How do you even sum up a race that started with engines firing inside the garage, and ended at nearly 2 a.m. after three overtime finishes, two leaders losing fuel pressure, with a second once-in-a-lifetime win for an underdog driver from South Carolina and his family-owned team.
Instead of the beginning, I’ll start at the end. Timmy Hill was running second at the moment of the final caution. In third was AJ Allmendinger, who had run out of fuel during the previous caution. Fourth was Brandon Brown, and Sage Karam scored his and Alpha Prime Racing’s first career top-five in fifth.
Sixth was a career-best for Ryan Vargas, with Ty Gibbs’ caved-in Supra coming home seventh. Alex Labbé, JJ Yeley and Kyle Sieg completed what is likely the strangest top-10 of the season.
Even Jesse Iwuji scored a career-best 11th, after dropping back at every restart.
As usual for summer Daytona, a rain delay spoiled the proceedings before they had even started, pushing the start of the race back more than three hours.
Just after 10:30 p.m. local time, the command to fire engines came with cars still inside the garage. Then, the drivers drove out onto pit road, with the invocation and national anthem coming while they sat in the cars.
The first stage was a who’s who of the Xfinity Series, with Allmendinger, Noah Gragson and Ty Gibbs leading the way.
The first caution waved on lap 16 for 18-year-old Sammy Smith, who got loose on the exit of turn four before bouncing off the inside wall. The second was for the flat tire of Kyle Sieg. Other than these single-car incidents, the field was able to keep it clean, even managing four-wide in the middle of the pack late in the stage.
Gibbs held off the field to win the first stage, his fourth stage victory of the season, before Brown and Anthony Alfredo stayed out to lead.
Stage two went completely green, dominated by the JR Motorsports duo of Gragson and Justin Allgaier. Gragson held on for his eleventh stage win of the season, and continued to pace the field deep into the third stage.
Then, under a commercial break inside of 20 laps to go, all hell broke loose. In the middle of three-wide, John Hunter Nemechek got loose, spinning down the track and sending playoff bubble driver Sheldon Creed back up into the path of Joe Graf Jr. Thankfully, all three drivers were unharmed, but the hard hit to Creed’s passenger door deformed even the roof of the Whelen No. 2 Camaro.
With nine laps remaining, contact between Allmendinger and Allgaier at the front of the field triggered the night’s first Big One. Sam Mayer, Josh Berry and Myatt Snider were among those involved.
Slowly, the leaders fell out of contention. First Daniel Hemric was sent spinning off of Gragson’s bumper, collecting Alfredo, Brandon Jones, Allgaier, Riley Herbst, Jeb Burton and others. It was a scary moment as the field took to pit road to avoid the crash, splitting the slow car of Mason Massey, but everyone managed to avoid.
The first attempt at overtime saw February winner Austin Hill (who had damage from an early pit road collision) lead Gragson to the green, but before the white flag waved, Brown got turned into Justin Haley, collecting nearly everybody behind: Herbst, Ryan Seig, Gibbs, Snider, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., among many.
Though the Go Bowling at the Glen was last week, it felt a lot like setting up pins and knocking them down, as no sooner had the field stacked up for the second attempt at overtime than a bad push from Allmendinger sent Gragson hard into the SAFER barrier on the backstretch, with such force that the No. 9 Chevy lifted all four wheels off the ground before being clobbered by Landon Cassill.
With the field truly thinned out, it appeared to be down to Austin Hill and Allmendinger, the two strongest (albeit battered) cars remaining at the front.
But long caution laps and low fuel loads took their toll on the front-running Chevys. First Allmendinger lost fuel pressure running on the banking, pulling onto pit road as the field took the one to go signal.
Moments later, Hill lost drive through the first turn, but re-fired the car on the apron. Fighting a battery drain and a fuel-pressure problem, Hill kept the No. 21 out front by running the apron through turns three and four.
It was all for naught, unfortunately. The green flag flew and Hill could not keep up. A strong push from Sage Karam sent Jeremy Clements to the front for the first time all night. A push from Allmendinger brought Brandon Brown to the lead temporarily, but a shove from Hill sent Clements back to the lead on the exit of turn four.
As the leaders approached the white flag, Riley Herbst spun into the tri-oval, then back up towards the track. NASCAR had seen enough, and threw the caution. Finally, in the wee hours of Saturday morning, Clements won for the second time in his career, locking himself into the playoffs and breaking a 164-race winless streak.
Five years to the day from his last Xfinity Series victory, perhaps Clements put it best: “I know it’s late as hell. It’s time to drink a beer!”
Featured image from Jeremy Clements on Twitter