By Cole Cusumano
It was a beautiful 75-degree Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, as the sell-out crowd of 12,500 flocked into the grandstands for what was a highly strategic and emotional NASCAR Xfinity Series event. The 200-lap race showcased many gutsy performances from many in an afternoon where there were 23 lead changes — the most in the series in Sin City since 2007.
This was a testament to the intense racing displayed, not only up front, but throughout the field. Among the most impressive showings was that of A.J. Allmendinger, who led 44 laps and got by the dominant car of Daniel Hemric with 13 to go en route to his second career oval victory.
Now with a combined four wins over the last 20 events started, it’s hard to argue against Allmendinger’s claims of “getting better with age,” in his career rebirth at Kaulig Racing. The second coming of ‘The Dinger’ won’t only be a treat for fans intermittently, but on a full-time basis; meaning he’s locked himself into the playoffs for only the second time in his 14 years competing in NASCAR – the last time was 2014 in the NASCAR Cup Series).
“Every opportunity that I’ve gotten in my life I feel so fortunate and appreciative for — whether it’s worked out or hasn’t worked out,” Allmendinger told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “That’s why I’m so emotional after a win, because it’s all the men and women that put the effort into it, and it’s Matt Kaulig, and Chris Rice and all of our partners.
“It means the world to me and the best way I can show them is driving my ass off, because that’s all I know how to do and that’s the only way I really know how to show them.”
While Allmendinger emerged victorious, it was Stage Two winner and 2019 Cup Series Rookie of the Year Hemric, who led a race-high 74 laps that established himself as the clear favorite throughout the Alsco Uniforms 300. This was largely due in part to the position he was put into thanks to his No. 18 pit crew at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Winning battles off pit road is always an advantage, but it was even more vital in Las Vegas after learning throughout the afternoon and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series the night prior how critical clean air was. Although Hemric had to settle for a runner-up placing, it can’t be understated how valuable the Joe Gibbs Racing team members were all day.
“The pit crew on our team is unbelievable,” Hemric said. “I’ve never in my career come down pit road with more confidence. Ultimately, they put me in a position to win this race. It’s a different feeling, I can promise you, in the race car to come down pit road and know you have that kind of group behind you.”
Third-place finisher Brandon Jones also led laps and had a shot at the win by virtue of positioning by the pit warriors, and he too is aware of the impact they’ve had on his Xfinity Series career since joining the organization in 2018.
It was an all around impressive showing from Kaulig Racing, as all three drivers finished inside the top-10 — but this was not without adversity. Justin Haley suffered a spin on Lap 73 and was able to rebound to finish eighth, while even leading a bit in the final stage. Jeb Burton earned 10th after serving a pass through penalty with 45 to go for removing equipment from the pit box.
To say 2021 has been an abysmal year for JR Motorsports would be an understatement. Prior to the event at Las Vegas, they only had a total of two top-10s between four teams and those came between two separate drivers in the part-time No. 8 car. The team owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. found lady luck on Saturday after tacking on three more to their season total — the most enticing being from Josh Berry.
After six years of chasing a Championship for JRM in the CARS Late Model Tour, Berry was given a part-time shot at NASCAR and he’s made his presence known in each event started in 2021. He’s successfully clicked off back-to-back top-10s and he’s been praised by his team, and competitors for talent and grit.
What would a track position venue like Las Vegas be without some flared tempers? On Lap 175, Stage One winner Austin Cindric turned Harrison Burton for blocking, saying over the radio, “You can only be blocked by the same guy so many times […] If he was faster he should have run the bottom.” In the end, both cars finished inside the top-10; Cindric fourth and H. Burton ninth.
Among other standout performances was Santino Ferrucci of Sam Hunt Racing. The IndyCar driver flexed his muscles for a hard fought 13th-place finish. He was trading paint with one of the series’ best in Justin Allgaier for a good three laps before securing the top-15 in just his second career Xfinity start.
Ultimately, clean air proved to be king in this Xfinity Series event that appeared to be survival of the fittest in the opening stages. Three and even four-wide racing for position provided those in attendance and at home with hours of entertainment.
Endurance was the objective in the 300-mile event, but execution of pit strategy is what made for a successful afternoon for teams and the product displayed. Allmendinger is now locked into the postseason with Myatt Snider and Austin Cindric, as the Xfinity Series continues their West Coast swing to the sight of the Championship — Phoenix Raceway.