In the first half of Friday’s Food City 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway, it looked as if Justin Allgaier might return to victory lane at Bristol or Daniel Hemric would finally get his first victory. In the second half, Sam Mayer looked to be the favorite before Austin Cindric took control. The driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford seemed to be on his way to his first career win at Bristol and the regular-season championship.
Then, with four laps to go, the yellow flag waved.
Mayer had been giving Allgaier a difficult time for over 30 laps. Allgaier was faster, but hesitated to use the bumper to move his young teammate. As Mayer trailed the lapped cars of Brandon Brown and Josh Williams, Allgaier’s right front clipped Mayer’s left rear as the quartet entered turn one. As Mayer attempted to regain control, he tagged Williams, and both spun. It was a racing incident at its core, and patience levels were drained after nearly 300 laps at Bristol.
Intentional or not, a restart was about to happen. As the leader, Cindric chose the outside on the restart, while second-place Allgaier elected to start behind him. Third-place AJ Allmendinger picked the inside on the restart. The 26-race regular season came down to a two-lap shootout with the two contenders for the title restarting on the front row – at Bristol.
Cindric fired off and entered turn one with two to go clear of Allgaier and Allmendinger, who were nearly side-by-side. Allmendinger then powered down through the center of turns one and two to put his front tires alongside the door of Cindric, but couldn’t stay there down the backstretch.
Entering turn 3, Allmendinger dove into the corner and gassed the No. 16 up through the center again, but this time, he doored Cindric, and the pair slid up the track on exit. They avoided the wall, but Allgaier made it three-wide as the white flag flew across the finish line. Still fighting on the high side, Cindric went as low as he could as Allmendinger yielded, entering turn 1. Allgaier missed the corner and slid up and into Cindric, allowing Allmendinger to take the lead.
At this point, it seemed like it was Allmendinger’s race to lose, and it was. Cindric cleared Allgaier, and Allgaier defended third by banging wheels with Riley Herbst. Allmendinger missed the corner in the final two turns, allowing Cindric, who timed his exit perfectly, to get his right front right on his quarter panel. The last-ditch attempt by Cindric to slow Allmendinger by knocking him out of the way succeeded and failed simultaneously.
When their cars came together off the exit of turn 4, their right rears stepped out from under them and both crossed the line sideways. Allmendinger’s car crossed the finish line first, winning by 82-hundredths of a second as he and Cindric crashed into the inside wall.
Allmendinger wasn’t a factor for the lead all race until the final restart. He led only one lap, but that lap was the most important one of the race and the season thus far. By winning the two-lap shootout, no, grudge match, he earned five additional playoff points and clinched the regular-season championship, securing another 15 playoff points.
Cindric was second – in the race and the standings – Riley Herbst finished a season-high third, Justin Allgaier fourth, and Brandon Jones was fifth.
The NASCAR Xfinity Series contested its first championship with a playoff-style format in 2016. Every year, there has been an underdog driver and organization in the playoffs. Ryan Sieg was the underdog driver in 2016, 2019, and 2020. In 2017, it was Jeremy Clements. In 2018, Ross Chastain took JD Motorsports to the playoffs with some help from a Las Vegas regular-season finale victory in a Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. In 2020, Brandon Brown accompanied Sieg as another underdog driver.
In 2021, Jeremy Clements is the underdog driver and his team, Jeremy Clements Racing, is the organization. Unlike in 2017, Clements pointed his way into the playoffs. In 2017, Clements won at Road America to clinch a playoff berth, but in 2021, he was consistent enough to earn top 12 points.
He exits Bristol 12th in overall standings, and who knows how things would have shaken out had Michael Annett been healthy enough to compete in the five races he has missed in the past two months. Regardless, the way events shook out leaves Clements representing the little guys. With 8 points separating him from eighth place in the standings following the playoff reset, he has a halfway legitimate shot of advancing out of the Round of 12 given his speed at mile-and-a-half tracks (Las Vegas), the unpredictability of superspeedways and road courses (Talladega and the Charlotte ROVAL).
Clements resets last among the twelve drivers. At the top of the list are Cindric and Allmendinger, each with 2,044 points. They’re followed by Allgaier (-24), Noah Gragson (-27), Justin Haley (-29), Hemric (-30), Jeb Burton (-35), Harrison Burton (-36), Myatt Snider (-39), Brandon Jones (-41), Herbst (-43) and Clements (-44).
Pit road speeding penalties sent Allgaier and Gragson to the rear of the longest line to start the third and final stage. Both were top five cars in each of the first two segments, and Allgaier eventually found his way back inside the top 10 and top five. Gragson, meanwhile, was mired back in the mid-teens for the remainder of the race. He pitted for fresh tires before the overtime restart, where he restarted 13th, but managed to gain just one more spot to finish 12th. Allgaier was fourth following the last two laps of mayhem.
Hemric was the driver who suffered the most on the final restart, which saw him line up inside on the second row. Earlier in the race, an all-too-familiar feeling set in that seemed to say, ‘today is the day for Hemric.’ Ultimately, his first career win will have to wait again. Like Gragson, he didn’t get the result he deserved after teammate Brandon Jones tagged him exiting turn 4 on the second to the last lap and Hemric fell to 10th. Hemric had to regain control of his Toyota, but the top-five finish was no longer within reach.
Michael Annett didn’t get the opportunity to race at Bristol to win his way into the playoffs, as JR Motorsports announced Friday afternoon that Annett had reinjured his leg while working out. JRM tapped Josh Berry to replace Annett, as he had previously done twice at New Hampshire and Michigan. Since a shock announcement before the Atlanta race on July 10, Annett missed a total of five of the nine races, including Atlanta. He was 67 points ahead of the cutline before his first missed race at Atlanta and has typically been an automatic playoff driver through his consistency. The lingering leg injury that he has battled the past two months should be listed as the reason for him missing the playoffs and nothing else.
The No. 1 car then finished 35th, 91 laps down. Berry was black-flagged laps before the end of stage one for leaking fluid out the back of the car. The car was taken behind the wall for repairs and reentered once they were completed. It was a long day for the No. 1 JRM team that undoubtedly woke up with high hopes of winning Bristol; based on the speed of their three teammates, they’ll be asking, “what if?”
Underdog Performance of the Race
It’s a big leap from the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series to the NASCAR Xfinity Series: the competition is heightened and the talent level of the competitors is, too. Mayer’s Xfinity Series career is incredibly young, but he had a fantastic run going Friday night at Bristol. He knows how to win at Bristol, as he already has two victories in the Truck Series and ARCA Menards Series. He led 49 laps, and the only reason he lost the lead was inexperience, predominately in the patience category.
Tommy Joe Martins was proving to be more difficult to pass as Cindric loomed behind Mayer. Mayer didn’t regroup his attack on Martins and instead looked to pass him entering turn one on lap 230, so seasoned champion Cindric drove to Mayer’s inside. Mayer hit the left rear of Martins as he tried to squeeze in the middle of a three-wide situation. Martins yielded, but Cindric was already in the preferred line.
The duo was side-by-side down the backstretch and through turns 3 and 4. Cindric all but had Mayer cleared as they exited turn 4. A more experienced driver would have eased off the throttle and let Cindric clear, but Mayer kept his nose in the gap. The two touched, and Mayer slapped the wall. Lesson learned for the rookie.
But Mayer still had an impressive run, later holding his veteran teammate Justin Allgaier for lap after lap. He finished ninth, not bad for a rookie at Bristol, but truthfully, he was going to finish second had Allgaier not clipped him with four laps to go in the race. Mayer earned his third top-10 finish in 11 career starts in the Xfinity Series. That is what the record books will show. Those who watched the race know that his first top-five should’ve been Friday night.
“Those guys [Allmendinger and Allgaier] didn’t want us to win really bad, and I hate that it completely destroyed our Menards-Richmond Ford Mustang. That’s all I got, man.” – Austin Cindric, who pauses as the crowd begins to boo him.
“That’s why there’s people in the grandstands. I mean, they want to see that battle. As much as I hate it, it’s all them. I just got booed and just got cheered. I don’t know what’s going on, but welcome to Bristol, baby.” – Austin Cindric
“It’s frustrating to get hit that hard coming to the checkered, but we’re battling for the win. It’s Bristol, baby. This is what it’s all about, you know. [pauses as crowd cheers] I haven’t had a lot of chances to ever in my life win at Bristol, so you know what, [if] you get a chance to go do it, you gotta do it. If I don’t take that chance, I don’t belong in the racecar because my team deserves to win.” – AJ Allmendinger
“You know, I’m almost 40 years old, [reporter] Dave [Burns]. I’m semi-retired. I don’t know what the hell I was gonna be doing full-time. Matt Kaulig, Chris Rice [and] all the men and women at Kaulig Racing. I didn’t expect this. Why not go for everything you got? You never know how long you’ve got left. I’m gonna run every lap like its my last one, cause it might be. That’s what it’s all about. That’s the way it should be.” – AJ Allmendinger
Are you not entertained?? The Food City 300 at Bristol on Friday night was a great race without the final caution leading to the overtime finish. The culmination of a 26-race long battle between defending series champion Austin Cindric and the nearly 40-year-old veteran A.J. Allmendinger for the regular-season champion was almost something scripted from a Hollywood writer’s room. Allmendinger was nowhere close to sniffing the lead on Friday night, yet when the final restart came about, who was on the front row? Cindric and Allmendinger.
There will be four drivers at Phoenix Raceway on November 6 going for the championship, but if Allmendinger and Cindric are two of those four, the title will likely come down between the two of them. They have been the class of the field this season, and it’s only intensified since the Olympic break.
To quote the movie Rush (2013), the Ron Howard film documenting the 1976 Formula 1 World Championship battle between rivals Niki Lauda and James Hunt, “a showdown between you and Niki is all anyone wants to see.” It’s challenging to find a better reason to tune into the final seven weeks of the 2021 NASCAR Xfinity Series season other than to watch Allmendinger and Cindric duel for the championship.
The fans have let it be known that Allmendinger is the sentimental favorite, but Cindric has pulled his fair share of cheers, too. Both have exhibited their talents and willingness to win. It’s going to be a battle all the way to the end. A movie probably won’t be made about his battle, but I can’t remember an Xfinity season in recent memory that had two clear stars going at it weekly like 2021 does with Allmendinger and Cindric.
It’s playoff time! A champion will be crowed seven weeks from now, but first, over the next three weeks, the twelve Xfinity Series playoff drivers will battle for their spot in the Round of 8. First on the list of races in the Round of 12 will be Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Saturday, Sept. 25. The Alsco Uniforms 302 begins at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and PRN. After Las Vegas, it’s on to Alabama’s Talladega Superspeedway on Saturday, Oct. 2, and the Round of 12 comes to a close on the ROVAL at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Saturday, Oct. 9.
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