Tires were the topic of conversation for much of Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Road America. Some teams planned to save enough fuel to go the entire distance of the Henry 180 on two stops to save a fresh set of tires for a late-race caution. Others wanted to pit to keep the freshest rubber underneath them at all times.
In the end, AJ Allmendinger abused his front tires as he charged through the field. Under caution for the conclusion of stage two, the No. 16 Kaulig Racing team was penalized for men over the wall too soon. Allmendinger then methodically worked his way back to the front. The race restarted for the final time with six laps remaining on lap 40, and Allmendinger took the lead from Noah Gragson in turn 9. Both were on older tires compared to third-place Kyle Busch.
One lap later, Busch made a move to Allmendinger’s inside going into turn 1. The pair were side-by-side through turn 2, and as they exited turn 3, Busch’s fresher tires gripped the asphalt and propelled him past Allmendinger.
Busch drove away and won the Henry 180 by over three seconds. Daniel Hemric and Michael Annett found their way around Allmendinger, with Hemric finishing second, his ninth career second-place finish in the Xfinity Series as he continues the hunt for his first career victory. Annett crossed the line third, his second-best finish on a road course. Allmendinger finished fourth after winning the first two stages and Harrison Burton was fifth, his best career finish on a road course.
It can’t be said too often that Kyle Busch wasn’t the favorite, or at least one of the favorites, to win a race in a career encompassing 101 victories through 361 career starts in the Xfinity Series. But Ty Gibbs, Austin Cindric and Allmendinger were the best drivers in Saturday’s race, even if all three of them suffered misfortune late in the race.
Gibbs suffered a transmission failure with 11 laps to go while running second. After pitting for fresh tires during the caution for Gibbs’ stalled car, Cindric restarted 10th and received heavy right-rear damage from Justin Allgaier. He had to pit to repair his car to prevent a tire failure. Allmendinger abused his tires and was sliding through the corners in the closing laps.
The issues suffered by the three best drivers opened the door for Busch to come in and steal a win, giving the fans a surprise winner. If everything had gone right for Gibbs, Cindric and Allmendinger, one of them would have been standing in victory lane, not Busch. Surprise winners are fun! It doesn’t matter if that driver is named Kyle Busch or not.
It was a rough Saturday at Road America for JD Motorsports. Qualifying was in the morning, and full-time drivers Jeffrey Earnhardt and Colby Howard failed to qualify. It is Howard’s second DNQ of the season – second in the last three races – and the third for Earnhardt. Only Spencer Pumpelly in the No. 6 for Ryan Vargas and regular Landon Cassill in the No. 4 started the race. Trouble struck again on lap 6 when Pumpelly was in the middle of a gaggle of cars entering turn 14. As he and others checked up, Brandon Brown nudged the bumper of Pumpelly, spun and stalled in the gravel trap. He was pulled out of the gravel trap and eventually went behind the wall for mechanical issues.
Pumpelly returned to the track on lap 23, 16 laps down, but a brake failure four laps later sent him into the tire barriers in turn 1. He exited as the back half of his car rested on the tires.
With his day officially over, he would finish last in 36th. Meanwhile, Cassill reported to his team that he felt an axle was potentially broken on his car during this caution period. He later pitted and soldiered to the finish. It was the lone bright spot amongst a day of disappointment for the Gaffney, S.C.-based team. Cassill finished 27th, the last car on the lead lap. Through 17 races, it was Cassill’s third-worst finish of the season.
Jeremy Clements’s lead over the playoff cutoff line took a heavy hit after a 28th-place finish. Around the halfway mark of Saturday’s 45-lap race, Jeremy Clements Racing’s Twitter page posted he was going to the garage for a power steering hose failure. He later returned to the track, three laps down.
With Road America being over four miles long, few drivers go a lap down, especially with two guaranteed cautions for stage breaks. Clements had broken into the top 20 before the issue. With a potential top-20 finish on the way, that would have lessened the points hit JCR took in the standings. This is particularly true when you look at where their competitors finished.
Riley Herbst notched a seventh-place finish and two stage points for a total of 32 points. He cut his deficit to Clements down from 66 to 43 points. Brown didn’t score any stage points but finished 11th, claiming 26 points. He entered 50 points behind Clements and now sits 33 back. Through 17 races, Road America was only the fifth time Clements has finished outside the top 15 this season, but from a points standpoint, it was a costly 28th-place finish.
Underdog Performance of the Race
In 11 previous road-course starts, Brown entered Saturday’s Road America race with an average finish of 19.9. That’s not a terrible average, but as he and his Brandonbilt Motorsports team have done before, they maximized their day. Their 11th-place finish netted them 26 valuable championship points in his best finish at Road America (2019, 37th; 2020 12th). Even dropping outside the top 20 after qualifying 19th didn’t spoil their momentum.
Crew Chief Doug Randolph was one of the crew chiefs saving a set of tires for a late-race caution. When Gibbs’s stalled Toyota brought out the caution on lap 35, Randolph brought Brown down pit road for his last set of fresh Goodyear tires. He restarted 17th on lap 37 and survived the multi-car wreck on the very same lap. On the next restart, he was 15th and made his way into the top 10 but later was passed by Cindric, demoting him to 11th. Regardless, the No. 68 Brandonbilt Motorsports team showed their resilience once again.
Double Duty Interlopers
Kyle Busch claimed his 101st career win in the Xfinity Series. He qualified fifth and was about a fourth- or fifth-place car. The fresh tires at the end of the race, coupled with Cindric having to pit for damage from the lap 37 restart and Gibbs retiring from the race, made his route to victory easier as Allmendinger had a superior car but worn tires.
With this weekend being Kevin Harvick’s first time at Road America, he drove the No. 99 Ford for B.J. McLeod Motorsports. It was a mostly uneventful day for the two-time Xfinity Series champion. He finished sixth and now owns two of the four best finishes in the history of BJMM. He finished fourth at Circuit of the Americas this past May, which is the team’s best result ever.
“Can’t say enough about M&M’s Ice Cream… Go get you some cookie sandwiches and celebrate Fourth of July this weekend. It’ll cool you right off.” – Kyle Busch during the post-race television interview.
“Where do I go now?” – Kyle Busch to Marty Snider off-mic, after the television interview concluded.
Road America has been a favorite race for me to watch since joining the NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule in 2010. The camping, barbecuing and summer vibes that the track and road-course racing bring to NASCAR make it the perfect destination as NASCAR seeks to find a new home for Independence Day weekend.
Spoiler alert: I think it’s been found.
I hope that Road America becomes the staple Fourth of July race weekend for decades to come. Going to a racetrack with America in its name on the weekend of our nation’s birthday is perfect. It is one of the most diverse road courses in the United States and it has yet to disappoint.
Finally, when NASCAR looks to finalize the 2022 NASCAR Xfinity Series rulebook, I hope the sanctioning body is taking a headcount of how many individual entries plan to run the entire season. This weekend at Road America is one of only a few times in 2021 that the Xfinity Series will qualify, meaning that only 36 entries started Saturday’s Henry 180. 43 teams showed up in an attempt to qualify, meaning seven did not make the race. If 40 or more teams say they plan to attempt the full 2022 season, I implore NASCAR to increase the max field back to 40. If 40 cars are starting races where there isn’t qualifying, there is no reason not to have 40 cars in races with qualifying. With so many teams wanting to compete, it is a rule that deserves consideration for change.
Up Next: For the first time in history, the NASCAR Xfinity Series will make a second trip to Atlanta Motors Speedway. This coming weekend, the Credit Karma Money 250 goes green at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network and PRN on Saturday, July 10. Kyle Busch will make his fifth and final appearance in the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota at Atlanta. During the post-race press conference, Busch indicated that Atlanta might very well prove to be his last career start in the Xfinity Series. You won’t want to miss the potential to watch history take place.
After Atlanta, the Xfinity transporters will make their way towards New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the annual 200-lap race on July 17. A two-week break follows New Hampshire as the sports world shifts focus to the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. The Xfinity Series will return on August 7 at Watkins Glen International.