FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — All four spots in the championship round of the NASCAR Xfinity Series are still up for grabs after non-playoff qualifier John Hunter Nemechek overcame a late penalty Saturday to win at Texas Motor Speedway.
Nemechek won the first of three races in the round of eight, leaving the playoff drivers with two more chances in the semifinals, at Kansas and Martinsville, to qualify for the championship finale in Phoenix.
Daniel Hemric led seven of the eight playoff qualifiers across the finish line after Nemechek, taking second in the 117th race of his career without a victory. It was Hemric's 10th runner-up finish in Xfinity.
“Same as we have all playoffs, we’re going to keep bringing the same bullets," Hemric said. “That's all you can do, keep showing up, keep grinding it out.”
Noah Gragson was third, followed by Justin Allgaier and Austin Cindric.
AJ Allmendinger, who won last week on The Roval at Charlotte leader, finished sixth and kept the points lead on a difficult day that included a pit mishap.
Justin Haley was seventh and Harrison Burton eighth. Brandon Jones, who came in last in points among the playoff qualifiers, took 10th.
The order of the Xfinity point standings didn't change, with Allmendinger's lead over Cindric shrinking to four points from six. Allgaier and Gragson hold the other two spots in the top four. Hemric is the first one below the cut line, two points behind Gragson.
Nemechek was forced to the back of the lead lap on a pit stop with 56 laps remaining when he was penalized for a pit crew member coming over the wall too early.
After the restart, Nemechek charged back into the top 10 in less than 20 laps and was seventh when the caution came out with 26 laps to go. Most of the qualifiers went to pit road, and Nemechek beat them all back to the track by taking two tires while they took four.
Nemechek, the son of former Xfinity Series champion Joe Nemechek, battled Burton, also the son of an ex-Cup Series driver in Jeff Burton, on the restart. But Nemechek took the lead with 18 laps to go and pulled away for his second career Xfinity victory.
“It reminded me of my truck here in the spring,” said Nemechek, who had one of his five Truck Series wins this season at Texas in June. “Just able to run the bottom, able to run, able to move around, slide through traffic. Top, bottom, middle, it didn’t matter and coming back through the field there, I was a man on a mission.”
The win came in the No. 54 Toyota that Kyle Busch has driven to five Xfinity victories this season, and Ty Gibbs three more. Nemechek, named for an uncle who was killed in a crash at Homestead, is set to drive in the Truck Series for Busch again next year.
This victory was a Texas-best 15th Xfinity victory for Joe Gibbs Racing.
“The 54’s been fast every single week,” the 24-year-old said. “My goal coming in was to win. I had to win to prove to myself that I can do this.”
The first half of the race on the high-banked, 1 1/2-mile Texas track had plenty of starts and stops with eight cautions in the first 100 laps before a long green-flag run ended with CJ McLaughlin spinning out. The caution set up the penalty on Nemechek.
Gragson and Allmendinger were chasing from the early laps of the final stage after longer pit stops and a second trip to pit road following he second stage.
Gragson, who made contact with Allmendinger's rear bumper early in the second stage, needed extra work on the right front while Allmendinger tried to leave before the left front tire was in place. After stopping to let the crew finish, Allmendinger came back through again to check all the lug nuts.