By: Madelyn Hipp
The Xfinity Series took on the bumps and grooves of Atlanta Motor Speedway for the second time this season on Saturday. With temperatures reaching 90 outside and upwards of 120 in the cars, the drivers knew it was going to be a rough day. Nevertheless, they hopped in their cars and the engines fired at 3:40 p.m.
Having been to this track before, there was no practice or qualifying for the race. The lineup was set by the same formula that has been used all year: 25% driver’s finishing position from the previous race, 25% owner’s finishing position from the previous race, 35% team owner points, and 15% fastest lap from the previous race. This put the 54 of Kyle Busch on the pole for his last Xfinity race of the season, and what is most likely his last race ever in the series. The rest of the top five included the 18 of Daniel Hemric, the 16 of veteran AJ Allmendinger, the 22 of reigning champion Austin Cindric, and the 20 of Harrison Burton.
While no cars were sent to the rear for inspection issues, the 1 car was sent for a driver change. Driver Michael Annett had to pull out at the last minute due to a leg injury which forced JR Motorsports to scramble to find a new driver. Jordan Anderson was the first choice, followed by BJ McLeod. However, the team ultimately decided on former champion Austin Dillon as he fit the seat and the firesuit best.
The green flag was waved at 3:50 p.m. with Kyle Busch on the inside and Daniel Hemric on the outside. Busch got a huge jump on Hemric who fell to seventh from the lack of momentum. With the condition of the track, teams knew how important it would be to save tires. At the competition caution on Lap 22, only six cars took tires. The 0 of Jeffrey Earnhardt was the free pass, getting back on the lead lap.
At the restart, Busch led the field to green again with the 11 of Justin Haley on the outside. Haley also fell victim to the outside line, however, and quickly dropped to eighth. Most cars were on old tires, and the 7 of Justin Allgaier dropped seven positions on the final lap of the stage due to his tire unraveling. Busch won the stage and led all lead lap cars to the pits under yellow. Harrison Burton won the race off pit road with Busch dropping four spots. Austin Cindric was penalized for a man over the wall too soon and was sent to the rear for the restart.
With Burton on the inside and the 9 of Noah Gragson on the outside, the green flag was waved. For the first time in the race, the outside line had good momentum giving Gragson the lead. Just two laps later, however, he was passed by Busch. The yellow was brought out on Lap 51 after the 61 of David Starr got into the wall, also damaging the 5 of Matt Mills. The free pass was the 98 of Riley Herbst who had a long pit stop at the stage break.
Busch led the field to green again with Hemric on the outside. On Lap 63, the 31 of Josh Berry spun at turn four, bringing out another caution. The 99 of Mason Massey was the free pass this time. With Busch on the inside and Allmendinger on the outside, the race went green. Finishing the stage under green, Busch earned his second stage win of the day. All lead lap cars pitted for four tires, and Busch won the race off of pit road. Harrison Burton had to pit twice for loose lug nuts, and Allmendinger was sent to the rear for speeding.
Stage three began the same as stage one with Busch on the inside and Hemric on the outside. Nine laps in, the 52 of Gray Gaulding spun and hit the wall, bringing out the yellow. About half of the field pitted, including the 54 and 18. As the field came to green with Gragson in the lead, he was forced to pit with a tire puncture. This moved Haley up to the front row on the inside with Allgaier on the outside. Allgaier held the lead for three laps before being passed by Hemric. Yet another caution was brought out after the 19 of Brandon Jones got into the wall on Lap 119. Only four cars stayed out with all others pitting.
The 23 of Ty Dillon led the field to green this time with Gragson on the outside. Allgaier was sent to the rear for driving over the choose box. On Lap 147, another caution was brought out for the 17 of Carson Ware who spun. The 78 of Jesse Little was the free pass. The leaders came to pit road to put on scuffs while Haley, Allgaier, and Ryan Sieg had one more set of stickers. Sieg was penalized for a choose box violation and was sent to the rear. With the 47 of Kyle Weatherman staying out, he became the leader. On top of a transmission issue, he spun his tires causing a wreck involving himself, the 68 of Brandon Brown, and Harrison Burton. The 90 of Ronnie Bassett Jr. was the free pass.
On the restart, Hemric took the inside with Allmendinger on the outside. Just six laps away from his first win, Hemric was pushed by his teammate Busch and wrecked into the wall. With the caution out, Weatherman was the free pass and Busch and the 10 of Jeb Burton made up the front row in overtime. In a two lap dash, Busch took the checkered flag earning his 102nd Xfinity series win and going 5-for-5 on the season. Other than one loose lug nut for both Busch and Cindric, there were no major issues in tech. The next race will be at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 17th.
Featured image from @NASCAR_Xfinity on Twitter.