Xfinity Series’ postseason fight tightens after Round of 8 opener

The salvation that comes with postseason wins has been in short supply for NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs hopefuls this year. Saturday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway was the latest instance.

Drivers outside of the title-eligible picture have won three of the four playoff races so far this season. Camping World Truck Series regular John Hunter Nemechek joined Josh Berry and Brandon Brown on Saturday as this year’s playoff spoilers, thanks to his rally from a pit-road penalty and his first Xfinity Series win since 2018.

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That’s left the championship hopefuls scrambling for the remnants, with just two races left before the four-driver field is set for the season-ending title showdown Nov. 6 at Phoenix Raceway. No drivers are locked in yet among the eight remaining contenders.

Daniel Hemric had the best day among those clawing for playoff position, leading 55 laps in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota. But he wound up second for the third time this year, just behind teammate Nemechek — the latest in an all-star cast to drive JGR’s No. 54, which won for the 10th time in 2021.

Hemric’s gains were measured, though. He still sits two points below the provisional elimination line — fifth among the eight remaining contenders after the Round of 8 opener.

“These guys are doing a hell of a job. Just got to keep working,” said Hemric, who will leave JGR for Kaulig Racing next season. “I don’t know, that’s all you can do. Keep showing up, keep grinding it out. Thankful to be a part of the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Thankful to know that I can leave it all on the line these next three races for Joe Gibbs Racing and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Regular-season champion AJ Allmendinger and 2020 series champ Austin Cindric — who have battled atop the pack for much of the season — remained there after Saturday’s Andy’s Frozen Custard 335. Allmendinger is 30 points clear of the elimination line after rallying to sixth at Texas, with Cindric up 26 after finishing fifth.

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Their season-long contest for Xfinity Series supremacy has flared at times with full-contact clashes this year — most notably on the last lap of the regular-season finale at Bristol Motor Speedway. Saturday at Texas had similar tones, with hard-nosed racing in the late going leading to an extended discussion between the two on pit road later.

“Just the race and how things went,” Cindric said when asked about his talking points with Allmendinger. “I think the two of us, in some ways, are in the same boat. We have a lot more to lose than to gain. When you are racing side by side, we both know that. It has been a good dynamic most of the season. We were just talking it out. We had some contact down the back straightaway and I wanted to make sure we were all cool and it was.

“I loosened him up. I was tight on his quarter panel and made contact and it was just one of those racing hard deals at the end of the race. He knows how it goes. It is all good.”

Below the lead pair, it’s a scrap for position, with just eight points separating third through sixth. JR Motorsports teammates Justin Allgaier (plus-4 over the elimination line) and Noah Gragson (plus-2) are on the top side among that cluster, then Hemric (minus-2) and Kaulig’s Justin Haley (minus-6) are grouped just below the line. JGR mates Harrison Burton (minus-21) and Brandon Jones (minus-32) both finished in the back half of the top 10 at Texas.

Burton and Jones reached the Round of 8 by snatching up the last two berths on the basis of points. Though their top-10 efforts Saturday closed some of the gap, they remained in the postseason cellar with ground still to gain.

“We had an awful day today,” Burton told PRN Radio post-race. “Through the first half, we were really bad. We held on for a little bit, but the tires went out. I’m bummed out.”