Saturday marked the end of the 2021 Xfinity Series season, and a new champion was crowned. Taking on the stretches of Phoenix Raceway for the second time this season, the Championship Four knew they had to give it their all if they wanted to walk away with the trophy. And they all did just that.
Unlike most other races this season, both practice and qualifying were held prior to the race. The 54 of John Hunter Nemechek led the way in practice with the 22 of Austin Cindric not far behind. Rounding out the rest of the top five were championship hopefuls Daniel Hemric in the 18 and Noah Gragson in the 9, with Jeb Burton in the 10 in tow. The 07 of JJ Yeley took a hard spin in this practice session, forcing him to go to a backup car for the race.
Qualifying saw a bit of a different story with reigning champion Cindric nabbing the pole position. Behind him it was John Hunter Nemechek in second, the 7 of Justin Allgaier in third, Daniel Hemric in fourth, and the 98 of Riley Herbst in fifth. Championship contenders Noah Gragson and AJ Allmendinger found themselves in seventh and twelfth, respectively.
Forced to go to a backup car, JJ Yeley was sent to the rear to start the race. The 20 of Harrison Burton joined him in the rear for an inspection failure, as did the 66 of David Starr for unapproved adjustments.
As the green flag flew at 8:46 p.m., it was Cindric on the inside and Nemechek on the outside with Nemechek taking the early lead. By lap 21, Cindric was back in the lead in hopes of going back-to-back.
Much like the rest of the playoffs, the championship drivers had issues early. The 16 of AJ Allmendinger started to have shifting issues around lap 40 and was having trouble handling the car. Just two laps later, Cindric began to have radio issues.
That did not prove to be an issue, however, as Cindric would go on to win the opening stage. All of the leaders pitted for tires at the break with the 18 of Hemric winning the race off pit road. The 8 of Sam Mayer was penalized for speeding and sent to the rear.
The restart saw Hemric on the outside and Gragson on the inside with Cindric in the row behind. Allmendinger restarted seventh. Hemric cleared Gragson who then battled for second with Cindric for a bit before falling to fifth. At lap 60, the first caution for incident was flown when the 0 of Jeffrey Earnhardt got into the backstretch wall after some contact with the 47 of Kyle Weatherman.
The leaders stayed out at this caution, so it was Hemric and the 7 of Justin Allgaier on the front row for the restart. One lap later, the 54 of Nemechek took the lead from Hemric, but was unable to hold on. Hemric passed him again on lap 86 and won the second stage four laps later.
The leaders pitted once again at the stage break for four tires, with the 9 of Gragson nearly getting an uncontrolled tire penalty. Hemric held onto his lead off of pit road with Allmendinger not far behind. It was Hemric and Nemechek at the front for the restart with Hemric holding onto the lead.
One lap later, the caution was flown again for the 17 of Joe Graf Jr. who hit the wall hard after contact with the 31 of Sage Karam. His car was destroyed, but he was checked and released from the care center shortly thereafter. Hemric and Nemechek were once again the leaders at the restart.
The race once again made it only a lap before the caution was brought out, this time for the 5 of Matt Mills who also fell victim to the 31 of Karam. At the restart, it was Hemric and Cindric on the front row.
That was until the caution came out yet again for the 99 of Stefan Parsons who suffered an engine failure. The leaders all pitted at the break, taking four tires. Cindric won the race off pit road and filled out the front row alongside the 7 of Justin Allgaier for the restart.
This time, the field made it four laps before the caution was flown. It was the 48 of Jade Buford who spun and caused the break. None of the leaders pitted, but the 7 of Allgaier was black flagged for a violation at the last restart. NASCAR stated he was to be sent to the rear for changing lanes before the restart.
When the green flag was flown, it was Cindric and Nemechek at the front with those two battling hard with Hemric and Allmendinger for the lead. Nemechek got into Allmendinger, but did not cause any major damage to the 16. That was until the 16 car became too much to handle, and he spun at lap 181.
The leaders all pitted for a final set of tires with Cindric, Hemric, and Gragson coming off pit road in the first, second, and third positions respectively. Without completing a lap, the yellow flag came out yet again for the 10 of Jeb Burton who took a spin in turn four after contact with the 1 of Michael Annett and the 78 of Sheldon Creed.
The three championship hopefuls once again fell 1-2-3 for the restart, with Cindric and Hemric having a great push. Gragson was a different story, however, getting loose and hitting the wall hard in turn three. The caution was not brought out until a lap later when the 92 of Josh Williams and the 48 of Jade Buford got into the wall.
Restarting in overtime, it was a tight battle between Hemric and Cindric for the race – and championship – win. Hemric got very loose on the first of two shootout laps, but was able to collect it and stay at Cindric’s side. At the final turn, the two got into each other’s doors, making it possible for Hemric to take the lead. He was finally able to win his first ever Xfinity Series race and the 2021 Xfinity Series Championship.
Cindric finished second in the race and championship while Gragson finished twelfth in the race and third in the championship. After an overall tough day, Allmendinger finished the race in fourteenth and the championship in fourth. Behind Hemric and Cindric, the top five for the race was filled out by the 20 of Harrison Burton, the 98 of Riley Herbst, and the 11 of Justin Haley.
In a year filled with excitement, heartbreak, and elation for many drivers, the final race did not disappoint. It is often said that the Xfinity Series is the best in NASCAR, and nights like this prove that to be true.
Featured photo from @NASCAR_Xfinity on Twitter.