Gragson delivers at Martinsville; Xfinity Championship 4 field set

Given two late opportunities to keep his championship hopes alive and vowing to win entering the weekend, Noah Gragson capitalized on both opportunities through two overtime attempts after beating Austin Cindric in a photo finish to win the Dead On Tools 250 at Martinsville Speedway on Saturday, October 30, and punch his ticket to the Championship 4 finale. 

With the victory, Gragson, who was placed in a “must-win” situation following his wreck last weekend at Kansas Speedway, will be one of four competitors who will contend for the 2021 NASCAR Xfinity Series championship at Phoenix Raceway scheduled for next Saturday.

The starting lineup was based on a performance metric formula, weighing the driver’s and owner’s results from a previous Xfinity event, the owner points position and the fastest lap recorded from a previous Xfinity race. With that, Austin Cindric, the reigning Xfinity Series champion, started on pole position and was joined on the front row with Ty Gibbs, the 2021 ARCA Menards Series champion and winner of last weekend’s Xfinity event at Kansas Speedway.

Prior to the event, Stephen Leicht and Joe Graf Jr. started at the rear of the field due to unapproved adjustments along with Mike Harmon, who fell back due to a driver change.

When the green flag waved and the race commenced, Cindric managed to pull ahead and clear Gibbs entering the backstretch to come back around and lead the first lap. Behind, AJ Allmendinger, sporting an orange Halloween scheme on his No. 16 Hyperice Chevrolet Camaro, was in third ahead of teammate Justin Haley, racing in a purple Halloween scheme on his No. 11 LeafFilter Gutter Protection Chevrolet Camaro, and Justin Allgaier, featuring Hellmann’s on his No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro, while Daniel Hemric muscled his way into the top six.

Through the first five laps of the event, the battle for the lead intensified between Cindric and Gibbs, who attempted to take over the top spot over Cindric on the inside lane. Despite Gibbs’ effort, Cindric prevailed once again and cleared Gibbs’ No. 54 Smile Coin Toyota Supra to retain the lead.

By Lap 10, the front-runners settled in a long single-file line as Cindric continued to lead ahead of Gibbs, Allmendinger, Haley, Hemric, Allgaier, Brandon Jones, Harrison Burton, Noah Gragson and rookie Sam Mayer. Behind, Ryan Sieg was in 11th ahead of Jeb Burton, Michael Annett, Brandon Brown, Riley Herbst and Myatt Snider.

Five laps later, the first caution flew when Preston Pardus wheel-hopped and spun in Turn 4. At the time of caution, Allmendinger overtook Gibbs for the runner-up spot while Cindric was ahead by nearly a second. In addition, Hemric and Allgaier moved into the top five while Haley dropped to sixth. During the caution period, the competition caution that was planned on Lap 25 was pushed back to Lap 30.

Another five laps later, the race restarted under green. At the start, Cindric rocketed away in his No. 22 CARQUEST Ford Mustang with the lead followed by Allmendinger. Soon after, Hemric challenged teammate Gibbs for third followed by Allgaier while Haley and Mayer battled for sixth. After battling Gibbs for a full lap on the outside lane, Hemric’s No. 18 Poppy Bank Toyota Supra prevailed entering the backstretch.

By Lap 25, Cindric was ahead by two-tenths of a second over Allmendinger while third-place Hemric trailed by less than a second. Meanwhile, Gibbs and Allgaier battled for fourth.

When the competition caution flew on Lap 30, Cindric was still leading ahead of Allmendinger and Hemric. By then, seven of the eight remaining Playoff contenders were running in the top 10 as Haley was in 10th behind Gragson while Brandon Jones, the eighth postseason contender, was mired in 15th.

Under the competition caution, some like Stephen Leicht, JJ Yeley, David Starr, Colin Garrett, Natalie Decker, Bayley Currey and Spencer Boyd pitted while the rest led by Cindric remained on the track.

Five laps later, the race restarted under green. At the start, Cindric and Allmendinger engaged in a side-by-side battle for three corners until Cindric prevailed on the inside lane. Behind, Hemric challenged Allmendinger for a full lap behind clearing him on Lap 37 in Turn 1. Meanwhile, Haley, who was in 10th, was being shuffled back towards the top 20 in 19th.

Through the first 40 laps of the event, Cindric was ahead by approximately seven-tenths of a second over Hemric while Allmendinger, Allgaier and Gibbs were in the top five. Mayer was in sixth ahead of Sieg, Gragson, Josh Berry and Harrison Burton. Brandon Jones was in 15th behind Jeb Burton while Haley was mired in 20th behind Snider.

On Lap 48, the caution flew when Mayer cut a right-front tire, shredded the right-front fender of his No. 8 John 5 Sinner Chevrolet Camaro and ignited sparks after making contact with Gibbs the previous lap.

Under caution, some like Gibbs, Harrison Burton, Brandon Jones, Gragson and Haley pitted while the rest led by Cindric remained on the track.

With seven laps remaining in the first stage, the race restarted under green. At the start, Cindric retained the lead following another strong start. In addition, Hemric muscled his way back to second followed by Allgaier, Allmendinger, Berry and Sieg as the field scrambled for positions towards the front. 

When the first stage concluded on Lap 60, Cindric claimed his 12th stage victory of the season. Hemric settled in second followed by Allgaier, Allmendinger, Berry, Sieg and Gragson, who charged his way towards the front on fresh tires. Annett, Yeley and Moffitt completed the top-10 stage positions while Harrison Burton, Haley and Brandon Jones finished outside of the top 15 and with no early stage points in their quest to remain in the championship battle. 

Under the stage break, the leaders led by Cindric pitted while the rest led by Gragson and Gibbs, both of whom pitted prior to the conclusion of the first stage, remained on the track.

When the second stage concluded on Lap 68, Gragson pulled his No. 9 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet Camaro ahead of Gibbs through the backstretch to retain the lead as Jeb Burton was in third. Behind, cousin Harrison Burton was in fifth behind Jeremy Clements as Haley moved up to sixth. 

By Lap 75, Gragson was out in front by three-tenths of a second over Gibbs while Jeb Burton, Clements and Harrison Burton were in the top five. Meanwhile, Haley retained sixth ahead of Snider, Brandon Jones was in 10th behind Riley Herbst, Hemric was in 13th, Cindric and Allmendinger were in 15th and 16th and Allgaier was in 18th.

Fifteen laps later, Gragson, who was mired in lapped traffic, continued to lead by a narrow margin over Gibbs as Harrison Burton started to close in for the lead. Behind, Haley started to challenged Clements for fifth while Hemric and Cindric were back in the top 10 in ninth and 10th.

Through the first 100 laps of the event, Gragson was leading by three-tenths of a second over Harrison Burton, who moved into the runner-up spot a few laps earlier when Gibbs went up the track in Turn 3. With Gibbs back in third, Jeb Burton and Clements remained in the top five ahead of Haley, Snider, Herbst, Hemric and Cindric. Allmendinger, meanwhile, was in 11th while Brandon Jones and Allgaier were in the top 15.

By Lap 110, Gragson and Harrison Burton, both of whom were placed in a “must-win” situation to advance to the championship finale, were running nose to tail amid lapped traffic as Burton challenged Gragson for the top spot. 

When the second stage concluded on Lap 120, Gragson, who was mired behind more lapped traffic and nearly lost the top spot entering Turn 4 as Harrison Burton shoved his No. 20 Dex Imaging Toyota Supra beneath Gragson, edged Harrison Burton to claim his fourth stage victory of the season. Gibbs settled in third followed by Jeb Burton, Cindric, Hemric, Allmendinger, Herbst, Clements and Snider.

By virtue of their top-10 results in the second stage and the overall stage points accumulated, Austin Cindric and AJ Allmendinger secured their spots to the Championship 4 finale at Phoenix Raceway, with Cindric receiving an opportunity to defend his title and Allmendinger receiving his first opportunity to win his first NASCAR national touring series title. 

Meanwhile, Haley, Gragson, Brandon Jones and Harrison Burton were scored outside of the top-four cutline to the finale while Hemric and Allgaier were currently scored inside the cutline.

Under the stage break, the leaders pitted as Gragson retained the lead ahead of Harrison Burton, Gibbs and the field. Meanwhile, Haley came to pit road with the left-rear brake caliber and tire of his car on fire. Following several trips to pit road, where several douses from a fire extinguisher and multiple water bottles were made to his car, Haley, ultimately, took his car to the garage to have the right rear inspected. The issue, however, was enough to end his title hopes.

With 120 laps remaining, the final stage started. At the start, Gragson and Harrison Burton engaged in a heated battle for the lead for two laps until Gragson cleared Burton entering the frontstretch. 

Not long after, Harrison Burton reignited his challenge for the lead beneath Gragson. Gragson, however, retained the lead as the field settled in a long single-file line.

Nearing the final 100 laps of the event, the caution flew when Bayley Currey cut a right-front tire entering Turn 2. The incident occurred just in front of the leaders. At the time of caution, Gragson was ahead of a hard-challenging Harrison Burton while Gibbs, Jeb Burton and Cindric were in the top five. Herbst was in sixth while Allmendinger, Brandon Jones, Allgiaer and Hemric were in the top 10.

Under caution, some like Brandon Jones pitted while the rest led by Gragson remained on the track.

With 95 laps remaining, the race restarted under green. At the start, Gragson cleared Gibbs entering the backstretch to retain the lead as Harrison Burton challenged his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate for the runner-up spot. 

Five laps later, Gragson extended his advantage to more than half a second over Gibbs, who prevailed in a long side-by-side battle against Harrison Burton. Behind, Cindric was up in fourth in front of Jeb Burton while Hemric and Allmendinger dueled for sixth.

Down to the final 75 laps of the event, Gragson remained as the leader by eight-tenths of a second over Gibbs, who had teammate Harrison Burton and Cindric pressuring him for the runner-up spot. Hemric was up in fifth followed by Allmendinger, Allgaier, Annett, Berry and Jeb Burton. By then, Hemric was holding sole possession of the fourth and final transfer spot to the finale ahead of Allgaier. 

Shortly after, the caution returned when Ryan Ellis spun in Turn 2.

Under caution, the leaders pitted and Gibbs emerged with the lead after exiting pit road first followed by teammate Harrison Burton, Gragson, Hemric and Brandon Jones. Following the pit stops, however, Spencer Boyd emerged as the leader after he opted to remain on the track.

With 66 laps remaining, the race restarted under green. At the start, Gragson made a bold three-wide move to the inside lane and beneath Boyd and Harrison Burton while Gibbs took over the lead. Through the first two turns, Harrison Burton was forced wide while trying to overtake Boyd and he lost his momentum through the backstretch as he fell back into the top 10.

With the field jostling for positions and Harrison Burton mired in the pack, Gibbs was leading ahead of Gragson, Cindric, Hemric and Allgaier. 

A few laps later, the caution flew when Snider spun in Turn 2 after being bumped by Sieg. Under the caution laps, Harrison Burton pulled his car alongside Boyd’s to express his displeasure for losing his momentum.

Down to the final 58 laps of the event, the race restarted under green. At the start, Gibbs and Gragson dueled for the lead through the backstretch. Just then, the caution returned for a multi-car wreck in Turn 2 when Jeb Burton, who was trying to force his way through Boyd entering the backstretch, came back down and ignited calamity with Annett making hard contact into the outside wall while Herbst, Boyd and Moffitt were also involved. The incident was enough to red-flag the event for nearly 11 minutes with fluid leaking out of Annett’s destroyed car.

When the red flag lifted and the race restarted under green with 50 laps remaining, Gibbs and Gragson dueled for the lead until Gibbs cleared the field entering the backstretch. Then in Turn 3, Gragson ran into the rear of Gibbs, which sent Gibbs sideways in front of the field. While most of the field scrambled to avoid Gibbs, Harrison Burton, unfortunately, made contact into his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, damaging the front nose of his Dex Imaging Toyota Supra. In the midst of the incident, Gragson returned to the lead ahead of Cindric, Allgaier, Hemric and Allmendinger.

Under caution, both Harrison Burton and Gibbs pitted, with Gibbs losing a lap in the process while Burton proceeded with a patched nose.  

With 43 laps remaining, the race restarted under green. At the start, Gragson retained the lead while Cindric spun the tires. Cindric’s misfortune allowed Allgaier to moved into second followed by Hemric. Not long after, Brandon Jones made the slightest of contact with Cindric in Turn 3, but Jones and Cindric remained in fourth and fifth while Allmendinger, who tried to move inside the top five, remained in sixth.

Eight laps later, Gragson was leading by nearly six-tenths of a second over Hemric while Allgaier, Brandon Jones and Cindric were in the top five.

Another three laps later, the caution returned due to debris reported in the backstretch and coming off of Harrison Burton’s No. 20 Toyota. 

Prior to the restart, a jack coming off of Harrison Burton’s car came to rest on the backstretch, which resulted with Burton being penalized for removing equipment out of his pit box.

Down to the final 26 laps of the event, the race restarted under green. At the start, Gragson received another strong start to retain the lead and slowly pull away through the backstretch. Meanwhile, teammate Allgaier was overtaken by Hemric as Cindric joined the battle. 

Six laps later, Gragson was ahead by two-tenths of a second over Hemric, who started to close in on Gragson for the lead. Cindric trailed the two leaders by more than a second followed by Allgaier, Brandon Jones, Allmendinger, Mayer, Berry, Herbst and Clements. 

Two laps later, Hemric, who gained a run through the backstretch, emerged with the lead. Hemric’s move dropped Gragson, who is in a “must-win” situation, below the top-four cutline while Allgaier moved back into the cutline.

Down to the final 10 laps of the event, Hemric was leading by seven-tenths of a second over Gragson while Cindric, Allgaier, Mayer and Allmendinger were in the top six.

Four laps later, the caution returned when Haley, who was 23 laps behind the leaders, spun in Turn 4, which evaporated Hemric’s stable advantage over Gragson and Cindric. Following his spin, Haley called it a night as he parked his car in the garage and retired, which officially ended his hopes of advancing to the championship finale.

With the race sent into overtime, Hemric and Gragson occupied the front row ahead of Cindric, Allgaier, Mayer and Allmendinger. At the start, Gragson challenged Hemric for the lead on the outside lane. Through the backstretch, Gragson used the outside lane to his advantage as he fought back and cleared Hemric for the top spot entering the frontstretch. Behind, Josh Berry spun and the caution flew just before Gragson could start the final lap of the event, which sent the event into another overtime attempt. 

With the race restarting in another overtime attempt, Gragson and Cindric occupied the front row while Hemric elected to restart behind Gragson on the inside lane. At the start, Gragson cleared Cindric entering the backstretch and continued to lead for a full lap.

When the white flag waved and the final lap started, Gragson was still leading by a mere margin over Cindric while Hemric was being challenged by Mayer and others for third. Through the backstretch, Gragson continued to keep Cindric at bay. Then, Cindric made his move beneath Gragson in an attempt to snatch the win entering Turns 3 and 4. Despite Cindric’s late effort, Gragson fought back on the outside lane and edged Cindric’s No. 22 Ford by 0.064 seconds to win and punch his ticket to the finale.

In addition to locking himself and his No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet team into the finale to battle for the championsip, Gragson captured his fifth NASCAR Xfinity Series career victory, third of 2021 and first at Martinsville in the series. He also clinched the manufacturer’s title for Chevrolet.

The margin of victory between Gragson and Cindric marked the closest finish ever at Martinsville.

“Man, I wanna cry right now,” Gragson said on NBCSN. “It’s been a rough season. We got a couple of wins there at Darlington and Richmond [in September]. I know it wasn’t looking good after last weekend. I was pretty fired up. I told my guys that we got an opportunity and we’re still in it. I’m so thankful. It’s just such an awesome opportunity. This team’s unbelievable. Overall, just an awesome day. I was telling all the guys in the pre-race deal, I said that snow plow’s engaged. We’re gonna be digging, get out of the way. Man, I’m emotional right now. Dude, this is Martinsville, baby! We’re going to the final four, baby! Yeah!”

Cindric, who will attempt to defend his series title next weekend, settled in second place followed by Hemric, who captured the fourth and final spot to the Championship 4 finale. This marks the third season where Hemric will contend for a NASCAR national touring series title while he continues to pursue his first race victory.

“Yeah, there was a lot that went into it,” Cindric said. “I felt like I had a shot as the third-place car. [I] Kept it in third gear, got the momentum, got cleared for second place. I put front bias into it, drove it in as hard as I could into [Turn] 3, but I wasn’t gonna use up Noah. I intend on racing for a championship a certain way. I said it after Bristol. [Gragson] earned that win. Just needed a couple inches, maybe needed above the track a little bit more. Overall, really proud of this season. I’ve been saying it since last season and this year, I feel the same way. I’m not talking about going back to back [in championships]. It’s about making it into the Championship 4. I feel like that’s the hardest thing you can do in a national series is to make it there. What you do with a bonus, you get to go have a great day and try to make the most of the opportunity.”

“I can tell you, I’m just pretty disappointed,” Hemric said. “I had to make a decision there. First caution comes out when you’re checked out, I felt like, first off, what a great Poppy Bank Toyota Supra. Just checked out, biding time, counting the laps down. The caution came out, I knew it wouldn’t be that easy and that’s fine. [Cindric] got into me into [Turns] 1 and 2. He’s also trying to win the race, same as I am, and he got me in a bad angle, let [Gragson] take the lead, the caution comes out again. I wanted to choose the top, race [Gragson]. It’s kind of risk versus reward, right? You start the season off with one goal and that’s to try to do what we officially have a shot to do next week and that’s run for a championship. That is the ultimate goal, but I don’t know. A win would’ve been nice. At least I’d be on the front row and have a shot. Right decision, I don’t know. Right, though, for next week? Of course.”

Mayer rallied from his early on-track issues to finish in fourth place for his first career top-five result in the Xfinity circuit followed by teammate Justin Allgaier, who was the first Xfinity Playoff competitor to miss the top-four cutline to the finale. This marks the second time in four seasons where Allgaier will not advance to the Championship 4 finale.

“It just wasn’t enough,” Allgaier said. “We played the safe strategy. We talked about it before the race and felt like that was the smart strategy. Just gave up too many points. Daniel [Hemric] was, obviously, a lot better that we were tonight and put himself in good position to get the points. Hats off to [Gragson]. At least we got one [JR Motorsports] car going to the Playoffs. It’s super disappointing. Everybody at JR Motorsports works so hard on this No. 7 team. A lot of averages says we’ve been in it the last so many years. At some point, you’re gonna have to have a bad year – by bad, fifth going into the final round – but still just disappointing.”

Brandon Jones, who came into Martinsville in a “must-win” situation, ended his night in sixth place as he also failed to transfer past the Round of 8 for a second consecutive season. He will remain at Joe Gibbs Racing in the Xfinity circuit for the 2022 season.

“I just don’t think that we quite had the balance we did here in the spring,” Jones said. “Similar conditions, so I was expecting to be fairly fast here today. Then there at the end, just kind of fell back away from it. We got to go dissect this a little bit, figure out where we can continue to be better. We can still go to Phoenix and win that race. I truly believe we can do that. That’s still on my mind. It’s still my goal to go win one of these races before the start of next year, to get some momentum built back up here. We kept fighting. Hate that we missed [the Championship 4 round] again. We’ll keep going, man. We’re gonna keep trying to figure out how to do this.”

Allmendinger, who will contend for his first NASCAR national touring series championship, finished seventh followed by Alex Labbe, Clements and Herbst.

“It’s been an amazing year here at Kaulig Racing,” Allmendinger said. “To win five times, win a Cup race. At the end of the day, you just want a chance at Phoenix. We know it’s gonna come down to four really strong cars. We’ve got some work to do. We definitely, I think, lost a little bit of speed over the last couple of months, taking out the Roval. We’ll go to work hard this week. We’ve been planning for this, all the men and women at Kaulig Racing. We’ve been getting our Phoenix car ready for the last five weeks, planning that we’re gonna be there…We did what we had to do. Got a seventh-place finish there. At the end of the day, we’re going for a championship.”

AJ Allmendinger, Austin Cindric, Noah Gragson and Daniel Hemric have made the Championship 4 round and will contend for the 2021 NASCAR Xfinity Series championship. Justin Allgaier, Brandon Jones, Harrison Burton and Justin Haley have been eliminated from title contention.

“That sucks, right?” Burton said. “Obviously, we put ourselves in this position and we needed to perform better throughout the year, to not be in this position. The last two weeks, I felt like [I] could’ve won the race. I don’t know. It’s a tough system to win. That’s what makes it fun for the fans, makes it fun for us. We just need to perform better. It’s that simple. We had a winning car today. Just so many things have to go right in racing to win and it makes it challenging to do it at the drop of a dime. We just had a couple things go wrong. Just a bummer deal that we didn’t get to show our speed at the end. Wish we could’ve won this thing. I felt like we were capable of it. I had times better than [Gragson] and really everybody. Just needed to show it.”

“We weren’t very good anyway,” Haley said. “It was inevitable. The brakes just went to the floor. I was either gonna wreck or spin out. That’ll happen. We’ll move on. I’m glad that AJ’s in the final four for Phoenix and go get [team owner] Matt Kaulig that championship trophy.”

To go along with the driver’s championship battle, the following teams will contend for the 2021 Xfinity Series owner’s title: Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 54 Toyota Supra piloted by John Hunter Nemechek, JR Motorsports’ No. 9 Chevrolet Camaro piloted by Gragson, Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 Chevrolet Camaro piloted by Allmendinger and Team Penske’s No. 22 Ford Mustang piloted by Cindric.

There were 13 lead changes for six different leaders. The race featured 13 cautions for 75 laps.

Results.

1. Noah Gragson, 153 laps led, Stage 2 winner

2. Austin Cindric, 64 laps led, Stage 1 winner

3. Daniel Hemric, 18 laps led

4. Sam Mayer

5. Justin Allgaier

6. Brandon Jones

7. AJ Allmendinger

8. Alex Labbe

9. Jeremy Clements

10. Riley Herbst

11. Josh Williams

12. Landon Cassill

13. Myatt Snider

14. Colin Garrett

15. Joe Graf Jr.

16. JJ Yeley

17. Jade Buford

18. Preston Pardus

19. Brett Moffitt

20. Harrison Burton, two laps led

21. Stephen Leicht

22. Jeffrey Earnhardt

23. Ryan Ellis

24. David Starr

25. Natalie Decker

26. Akinori Ogata

27. Ty Gibbs, 16 laps led

28. Josh Berry, one lap down

29. Matt Mills, two laps down

30. Spencer Boyd, three laps down

31. Ryan Sieg, four laps down

32. Ryan Vargas, eight laps down

33. Justin Haley – OUT, Brakes

34. Kyle Weatherman, 36 laps down

35. Bayley Currey, 45 laps down

36. Brandon Brown – OUT, Accident

37. Jeb Burton – OUT, Accident

38. Michael Annett – OUT, Accident

39. Mike Harmon – OUT, Overheating

40. Tommy Joe Martins – OUT, Rear gear 

Bold indicates Playoff contenders.

Playoff standings.

1. Noah Gragson – Advanced

2. Austin Cindric – Advanced

3. Daniel Hemric – Advanced

4. AJ Allmendinger – Advanced

5. Justin Allgaier – Eliminated

6. Justin Haley – Eliminated

7. Brandon Jones – Eliminated

8. Harrison Burton – Eliminated

With the championship field set, the 2021 NASCAR Xfinity Series is set to conclude at Phoenix Raceway on Saturday, November 6, at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, where a champion will be crowned. 



The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeedwayMedia.com.

Andrew Kim
An avid motorsports enthusiast from California with aspirations of working in any form of communications, PR or digital/social media in motorsports.

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