AVONDALE, Ariz. — The Championship 4 stormed through Turn 2 four-wide in NASCAR Overtime, just six corners away from crowning the 2023 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion.
Closest of those who fell just short to title-winner Cole Custer was third-place runner Justin Allgaier, who embarked on a remarkable recovery after the beginning of his day at Phoenix Raceway. His JR Motorsports teammate Sam Mayer was fifth with the fourth fighter John Hunter Nemechek scraping across the line in 28th place. More on that last part shortly.
Allgaier’s championship chase on Saturday started with a spin in Turns 1 and 2 at Lap 3 after entering three-wide alongside Nemechek and Austin Hill in a battle for third place. The No. 7 Chevrolet incurred no damage, save for leaving a tire donut on the left door of Nemechek’s Toyota.
So began the rally. Allgaier charged back to seventh place by the end of the 45-lap first stage, dicing through the field on fresh tires back to the front of the field. Those scuffed tires went back on the car for the second stage but the 14-year veteran maintained well enough to snag ninth place, allowing him to methodically work his way back into the top five when crunch time came.
A late caution set up NASCAR Overtime in what funneled out to a three-wide slugfest — Allgaier in the middle of Nemechek (right) and Custer (left) with a lap and a half left. All told, the checkers fell over Custer with Sheldon Creed the only separation between him and Allgaier.
“I was bummed to see that last caution,” Allgaier lamented. “I mean, we were gaining three- to five-tenths a lap on both Cole and John Hunter. And if you looked at the way it was going to shake out, I mean, we were literally going to be right on their bumper whenever we got to the end of the race. So I felt like we did all the right things. We just had way too good of a long-run car and not quite good enough on the short run.”
This season marked a reunion for Allgaier with crew chief Jim Pohlman, with whom Allgaier won the ARCA Menards Series championship in 2008. Fifteen years later, the duo won four Xfinity Series races — Allgaier’s most since a five-win season in 2018. Their campaign was unquestionably successful, with a particularly timely triumph in the year’s penultimate race at Martinsville Speedway.
There was a sting in Saturday’s defeat, but pride in the season was the overriding emotion.
“That’s how our season’s gone,” Pohlman told NASCAR.com. “We fought hard and had been behind at times. And you know, these guys never gave up. Justin never gave up. You know, all of our races are won through adversity, all year long. So you know, it’s nothing new. A lot of it’s not of our own doing. Maybe that one felt like it was our own doing. But still really proud of everybody and just a strong day. You know to have the sixth one not go our way again — or his way, you know, and my first one — obviously frustrating but still not disappointed in the year and where we ended up.”
Nemechek led 66 laps in Saturday’s season finale, second only to Custer’s 96 circuits out front. The No. 20 Toyota exuded as much speed as it showed all year, which is to say “a lot.” The Joe Gibbs Racing outfit produced a series-high seven victories in 2023 and restarted on the front row in overtime. But his car washed wide on entry to Turn 1, pinning him to the top while the other Championship 4 contenders rocketed to his inside. Ultimately, a flat right-front tire one lap later sent Nemechek into the Turn 3 SAFER barrier, plummeting him down the leaderboard and putting an unfortunate period on the end of a championship fight that fell short.
“I got a really good jump off the bottom,” Nemechek recalled of the overtime restart. “Had everyone cleared, and I drove in (Turn) 1 on the bottom just like I had all day, and it just wanted to go straight. Not sure if we started having a right front go down at that point or what, but we ended up blowing a right front at the end and kind of ruined our shot. …
“We were close. But proud of this team, proud of this 20 group. Proud of myself. We executed really well all year. Winning seven races is no easy task, that’s for sure. As a driver, when you come down to the Xfinity Series or Cup Series, when you start a new season, the goal is to make it to Phoenix to have a shot to race for a championship, and we did that. We put ourselves in contention. We put ourselves in position to do it. Just didn’t work out.”
Crew chief Ben Beshore came back to the Xfinity Series to take over this team in the offseason after two full seasons at the Cup level with two-time champion Kyle Busch. With Nemechek, the two enjoyed enormous success — Beshore’s most victories in a season, besting a four-win campaign with Harrison Burton in 2020. That success didn’t heal the heartbreak in the immediate moments of Saturday’s 202-lap contest.
“Just disappointing,” Beshore told NASCAR.com. “Disappointing for the guys and John Hunter. They put a ton of effort in this car and prep for this week and to come back here with kind of a torn-up car and not getting the win is just super disappointing. We were there all night. Cole was super fast. Congrats to those guys. They had a really good car. It was a back-and-forth night between us and we just ended up on the losing end of it.
“Overall, it was a great year. Having seven wins, leading a ton of laps, having a lot of success, a lot of fun, getting a lot of top fives. That’s what we get paid to do, so overall it’s a big success. But right now, it stings. But I think when you look back in a few years, you’re gonna (be) like it was a lot of fun with a seven-win season. Those are tough to come by.”
Mayer was competing in his first title chase this weekend after a four-win sophomore full-time season in the No. 1 Chevrolet for JRM. Like Allgaier, Mayer never led in Saturday’s race, but the experience of a hunting Xfinity glory awakened the 20-year-old Wisconsinite to the necessary effort that goes into winning a championship.
“Being in the Championship 4, it’s like that extra level of just intensity,” Mayer said. “You have to rise to the occasion to do that. It just makes you perform better. I think it kind of opened my eyes and gave me another ‘a-ha’ moment to where I can do this every week. The car was really good, obviously. All four of the champ cars were really fast. That’s why we were all up front. I was like, man, I’m running fourth right now and I’m still losing.
“Being fourth obviously at a track like this with my history with it, I’m stoked because it’s my best finish here so far. It’s still a little bit short, obviously, because all the cars are really good. I’ve got to get myself a little bit better. This was the best I’ve been, but I plan on being even better next year.”