control late, after race-long dominator Austin Hill was shuffled back in the running order. With Hill fading from contention, the 19-year-old driver traded the lead with Allmendinger three times in the last five laps, but held the advantage at the drop of the white flag.

Mayer kept his challengers in check on the backstretch and actually stretched out his lead through Turns 3 and 4. But that left almost too much of a gap for Allmendinger, Ryan Sieg and others to mount a final surge.

“It was my first time experiencing something like that, so I didn’t know what to expect or how to protect it or predict it,” Mayer said. “I did a decent job of it, I think the move on the backstretch to kind of keep the lead there was good, but I just needed to do it one more time on the front.”

Mayer’s feat has an even more remarkable context. No. 1 crew chief Taylor Moyer said that the team made an 11th-hour substitution at spotter after Brandon McReynolds left to be with family after a Camping World Truck Series crash that sent his brother-in-law, Jordan Anderson, to a local hospital for evaluation. The No. 1 team swapped in Wood Brothers Racing spotter Tyler Green, who has some experience with Mayer but not with the JRM operation.

“Sam did a great job. Tyler did an absolutely fabulous job,” Moyer told NASCAR.com. “I think he did everything right. I don’t know what he could have done better in the tri-oval, because honestly, I put my head down and prayed. But off of (turn) three, probably got a little far out, but sometimes you got a win one like that to come back and dominate.”

The result gave Mayer a 12-point cushion over the cutoff line in the Xfinity Series Playoffs, with the Round of 12’s elimination race coming next Saturday (3 p.m. ET, NBC, Peacock, PRN, SiriusXM) at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. Only Allmendinger and Noah Gragson – winner of the playoff opener at Bristol – are locked into the next round.

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Moyer noted that the points gain was a positive, but also pointed out the teenager’s season-long progress, which is now marked by 10 top-five finishes. Saturday marked the latest step in his evolution, another learning experience to file away.

“The biggest thing we’ve worked on this year, it’s just race craft,” Moyer said. “I mean, Sam came with speed, but I’ve heard some pretty smart people say these races are 70% race craft. You see a lot of fast kids that never figure it out, and they just fizzle out. So that’s what we’re working on with Sam is the intelligence. That was our biggest thing we worked on coming into this race was when he gets those runs and make those moves, always having an end goal of how that move shakes out, so always know where you’re going.

“You know, early on in his career on a speedway, he’d get a big run and pull to the bottom lane and there’d be no hole to get into. We passed three to lose six. So yeah, I’m really proud of him for working on that. He put in action today everything we worked on coming into this race. That close.”