As the Xfinity Series heads to Darlington Raceway for the second time in four weeks, many drivers are hoping for a chance at redemption. The last time this race was at Darlington, it ended with a controversial red flag ruling that sent the field back to the pits, and one driver was on the receiving end of some strong words on social media.
After two top fives, four top tens, and nine top-15s through nine races, Noah Gragson finally made it to the front of the race car, and made it stay there. On June 17, at Darlington Raceway, the young Xfinity Series veteran posted the highest finish ever for a driver who started the year with neither a win nor an Xfinity win. After leading the first 29 laps, Gragson passed Justin Haley for the lead with 25 laps to go, only to fall back to sixth after a full field crash. But he regained the lead with 12 laps left to earn his first Xfinity Series win.
In what was supposed to be a season of redemption, the Darlington Raceway Darlington, S.C. native didn’t get the victory he thought he would. But Gragson knew he had a shot at the title when he qualified in the No. 24 position, posting a lap of 70.534-mph. However, the race ended with a crash in the No. 2 spot, bringing out a caution and a restart. That restart allowed Gragson to move into the lead and take the win.
DARLINGTON, South Carolina — Noah Gragson won his first NASCAR Xfinity Series race of the season at Darlington Raceway on Saturday, beating Harrison Burton in a two-lap overtime shootout.
Gragson started his week by extending his contract to race in the series for JR Motorsports until 2022, and he ended it with his third career victory — and first at the “Too Tough To Tame” circuit.
“I can’t believe this is Darlington,” Gragson said.
Late in the race, it seemed like no one, even Gragson, would be able to outrun Cup Series standout Denny Hamlin. With 10 laps to go, a yellow came out, and as Hamlin went into pit, there was a tire already over the wall waiting for him — a no-no according to NASCAR rules — and he was relegated to the end of the lead lap.
Gragson wasn’t sure what happened to Hamlin, but he believed his crew had made the necessary changes during the pit stop to provide him with the vehicle he needed to fight with Hamlin and anybody else in the closing laps.
“Yeah, if he had remained up there after that caution, we would’ve been able to fight, at least had a chance to win it,” Gragson said.
Daniel Hemric and points leader AJ Allmendinger, two more strong contenders, all dropped off in the closing stretch. On the 144th of 147 laps, Hemric slipped as Allmendinger’s vehicle leaked debris, resulting in the final yellow and overtime.
Gragson was also up to the task. As Burton attempted to drive low, he blasted out in front in the high lane nearest to Darlington’s famous wall.
Burton closed up on Gragson on both overtime laps, but was unable to pass him.
Burton finished second, with Austin Cindric third. Justin Haley was fourth, with Jeb Burton, Justin Allgaier, Tyler Reddick of the Cup Series, Jeremy Clements, Myatt Snider, and Alex Labbe rounding out the top ten.
Cindric felt he had a chance to catch Gragson and Burton in overtime, but he waited too long in the restart zone and was unable to do so. He said, “That’s the name of the game.”
With two races remaining in the Xfinity regular season, Allmendinger finished 20th, while Cindric closed to within a point of the points leader.
Hamlin finished 12th after leading the most laps of any driver with 43. Hamlin, on the other hand, had a good look of the circuit — including the repaved and repaired turn two — ahead of Sunday’s Southern 500, the first NASCAR Cup Series playoff race.
In the 16-player playoff field, Hamlin is seeded seventh.
Since Bristol in June 2020, Gragson has not won. Gragson and several of his teammates scaled the Darlington fence after a burnout to celebrate with spectators.
“It’s been a long time,” Gragson said, his face beaming.
Cindric finished second in points, behind Allmendinger.
When leader Hamlin slipped as he approached the start-finish line, Daniel Hemric took the lead and won the first stage. Before the late pit error, Hamlin was out ahead in the second stage and seemed to be on his way to his sixth career Xfinity win at Darlington.
Before the Xfinity 12-man playoff starts, two races remain at Richmond and Bristol.
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