It’s a young person’s world in the NASCAR Xfinity series. That’s a good thing, as they put on a great show at Auto Club Speedway Saturday.
Saturday afternoon was cool in SoCal. Good thing the NASCAR Xfinity Series had their 300-mile, 150-lap Production Alliance Group 300 to heat things up. The series is stocked with young talent, especially since its three top drivers from last year went to NASCAR Cup this year. They’ll race Sunday in the big series, which goes 400 miles, 100 more than on Saturday.
Rules changes a couple of years ago limit the number of races run by Cup drivers who drop down to the lesser series (Xfinity or trucks). That means that, by my count, there were just three Cup drivers in Xfinity on Saturday: Quin Houff, John Hunter Nemechek, and Ross Chastain, and the latter is only racing Sunday because he continues his fill-in duties while Ryan Newman recovers from his crash at Daytona. You know what? There’s no way anyone watching the race Saturday missed the big names of NASCAR. These lesser lights put on too good a show.
For a while, it looked like anything but heat would be generated. The race was broken into three stages, with cautions planned at the end of each. The first two green runs to caution went without any interruptions.
That’s not to say the action wasn’t good. Brandon Jones and Harrison Burton surged at the front, running side by side, and behind them, Noah Gragson chased Justin Allgaier while things tightened up behind them yet further. If you doubt how much fun this was to watch, consider that the lead cars were going into turn 1 at 190mph, sometimes two-wide and with a guy inches off their back bumper.
Jones, Burton, and Chase Briscoe maintained the lead spots through the first green-flag pit stop (ending stage one) but Gragson improved his position on pit road.
The cars restarted three wide. After one lap, Ross Chastain was on the bumper of Gragson. He dove low to take the lead a lap later. This was on lap 44.
Behind them, Burton snuck up between when Gragson went low. Dicing and diving, they played out what looked like it might be the end-game. Not so fast. Jones led every lap though the second stage end caution flag. Neither was this the story.
It was after the second stage ended that the real intrigue came about. The field of 36 couldn’t seem to go a lap without someone banging into someone. Including the stage cautions (laps 37 and 72), there were a total of eight, six of them taking place after the stage three restart and four of those almost back-to-back after that lap 78 restart.
The top five at this point were Jones, Daniel Hemric, Burton, Briscoe, and Cindric. All were within inches of each other. Then the first accident-caused yellow flew, and the restart came at lap 85. At this point, Burton had the lead, with Allgaier making a charge. He snuck up on the inside as they entered turn one. The caution was for a wreck involving a group of cars around fifteenth place. Brett Moffitt lost control and hit another car.
More tangles and restarts occupied the laps 90-100 timeframe, and beyond. Each time, Briscoe, Hemric, Allgaier, and Burton found themselves pushing and challenging for position. Oftentimes, they were nose-to-tail in a four-car pack. The restarts, despite creating so much turmoil, got no less aggressive. Once, even, with Briscoe leading and Burton second, Herbst, Allgaier, and Cindric were three wide. Meanwhile, Burton was catching Briscoe as lap 104, the third since the latest restart, took place.
Behind that lead group, a couple of cars were strung out, but then for eighth, there were four cars challenging: Jeremy Clements, Austin Hill, Ryan Sieg, and Anthony Alfredo.
By the way, if you’re thinking you’ve never heard of any of these guys, you’d be right. The series has lost its some youngsters to Cup, lost its veterans to age or retirement for other reasons, and isn’t featuring the Cup guys, as was said earlier. Good thing—this was a show, not the stink-up that it can be when a bunch of guys with more experience and more money (better equipment) make it when they race and take all the top spots. The Xfinity series is now truly the proving grounds for a stock car career. This was evident as events played out on this day.
Another caution came out on lap 108 as Allgaier ran over the tire shell of another car. That was OK—the drivers all needed one more pit stop to make it to the end on fuel. Twenty cars (of 36) were still on the lead lap. Briscoe led. Burton was second. Herbst was third. Chastain dropped back to 11thplace. The lead pack was getting crazy. Burton went inside of Briscoe. Chastain worked his way back up to fourth, though it was not to last.
Chastain would later summarize: “I was pretty fortunate to come home eighth after I tore the nose off it.” He said the team is still working on their communication, and that he had asked for too much tightness to be added in to the car. “They listened to me, and I kind of over-described it,” he said.
While he was having his late troubles, Hemric went inside of Sieg for position. There were battles all over the race track, in other words—something you only see if you’re there, by the way, because TV can’t cover what isn’t viewable from a single-lens point of view. Being there, you get to pick and choose what you focus on, or keep two or three battles alive in your eyes and imagination at once.
Hemric talked about the track after the race: “It changed a lot. The tire went through so many cycles. It’s not that often that you have so many cautions and restarts on cycled tires, so we were trying to keep up with that more than the race track. It started to get away from us on the last run, so we didn’t have anything to show for it.”
He told LACar, “This place is awesome, one of the best places you can go as a driver. You like to go to places where you have options, and you have that and then some here. I’m on board with no repave.” He also said the sun didn’t bother him, though there was some shade around the outside wall late in the race that allowed the cars to run a little harder there.”
The race was scheduled for 150 laps. On 121, Burton and Briscoe were still two-wide. There was another caution, this one because Briscoe spun coming out of turn four. That ended his hopes to win. His eventual fate was 19thplace. In his absence, Herbst rushed up and challenged for second place, which is where he eventually ended up. His moves were perhaps the most thrilling of the day, in fact. He had started fifth. Allgaier, meanwhile, found himself 12that lap 135 and would come home in that same spot. Burton stretched it out at the front, but Herbst and Cindric battled it out for second.
Afterwards, Cindric said, “This is not a place where you want to restart on the bottom. The [car] . . . was good enough to win or at least contend for the win today, and it was really close covering the top three. . . . Got some work to do on the execution side on our end.” He praised Harrison Burton for winning his first race.
He told LACar.com that the length of the lap at two miles is something to factor in how a driver performs. “It depends on how your tires are. Early in the run, you feel like you’re going really fast, and then by the end, you’re working really hard for little bits. I felt like that’s where we were really good today, but track position was king, and we never had it all day.” He never quit battling, driving inside of Herbst into turn two as late as a few laps to go.
He summarized: “If it wasn’t as close as the end, I think I’d be a little happier, but for it to be that close and be right out front of you and track position be the reason why you weren’t there, that’s frustrating.”
Quietly in fifth, Justin Haley said after, “Just an overall great day. Didn’t start out where we wanted to, but everyone at [the team] kept working all day, and to run fifth was really great for us.”
Speaking of the track, he told LACar.com, “I don’t want a repave, but they could definitely fill some holes. After a while, the driver definitely struggles.”
In the end, it was Harrison Burton who prevailed. Oddly enough, the last time this race was run at this track on a Leap Day was 1992, and Ward Burton, Harrison’s uncle, won it.
Harrison described his feelings at winning: “I got told all last season [in trucks] that I couldn’t do it, and my team got told that we couldn’t go it, but this feels really good to go out and win. That was motivating me all off-season to go out and do better, and motiving my team. We have anything that we need. The resources at Joe Gibbs racing are incredible. They do a better job preparing us, as drivers, as anyone else.”
He was glad to have his family in attendance. His mom, Kim, was in the press room watching him talk about his victory.
He added, “It’s just really cool to be in victory lane. It’s a good feeling and I’ve missed it since Daytona last year. It’s good to be back.”
The race lasted 2 hours 28 minutes and was run at an average speed of 121-plus mph. The victory was Burton’s by .455 seconds.
The lead changed hands 13 times, with eight drivers holding it. Jones had it from 1-73. Burton held it from 131-150 as well as two other times for a total of 40 laps.
The Series moves on to Phoenix with Cup next weekend. Race action continues at Auto Club Speedway with the Auto Club 400 Sunday at 12:30.
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