MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Brandon Jones’ last-ditch bid for a spot in the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship race nearly had its Hail Mary moment Saturday at Martinsville Speedway. He had the lead in overtime, a fast car that started from the pole and seemingly friendly competition in teammate Ty Gibbs.
By the time the checkered flag flew, Jones’ lead was gone, his fast car was significantly shorter and the word “teammate” was bracketed by air quotes.
A captivating battle for the final Championship 4 berth went down to the wire in Saturday’s Dead On Tools 250, and Gibbs’ forceful last-lap bump in overtime sent Jones’ No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and his playoff hopes spiraling. Gibbs celebrated his sixth victory of the season, but Jones was eliminated on a day when only a win would have placed him in the title race next Saturday at Phoenix Raceway.
Jones has just one more race — Phoenix — with JGR before he moves to the JR Motorsports team in 2023. “You guys are like family,” he told his No. 19 team on the radio, before adding, “I’m damn sure glad to be out of this place.”
“Man, I don’t know. I didn’t expect to get wrecked into (turn) one. That’s for sure,” Jones said post-race. “Me and Ty have always been kind of friends, but lost all respect today. I know a lot of guys on pit road have for him. So I’m looking forward to getting first to Phoenix and trying to win that race, but then transitioning over to JRM next year. I’m gonna have a good time over there.”
Gibbs added his name to the list of Championship 4 contenders before the race’s end, thanks to attrition that mathematically sealed his fate. He’ll battle JRM teammates Josh Berry, Noah Gragson and Justin Allgaier for the Xfinity crown. Berry and Gragson clinched with victories earlier in the Round of 8, and Allgaier edged AJ Allmendinger for the final playoff spot after a hard-nosed, late-race contest for position.
How Gibbs got there, though, was the buzz of south central Virginia. A flurry of late crashes sent the event to a third overtime, and the two JGR teammates — current and lame-duck — had traded turns choosing the low lane for restarts, forcing the action three-wide and making full-contact bids for the lead and the win.
The final push was enough to send Jones’ No. 19 Supra backward into the outside retaining wall. Gibbs collected his first Martinsville grandfather clock trophy, but drew a downpour of boos from the home crowd.
“I feel like, you know, after we got shoved out of the way for the first time, I feel like that was on, we’re racing for wins after that,” said Gibbs, who led a race-high 102 laps. “And I mean, going into Turn 1, I definitely didn’t want to clean him out, but definitely wanted to move him. So I just crossed that line a little bit too much.”
Jones took exception to the aggression level, especially since Gibbs had already advanced.
“He was locked in, right? I mean, there was really no need for it,” Jones said. “I get you want to win the race, you want to go for it. I want to race against the best. I want to try to beat the best out here. But man, you gotta give me an opportunity and a chance. You know, it’s not really even having a chance to go race for a win and at least we could have been side by side or something.
“So second place, last place, didn’t matter for us today. We had to win the race. So that part of it is what it is, but I would have liked to at least have had a chance to race against him and try to try to hold him off. To me that’s what’s fun is door-to-door racing and doing that, not just wrecking somebody.”
Had Jones won the race and secured an automatic berth, both Allgaier and Allmendinger would have been eliminated. As it evolved, Jones’ misfortune was a boon for Allgaier, who placed fifth to edge the 15th-finishing Allmendinger by 12 points for the last final-four berth. He made a point to offer a consoling hug to Jones on pit road.
“Honestly, future teammate or not, he’s a good friend,” Allgaier said. “You know, we missed out on making the final four last year, just because of the way the race worked out and I know the emotions right now from his side, so I hate it for those guys. Obviously it was to our benefit, right? It puts us in and (we’ve) got a shot at going for a championship next week at a race track that’s really, really good for us. But today’s race was definitely one for the record books. It was about as wild as I think you can get.”
Allgaier experienced the chaos firsthand in a fender-clanging duel with Allmendinger that had the two drivers swapping for position lap after lap. That fray reached its peak when Allmendinger’s No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet skidded and slowed with a flat left-rear tire with just 17 laps left in regulation.
Allmendinger’s hopes for a return trip to the Championship 4 evaporated, but he shook hands with Allgaier after their close-quarters clash.
“I mean, this is the way the format is, and I thought it was fair,” said Allmendinger, a five-time Xfinity winner this season. “I leaned on him to begin with, and he would give it back to me, and we knew whoever beat who was going to make it, the way that was playing out at that point. So yeah, I mean, it’s disappointing the tire got cut down, but I was trying to pinch him to kind of get them loose, see if I could clear him. And you know that’s a possibility. So overall, we did everything we could. Congrats to them for making it and came up short.”
The outcome sets up a lopsided Championship 4 field for Phoenix in terms of the organizations involved, with three JR Motorsports teammates facing off with the 20-year-old Gibbs, the lone representative from his grandfather’s team. Jones will be Gragson’s successor next year with the No. 9 team, which has had its share of run-ins with Gibbs during Gragson’s tenure.
“I’d be very, very mad right now if I was in the 19’s shoes, where he wouldn’t be smiling and taking pictures next to a clock right now,” Gragson said. “He’d be behind the stage with some extracurricular activities in mind, but that’s not my battle. I’m just glad three JR Motorsports cars got into the final four and excited to go race for a championship. …
“I mean, I don’t think I’m the biggest worry for the 54 right now. We’ve been collected in his stuff. Pretty much everyone down pit road has. Just … dirtbag move and it’ll catch up to him.”