Sport: Xfinity Series Playoffs open with a bang; several contenders uprooted

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Xfinity Series Playoffs open with a bang; several contenders uprooted © James Gilbert Getty Images Xfinity Series Playoffs open with a bang; several contenders uprooted FORT WORTH, Texas — When pole-starter Brandon Jones nearly spun out on the first lap of Saturday‘s Andy’s Frozen Custard 300 at Texas Motor Speedway, you just knew the opening race of the 2022 NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs was going to be … different.

The one familiar refrain from the past few weeks, however, was who landed in Victory Lane — JR Motorsports No. 9 driver Noah Gragson, for the fourth consecutive race. He becomes the first driver locked into the Round of 8 that‘ll begin next month at his hometown Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

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As for the other playoff drivers, it varied. Championship contenders Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger, Riley Herbst and Josh Berry knocked off the next five spots on the leaderboard, with Sam Mayer and Ryan Sieg not far behind in eighth and ninth, respectively. The next 16 spots on the results sheet were split among non-playoff drivers, before Jones, Justin Allgaier, defending champ Daniel Hemric and Jeremy Clements (retired early with unknown mechanical issue) were slotted 27th, 29th, 30th and 36th respectively. Jones recovered from that early spin only to be taken out later on.

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On the Lap 109 restart, the Regular Season Champion Allmendinger was caught up in a wreck that involved several cars when he made contact with the No. 68 of Brandon Brown to cause a pileup. Allmendinger‘s No. 16 Chevrolet took a noticeable amount of damage, but his team did an exceptional job of bandaging his ride on pit road in quick fashion to get it back out there and battle over the remainder of the race to gut out a top five.

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“Frustrated a little bit with myself,” Allmendinger said on pit road after the race. “I knew I should have took the bottom on the restart there and took the high line and got shoved there and kind of had the 68 in the middle and he moved up trying to block me and I tried to check up and just touch them a little bit and then we got just run through after that as everybody started checking up. So disappointed in that but to have the team put the car back together … I thought we had a lot of damage, honestly, when I got hit. They put it back together and it was pretty good, we were just a little bit tighter than we had been … I thought maybe we had a really good shot to win the race even then with the damage. … Could have been a really good day, could have been a really bad day and turned out to be a pretty good day.”

Allmendinger is still plus-47 over the elimination line, followed by Gibbs, Hill, Berry, Allgaier, Mayer and Sieg. Herbst, Hemric, Jones and Clements are currently the provisional first four out.

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Shortly after on the ensuing Lap 116 restart, three more drivers in the title hunt were involved in an even more vicious wreck, seeing a battle with Allgaier and Camping World Truck Series full-timer John Hunter Nemechek get loose and sideways as they got into the on-track resin and eventually ran out of room. Allgaier‘s No. 7 Chevy was briefly lifted off the ground and took the brunt of the damage, with Hemric and Jones also being on the receiving end of race-ending carnage.

“Just stinks how it happened, right?” Allgaier said after being released from the infield care center. “I mean, just to not really feel like we were where we wanted to be all day, but to get a great restart there. And once the 18 (of Nemechek) started to get loose, I just tried to get as far left as I could. But I knew that the 9 (of Gragson) was there. I didn’t want to crowd his door, obviously, and I knew that the 21 (of Hill) I believe was inside the 9. So at that point, you know, you’re trying to get as much room as you can, but you’re just out of space and once he started to spin there’s nothing I can do and he hit the right-front fender and turned me right, and once we hit the wall, it was game over there. So just hate it for our team. I mean, it’s, you know, we go to two more unknowns kind of, if you will, in this round as well. But, you know, again, that’s why you work on bonus points in the regular season. And we have fast race cars in both of these upcoming races. So I have no doubt we can race our way in but we’ll see what happens.”

The Round of 12 will conclude with next week‘s jaunt down to Alabama for the always unpredictable Talladega Superspeedway, followed by a hometown showing at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. If there was a race a driver wanted to make sure they finished in one piece, it was Texas.

“It’s not ideal, first race of the playoffs, but we were able to, you know, win that first stage,” said Hemric. “When there‘s points on the table you’ve got to go get them while you can on days like this. … All you can do is keep showing up and keep swinging.”

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