The Xfinity Series is getting used to Cup drivers winning at Darlington, at least this year. It was Kyle Larson who beat out John Hunter Nemechek in a contact-filled drive to the flag that sent Nemechek spinning in the spring; now in the fall, Denny Hamlin took the checkered flag over Hill and Nemechek again.
But it was a much cleaner performance by Hamlin in Saturday’s Sport Clips Haircuts VFW Help a Hero 200. After competing up in the top five all race, he was able to jump to the point on an Overtime restart and hold on while the series regular scrambled for second behind him.
It’s Hamlin’s sixth Xfinity Series win at Darlington in this one-off start in the No. 19 Toyota Supra for Joe Gibbs Racing, but despite the scale of the accomplishment, Hamlin was met with a chorus of boos.
“Thank you to Sport Clips, to Help a Hero, I appreciate everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing for the opportunity to let me come and do one Xfinity race per year,” Hamlin said, “and it’s great to have a win.”
It’s his first win in the series in over five years, and Hamlin responded to the boos by giving the fans a gesture getting back into his car after giving a fan his flag.
For the race itself, though he was strong throughout, it took all 148 laps to really get a handle on his racecar, since the Xfinity Series cars drive so differently to the Next Gen Cup car he’s used to.
“It took awhile,” he acknowledged. “I mean, I really needed some long runs but I didn’t want to show everything we had until the end of the race there so we really did a good job of maintaining what we had. It was going to be cool to see that race play out, but still, it’s cool to get the win.”
Series points leader Austin Hill ended up second. The Richard Childress Racing driver climbed through the top of the field and got around John Hunter Nemechek to get to the lead late thanks to a strong performance from his team on pit road. He wasn’t able to hold on restarting next to Denny Hamlin, though.
“All day, I’d been struggling with wheelspin,” Hill explained. “I was trying to clean my tires differently each time and I still spun my tires a little bit and just didn’t get rolling good enough.”
“The 19 had an edge on me and I tried to go really low in [Turn] 1 to try to take some distance and, in doing so, I got really tight and that’s kind of what allowed the 19 to clear me. I got into him a little bit off of [Turn] 2 there, I think, and I went just full-send into [Turn] 3, and, when I did and got beside him, I got kind of pinned and couldn’t go back to the throttle. At that point I was just trying to keep the 20 behind me.”
“Me and the 20 just had a good battle there at the end and it just allowed the 19 to get away from us,” he said. “But solid effort from everybody at RCR, at ECR’s been working really hard, I just need to go back to the drawing board and figure out what I’m doing wrong on the restarts right there, because that was really frustrating all day.
“I’ve got to do a better job of that if I’m going to win a championship,” he acknowledged.
Despite his own disappointment, the strong performance keeps Hill ahead of Nemechek in the regular season standings by 23 points with just one race left to go before a regular season champion is crowned.
John Hunter Nemechek swept the stages and battled Denny Hamlin on track for the lead in the closing laps, ultimately losing out to the Cup Series driver, before the restarts upset the order.
He wasn’t close enough to earn his sixth win of the season, but his five wins remain the most of any Xfinity Series driver this season.
Cole Custer and Josh Berry rounded out the top five. The result locks Berry into the Playoffs on points with just one race remaining before the postseason field is set.
The two drivers locked in a battle for that spot, Parker Kligerman and Riley Herbst, both had strong runs throughout much of the day, leaving Kligerman’s advantage intact.
But a shot from Sam Mayer that sent Kligerman spinning changed the order and narrowed the gap, bringing it down to just one point in Herbst’s favor heading into Kansas.
Kligerman was none too happy with Mayer after the contact relegated him to a 24th-place finish.
“I feel like we were probably an eighth-place car, eighth-to-tenth, and the way we executed this weekend, even with having a loose wheel, to come back from that with a bunch of adjustments and then just get flat run over by the 1 car? It’s just so disappointing,” Kligerman said.
And he didn’t hold back in his criticism, clarifying that he does intend to discuss his frustrations with Mayer after the race.
“Sam’s a friend of the team, his dad is too, and I know he’s won races, but he just does dumb stuff like that all the time,” Kligerman added. “I don’t know what the reason is but he’s got to clean it up.”
For his part, Kligerman is raring to go at Kansas and secure his spot in the Playoffs, and he’s keeping his commentating job in mind.
“We’re going to keep it fun and exciting for the TV at Kansas,” he said, “make a show out of it, and we will find ourselves in. I felt like we were in a decent position, I knew how well Herbst was running, but we kept him in check. Let’s put a show on next week.”
For his part, Mayer was apologetic and took the blame, but said radio issues that he suffered following the conclusion of Stage 1 were to blame.
“Yeah, we’re going to need to talk, I effed up,” he admitted. “And it sucks. Obviously the radio issues all day got in the way of… whatever that was. We had brake problems in-and-out all day and I could never relay that to the team to help fix it.”
“The motor was hot all day… there was nothing right about today and it sucks, and I hate that it took our deal down and their deal down and ruined both days. It sucks,” he concluded.
Mayer ended up finishing 11th after the incident.
Riley Herbst, who sits back above the cutline, where he spent most of the season, leaving Darlington, said he still needs more.
“Just frustrating,” the Stewart-Haas driver summed up his day. “I don’t think we had a good enough car to win today, and that’s our ultimate goal, to come here and win races. That Playoff stuff is cool, but I really want to win races and I want to win them now.”
“We’ve got some work to do to run up with the top five. I felt like we maybe had a fifth-place car today but we’ll take this car and go on to Kansas and just execute, be there at the end, and see where the chips fall,” said Herbst, who finished sixth.
The race featured seven cautions, five of which were for cause.
The largest was a lap 104 incident where Kyle Seig got into Corey Heim, and the chain reaction sent both Seig and Jeremy Clements spinning. Other single car incidents included one with Ryan Seig that brought out a late restart which bunched up the field and the Kligerman spin that brought out Overtime.
Some technical issues also shook the hopes of contender Kyle Larson, who won in the Xfinity Series at Darlington in the spring race. Despite battling up front in the first two stages, with two third-place stage finishes to his credit, engine trouble and a pit road diagnosis took him out of contention, and he ended up finishing last, 31 laps down.
Larson was still able to finish the race under power, though, meaning the entire field was able to finish the race.
The Xfinity Series returns for the Kansas Lottery 300 at Kansas Speedway on Saturday, September 9th at 3:30 pm ET. It’s the final regular season race and the Playoff grid will be set after the race.
Sheldon Creed and Daniel Hemric have a 56- and 55-point advantage over the cutline respectively, meaning both are all-but locked in barring some catastrophic failure at Kansas. Right on the bubble, though, is Riley Herbst, in the twelfth and final transfer position by just one point over Parker Kligerman.
Brandon Jones, who comes into Kansas fourteenth, is in a must-win scenario along with the rest of the eligible field.
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