It was a battle to the end for the NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway. The Championship 4 drivers ran up front together most of the race, but two late cautions culminated in an Overtime restart that brought the field together.
Cole Custer restarted with the lead in Overtime but lost it to John Hunter Nemechek by the first turn, eventually falling to third behind Justin Allgaier. But Custer got a strong run out of the final corner and a perfect set of corners gave him a convincing lead by the time he crossed the line.
“I thought I lost it on the frontstretch,” Custer admitted. “I thought it was over, but just how it worked out I was able to downshift it pulling up off the corner and get a good angle going into three and I can’t believe it all worked out. I wouldn’t have it any other way. We’ve been so close here a few times and to have it all work out is just amazing.”
The win is Custer’s third of the season, but undoubtedly his most important: it secures him his first Xfinity Series title.
“It means the world,” Custer explained.
“Being so close a couple times at this and how the last few years have gone, I mean, these guys still believe in me and have given me really fast race cars and just digging all year. We did such a great job just getting better and better every week. These guys just brought a rocket ship tonight and I’m so proud of everybody.”
“That was crazy, having it three-wide there at the end. I can’t believe we went from third to first there when we dropped back.”
Custer returned to the series – where he’d previously finished runner-up in the championship twice – after losing his Cup Series ride, but stuck with his Stewart-Haas Racing team. That certainly paid off for him, and Custer spoke of his gratitude towards the team.
“I just can’t thank Gene Haas enough,” he said. “He’s given me opportunities and I wouldn’t be here without him. I can’t thank him enough, and Ford Performance, Haas Automation, everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing. It’s awesome to bring one back to Stewart-Haas right now.”
Custer had the dominant car all race, even as the track transitioned from daylight to nighttime. He led 96 of 200 laps in the race.
The rest of the Championship 4 field may have been neck-and-neck coming into the final restart, but they ended up spread out through the field as pushing out didn’t work out for everyone.
Justin Allgaier ended up third, Sam Mayer crossed the line in fifth, and John Hunter Nemechek is credited with a 28th-place finish after hitting the wall hard on the final lap.
Nemechek did the best job of challenging Custer of any of the drivers in the field. He led 66 laps throughout the race, second-most of any driver, and was ahead of Custer briefly on the final restart. However, battling three-wide for the lead, he got pinned into the wall, which damaged his right side, and he plowed straight into the wall on the last lap.
“Drove in, and it didn’t turn. I don’t know if we had a right front start going down or what exactly it was, but just drove in and didn’t turn,” Nemechek explained. “It doesn’t turn, it’s not a very good thing. Then once we got pinched in the fence there off of [Turn] 2, it kind of hurt the right sides even more. I think we had a right rear start going down, as well.”
However, though he ended up last of the Championship 4 drivers, that doesn’t define John Hunter Nemechek’s season, which was a success by any measure. He picked up the most wins of any driver in the series and impressed enough to secure a Cup Series ride with Legacy Motor Club for next year.
“Just sucks to end our season this way, but overall a really successful season for this 20 team, Joe Gibbs Racing. Was proud to be behind the wheel of this 20 car all year, and seven wins is a lot to be proud of,” Nemechek said.
“One race doesn’t define us as a group, and it’s really just another race. If you win, you come out the champion. That’s what we told ourselves all week, and we almost had it. Overall really proud of this group, proud of myself. We put ourselves in contention and that’s really all you can do.”
Justin Allgaier, the oldest and most experienced Championship 4 contender, had his work cut out for him all race at Phoenix. An early spin at lap four following an aggressive move to go three-wide with the leaders sent him to the back. However, Allgaier made quick work of moving through the field and was quickly back in contention.
However, the strong race, enough to finish second in the championship standings, is little consolation for Allgaier. He’s competed in the Championship 4 before, including finishing second, but has failed to capitalize and secure that coveted championship trophy.
“I can’t give any more than I gave right there. That was all I had. We just came up short,” said Allgaier.
“Last year I left here gutted, heartbroken, just miserable. I’m going to walk out of here tonight, I’m going to hold my head up high knowing that we gave it all we had. The sun is going to come up in the morning, and on Monday we’re going to go back to work,” he added.
And Allgaier did give himself a shot. He restarted third on the final restart but took advantage of John Hunter Nemechek sliding up the track to put his nose in the three-wide lead battle.
“The 20 kind of missed the bottom and drove all the way up and honestly I was afraid I was going to run into the back of him. When I tried to turn back down the hill, it just was enough to let the 00 get back to my inside and ultimately getting down into Turn 3,” he explained.
“I don’t know, I’m going to replay this one back in my head a couple times. I drove in there pretty deep and just kind of washed up.”
Sam Mayer just didn’t have the speed to make a real challenge at any point during the race. But that doesn’t take anything away from the young driver. It’s just his second full-time season in the Xfinity Series.
“It’s my first top 10 here, first top 5 here,” Mayer said of his Phoenix experience. “I can’t really be too bummed out. I said earlier to Dale, I’m pumped for next year. More motivating to go out there and do it next year and win the thing next year.”
It was a breakout season for the JR Motorsports driver, who picked up four wins including his long-awaited first oval victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway that locked him into the championship race.
“I hope it proves that my name belongs here, that’s the whole deal with the Xfinity Series,” Mayer said.
“I’m going to work even harder next year. I feel like I was at 100 percent this year. That was my best right there. My best is going to be even better next year, so I’m looking forward to getting to Daytona, starting the year off right instead of upside down, and finish it right instead of third.”
Besides the Championship 4 drivers, Sheldon Creed ended up second for the second week in a row following a tumultuous finish to the elimination race at Martinsville. Cole Custer’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Riley Herbst also secured a top-five finish, running fourth to close off his breakout season.
JR Motorsports driver Josh Berry finished sixth, followed by Austin Hill, Chandler Smith, Sammy Smith, and Kaz Grala.
The race featured eight cautions, six of which were for cause. The final two proved critical as they bunched up the Playoff field.
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