NXS: John Hunter Nemechek Steals Atlanta Win

Just 10 laps prior, the NBC Sports commentary booth had said that he was far too loose to make a charge for the win. But with a little bit of help, John Hunter Nemechek put himself in position for his third win of the 2023 NASCAR Xfinity Series season, and his first at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Nemechek qualified second, and remained in the top pack for a majority of the evening. As the race wound down, however, it appeared that the Kaulig Racing trio of Justin Haley, Chandler Smith, and Daniel Hemric had total control over the race. With the rest of the field unwilling to work together to pass the Kaulig drivers, Austin Hill was the only one even attempting to break out of line. With 3 to go, Hill dove once more to the bottom to try to get side-by-side with the car in front, only to slip up and allow Parker Kligerman underneath him.

Kligerman did not make contact with Hill. But the nature of airflow from car to car caused Hill’s Chevrolet to become loose and spin out. The caution flag flew, and the field of drivers prepared for an overtime restart. 

Nobody within the lead group pitted, making for a 2-lap dash among the same contenders who had been up front all night long. On the restart, Haley and Chandler Smith lined up on the outside, with Nemechek and Hemric on the inside. Nemechek, with a push from Hemric, took the lead into turn one. Haley fell into third, behind his teammate. Multiple cars, including Justin Allgaier, ran out of fuel on the restart, resulting in both lines being jumbled up. The race for the win was down to the top 5 and, with two teammates lined up behind him, Nemechek looked like a sitting duck.

Now is the time to be reminded that Justin Haley is not an Xfinity series driver. He drives full-time for Kaulig in the Cup Series, driving the no. 31 Camaro. Saturday night was just his fourth Xfinity race this year, as the no. 10 car for Kaulig is their “all-star” car. Each week, a different driver pilots the machine, and Haley is often placed in the seat for the drafting tracks due to his skills at that type of speedway. As a result, Haley was not running for points on Saturday. Daniel Hemric, his full-time teammate, was. And Hemric is winless so far this season.

Any fan watching would have assumed the same thing, seeing Haley lined up behind Hemric, who needs a win to make the playoffs. Haley would, logically, push Hemric past the leader Nemechek and get his teammate into the playoffs with a win. That scenario did not play out how anyone imagined– and certainly not how team owner Matthew Kaulig envisioned when he tabbed Haley to race last night.

As the leaders took the white flag, Haley got a run on the back of the 11 of Daniel Hemric. Rather than push him through, Haley dove to the bottom of the racetrack on the entry of turn 1 and pulled side-by-side with Hemric to attempt to pass him. Not only was the move fruitless for his own race (Haley ended up losing a position on the maneuver and finished fourth), but it left Hemric without any help, and Nemechek completed the final lap with no challenge to go on and win the race.

Hemric expressed his frustrations postrace, with Haley explaining to him and the TV crew that he was running out of fuel. An explanation, sure, but a weak one in many’s eyes. Haley could have stayed behind the 11 until the car completely ran out; by moving down from behind Hemric, he gave neither car a shot at catching Nemechek.

Earlier in the race, both Sheldon Creed and Riley Herbst looked like the cars to beat, as they each won a stage. At the start of Stage 3, however, Herbst suffered a flat tire and caused a big wreck that took both him and Creed out of the race, as well as the no. 39 of Ryan Sieg and other competitors. 

Behind Nemechek, Hemric finished the race in second. He also finished second in the spring race. Cole Custer drove up to finish third. Haley and Sam Mayer closed out the top 5. Ty Gibbs, current Cup Series driver and 2022 Xfinity champion finished the race in sixth, a strong recovery from a flat tire earlier in the race. Kyle Sieg crossed the finish line in a career-high seventh place, the second top 10 of his career. Parker Kligerman finished eighth. Josh Williams had a much quieter race than his spring visit to Atlanta, and came home with a strong ninth place result. Sammy Smith, in his first full time season, finished in the tenth position. 

With the win, John Hunter Nemechek maintained his points lead over Austin Hill in the regular season standings. 7 of the 12 playoff spots are locked in via wins, leaving 5 spots available currently to drivers to point their way in. Riley Herbst currently holds the last playoff spot, 6 points ahead of Parker Kligerman.

The NASCAR Xfinity Series travels to the Northeast next Saturday for their annual trip to New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The race is on Saturday, July 15th, at 3 PM EST on USA Network. 

Ethan Miller
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