A little bit of everything happened in the final 30 laps of Saturday’s (Sept. 5) exciting NASCAR Xfinity Series event at Darlington Raceway: a Cinderella (Ryan Sieg), a red-flag crash and a nip-and-tuck battle for the win. In the end, Brandon Jones seized the lead in the last two laps, charging from third place to capture the Sport Clips 200.
It all started when contact on the frontstretch between Brett Moffitt and Riley Herbst led to Moffitt’s car dropping oil on the track. The fluid caused three isolated incidents, wrecked leader Chase Briscoe and brought out the red flag for cleanup.
The ensuing restart had Sieg in front but gave way to Denny Hamlin, who won both stages, and Ross Chastain, who had been near the front most of the day, battling for the lead over the final 20 laps. Chastain mostly held Hamlin back as the two drivers fought tooth and nail. But with less than two laps left, Hamlin pulled a slide job pass, made contact with the wall and was rear-ended by Chastain. The contact allowed Jones to scoot by, his No. 19 Toyota sailing to the checkered flag uncontested.
Jones scored his third win of the year, while Chastain, Sieg, Herbst and Hamlin rounded out the top-five finishers. Briscoe led a race-high 55 laps but could only claw back to 11th after his spin.
Jones ended up being in the catbird’s seat down the stretch, closing in with the best view of Hamlin and Chastain’s entertaining battle up front. He then closed to within half a second when the pair tangled in turn 4, sensing an opportunity to pounce.
Chastain tried to duck low but caught Hamlin’s bumper, leaving the track wide open for Jones, who had more room. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver dove to the bottom and took the white flag in front, winning the race by more than four seconds over Chastain.
.@BrandonJonesRac had a front-row seat to the calamity in front of him.
— NASCAR on NBC (@NASCARonNBC) September 5, 2020
It was a career-best third victory of the season, catapulting Jones up to eighth in points. He now has as many top-five finishes (eight) this year than he had in the previous two NXS seasons combined.
Chastain’s second-place run was a solid follow-up to Kaulig Racing’s victory with Justin Haley at Daytona International Speedway last week. However, an incident in the final two laps again derailed a chance for the “Watermelon Man” to take the checkered flag first. Chastain remains winless during a frustrating 2020 season but did officially clinch a postseason bid on points.
Behind him, Sieg spun on the second lap but made a solid recovery to a top-five finish. He led the final restart on old tires, stayed within striking distance and jumped to third after passing Hamlin’s damaged car on the final lap.
Both Xfinity Series events at Darlington have concluded with exciting battles. There was Briscoe vs. Kyle Busch in May, then Chastain vs. Hamlin in September as The Track Too Tough To Tame once again met high expectations.
Briscoe, Hamlin and Chastain all led more than 30 laps and effectively dominated the race, but none of them got to the checkered flag first. Briscoe, out front for 55 circuits, spun in Moffitt’s oil and could only recover so much. Hamlin and Chastain, of course, battled for the lead until both cars were in the wall and into each other.
Daniel Hemric was involved in a lap 2 crash with Sieg, but got the worst of the wreck and was out of the car less than five minutes into the race. How bad has it been for him in a part-time season at JR Motorsports? Hemric now has almost as many DNFs (seven) as laps led (10) in a winless, 16-start year to forget. Hemric’s sense of urgency in NBC’s post-race interview suggested his 2021 status remains undetermined there, at best.
Haley followed up his win at Daytona last week with a dismal day at Darlington, getting into the back of Justin Allgaier‘s car and suffering a dented front end. He did recover somewhat, finishing 13th, but any post-victory momentum was dashed.
If it hasn’t already been mentioned enough, Hamlin and Chastain tangled in turn 4 of the penultimate lap. The battle was filled with tough, exciting racing, some of the best this year, but both leaders saw their hopes for a win fly out the window in the form of Jones’ No. 19 shooting past them.
Hamlin’s on-track performance was stellar, but pit road woes plagued the No. 54 team throughout the day, ruining his worst-to-first attempt. Extended stops cost him 16 total positions, minimum, over several pit cycles. The Cup veteran made note of the issues in his post-race comments, saying he couldn’t “make up for lost track position” in failing to win.
Underdog Performance of the Race
Sieg fills this spot well. The third-place finish ties his season best and gives the family-owned Sieg team an almost untouchable 120-point cushion on the playoff cutline.
Honorable Mention: Austin Hill and Myatt Snider finished ninth and tenth, respectively, highlighting a solid day for other underdog drivers. B.J. McLeod and Josh Williams scored 14th and 15th-place finishes, on the lead lap, which is a stellar effort for these vastly underfunded programs. McLeod, in particular, scored his best finish since Pocono Raceway earlier this year (also 14th) and second-best of his career outside of pack racing tracks like Daytona.
Double Duty Interlopers
Hamlin, as he usually does, is pulling double duty for Darlington in both NASCAR Xfinity and Cup series events and was the lone Cup full-timer in the field.
Three drivers, meanwhile, are doubling up with Xfinity and the Truck series for the latter’s first race at Darlington since 2011. Moffitt, Hill and Bayley Currey are all scheduled to run the truck event. Moffitt and Hill are full-time in the series, of course, while Currey will drive Niece Motorsports’ No. 44 machine. Hill produced the trio’s lone top-10 finish but Moffitt might have been headed for one before leaking fluid.
“I probably hit the wall 25 times [in the final laps]…to go up against a guy like Denny Hamlin, to go to the end, I’m just proud of the group. Proud of the effort.” – Ross Chastain
It’s Darlington throwback weekend, so it only feels right to award one lucky paint scheme the “throwback of the race” honors.
This year had a number of eye-catching tributes. Justin Allgaier honored team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hemric celebrated the late John Andretti and Anthony Alfredo replicated Kevin Harvick’s Coast Guard car. Briscoe honored his own team owner in Tony Stewart while Jeffrey Earnhardt threw back to grandfather Dale Earnhardt’s Bass Pro Shops scheme.
— JR Motorsports (@JRMotorsports) September 5, 2020
Annett’s scheme even brought back original sponsor Oreo for the race, while Finchum’s No. 13 perfectly replicated the Elliott-Marino Motorsports, Miami Dolphins-themed paint scheme that ran in 1998.
FIRST LOOK 👀 at the MBM Motorsports #13 throwback for @ChadFinchum ‘s Toyota this weekend!!! We are throwing it back to the 1998 Elliott-Marino Motorsports scheme for driver Jerry Nadeau. We will be releasing the throwback scheme for @TimmyHillRacer Cup Series 66 later today! pic.twitter.com/C77JHT0nrf
— MBM Motorsports (@MBMMotorsports) August 31, 2020
The final 20 laps of Saturday’s race showcased some of the most exciting racing all season for the NASCAR Xfinity Series. A series regular holding his own against a full-time Cup driver only leads to bonus points as the full-timers have taken center stage this year. Kyle Busch is the only driver scoring points in another division to score a NXS victory in 2020.
All the drivers head north to Richmond, Va. for the final NXS doubleheader weekend this season. The event earlier this year was cancelled, so the series will race twice, starting with the Friday, Sept. 11 Go Bowling 250 at 7 p.m. The nightcap is followed by the Virginia is for Racing Lovers 250 on Saturday at 2 p.m., meaning the field will race twice within 24 hours. Both events will be televised on NBCSN.
There will be no defending winners for those races, as both 2019 spring winner Cole Custer and 2019 fall winner Christopher Bell moved up to the Cup Series for 2020. However, the driver who ran second in both races, Austin Cindric, already has five wins in 2020. Expect him to be a factor as the regular season winds down for this division.