As we inch closer to the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs, the competition has gotten more and more intense with each week. This was proven at Saturday’s Sports Clips Haircuts VFW Help A Hero 200 at Darlington Raceway. Completing 152 laps, the race put on quite the show for fans and teams alike.
With practice and qualifying missing from the schedule, the starting lineup was set using the formula that has been in use since last season. Starting position was determined as 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 18 of Daniel Hemric at the front with the 16 of regular season points leader AJ Allmenindger right beside him. Making up the rest of the top-five was last week’s winner Justin Haley in the 11, the 7 of Justin Allgaier, and the 10 of Jeb Burton.
All forty entries made it through tech inspection within two tries, keeping anyone from being sent to the rear. However, at roughly noon on Saturday, Brett Moffitt was forced to withdraw from the race due to medical issues. Ty Dillon got the call to replace him in the 02 and was sent to the rear for the late change. Gray Gaulding also had to start at the back of the pack in the 52 due to missing driver introductions. This was not a big move, however, as he had qualified 40th.
The race began with the dropping of the green flag at 3:48 p.m. with Hemric on the outside and Allmendinger on the inside. The newly repaved turn two caused issues early for the 8 of Sam Mayer who slid up into the wall and was forced out of the race. Holding the lead for ten laps, Hemric had to drop a few spots as he had debris on his grill and was heating up. Unable to get the debris off, he lost power and had to pit. At lap 12, the first caution came out for the 74 of Carson Ware who spun on the front stretch. This helped the 18 as he was able to repair the engine with two trips down pit road.
Restarting at lap 16, it was Allgaier on the outside and Allmendinger on the inside. Since the caution for Ware was so early in the stage, it was not chosen to replace the competition caution which came out at lap 21. The 18 was the only car to pit, coming in for four tires.
The restart saw Allgaier on the outside with the 9 of Noah Gragson on the inside. Hemric restarted 32nd, but climbed up to tenth in just four laps as he was the only one on new tires. A lap later, Gragson passed Allgaier, who seemed to have issues with the car, for the lead. Just two laps after that, the 54 of Cup regular Denny Hamlin passed him. Just one turn away from a stage victory, Hamlin spun after driving below Ware. This gave Hemric his sixth stage win of the year.
At the caution, all of the leaders pitted and took four tires. Trying to pass the 61 of David Starr on pit road, Hamlin made contact and lost multiple spots. At the restart, it was Haley in the lead with Allmendinger on the outside. Haley kept the lead until turn four when he was passed by teammate Allmendinger. The caution was brought out again at lap 58 after Hemric made contact with teammate Brandon Jones in the 19, causing Jones to spin and hit the wall hard.
The restart once again saw Haley and Allmendinger on the front row, this time with Allmendinger on the inside. At lap 71, Gragson once again took the lead from Allmendinger who got into a heated battle with the 22 of Austin Cindric. The two drove side by side around the entire track, forcing Allmendinger into the wall. He only received a small scrape, however, and was able to finish the stage in sixth. Gragson crossed the finish line in first.
Everyone pitted at the stage break and took four tires. Gragson maintained the lead in the race off pit road, and restarted alongside Hamlin. It was once again a battle between Gragson and Allmendinger with the 16 coming out on top exiting turn four. Just four laps later, Hamlin took the lead. Facing some engine issues, the 44 of Tommy Joe Martins was slowed down on the track. In a crucial mistake by his spotter, the 98 of Riley Herbst slammed right into the back of Martins, ending both of their days. All the leaders pitted at the caution, taking another set of sticker tires.
Being the only one to stay out of pit road, it was the 66 of Timmy Hill in the lead at the restart with Hamlin on the inside. Unable to leave second gear, Hill held up the outside line with Hemric slamming into his rear. The rest of the field was able to get around the two, but Hill had to pit for “something broke[n]”. Bringing out the caution for the second time, Brandon Jones spun in turn four. All leaders except Hemric and the 4 of Landon Cassill pitted for their last set of tires with Hamlin winning the race off pit road. However, he was immediately sent to the rear for having equipment over the wall too soon.
This put Hemric in the lead on the outside with Cassill on his inside. At the restart, Gragson dove low, passing Hemric for the lead. Hemric spun just two laps later, but was able to drive off without bringing out the yellow. After competing for the lead all day, Allmendinger fell back with sparks shooting out of his car. A lap later, the caution came out for debris on the track.
Going into overtime, it was Gragson on the inside and Cindric on the outside. Getting a huge jump on the restart, Gragson took an easy lead. Although he got loose in turn two, he was able to hold off the 20 of Harrison Burton and earn his first win of the season, locking himself into the playoffs. With Cindric finishing third and Allmendinger 20th, the regular season championship is now separated by just one point with Allmendinger holding onto the lead. The Kaulig teammates of Haley and Burton rounded out the top five.
The next Xfinity Series race will be held at 2:30 p.m. on September 11th at Richmond Raceway. It’s sure to be an exciting competition with the regular season finale the following week.
Featured photo from @NASCAR_Xfinity on Twitter.