The Final Race - Xfinity
Goodbye old Speedway, old friend.
And then there was one more. One more race. One more victory lane, in the Xfinity series.
By Brian Kennedy
Mon, Feb 27, 2023 11:19 PM PST
Images by Albert Wong
They had to wait a day, but at 7:32pm Sunday, it was all over, and John Hunter Nemechek was the winner. The race somewhat resembled the Cup contest. Yellows early and a longish green stint just past halfway. Here are some quick highlights, offered in an old-school way of tracing out the laps. It just feels right to do this, kind of as a tribute to what’s now been lost with the demise of California (now Auto Club) Speedway. But first . . .
Goodbye old Speedway, old friend.
I doubt Nemechek did what I did after the excitement and the crowds were all gone. I went out to pit lane and looked at the scoring tower, still all lit up. I glanced across the wide, seamed asphalt at the empty stands, still ablaze, too. I heard the silence. But what I won’t forget is the roar as 36 cars go screaming into turn one. It’s so deafening you can literally scream at the top of your lungs to add to the commotion and feel like you’re part of it. And you are. I’m sure I’m not the only one who did this, and thus certainly not the only one who will miss this track.
Now on to the racing. Thirty-eight cars took the green flag. That’s two more than for the Cup series. All but one took the stage one checkered flag on the lead lap.
At 5:33pm with the next stage underway, the sun was full bright coming through in turn four. The green run would last just two laps, with Jeffrey Earnhardt up against the outside wall. On lap 50, with just a hundred more to go - ever - Cole Custer took off, followed by Austin Hill, eventual winner John Hunter Nemechek, Justin Allgaier, and Daniel Hemrick. Ten laps in, entering turn one, the speed sign indicated 189mph.
Josh Berry spun to bring out another yellow at lap 61, and after the restart, the leader, on lap 65, was running right up against the outside wall. The best battle, meanwhile, was Chandler Smith pushing Sheldon Creed in sixth place. By lap70, Allgaier and Creed were battling along with two others, sometimes two aside, sometimes in a sort of triangle where each held his own spot in the midst of chaos. A yellow ended stage two on this lap. So it was Custer winning his second stage of the day with Nemechek immediately trailing. Sammy Smith, Austin Dillon, and Parker Kligerman brought up the top five.
After the restart, the order had shuffled due to pit stops. On lap 76, the restart had Creed diving low three wide for fourth, then coming up to third on the next lap. Cars were three-wide between turns one and two.
Creed was about to take the lead when another yellow happened, this one for a spin by Brandon Jones off turn four. The restart came at lap 90. Only 60 more on this track.
The yellow came out right away again for Sam Mayer, who was wrecked.
The restart came on lap 95, with the top cars being Creed, Allgaier, Smith, Hill, and Riley Herbst. 37 cars were still on the lead lap, with but one car, Gray Gaulding, retired with a scraped-up right side and no doubt suspension damage.
Around lap 100, Nemechek started to assert himself. He would later suffer from overheating, but see his car survive to the end. The victory lane celebration would be done with jets of water coming out his overflow in a geyser formation. The son of “Front Row Joe” Nemechek would continue challenging for the lead with the top six or seven cars strung out. The speed clock in turn one read 194mph.
Around lap 115, cars started to make green flag stops, perhaps in anticipation of the long green runs which can sometimes be the last stage of a race in Fontana (as had happened in Cup). On lap 120, it was Dillon, Jeb Burton, and Ryan Ellis, with Nemechek running sixth. By lap 125, Nemechek was behind Dillon in second place. Then it was Allgaier, Mayor, and Berry with Canadian Alex Labbe leading a small pack behind.
On lap 127, a spin happened - good! This would make for some action in the closing laps of this track’s history. Nemechek pitted first. They restarted on lap 133. The lineup was Creed, Smith, Nemechek, and Allgaier. They were three-wide going into turn one. Alas, another yellow came out, for Sammy Smith’s spin coming out of turn two. Why alas? Because now we’d burn some laps under yellow. They restarted on lap 138, this time for the last time. Nemechek was second behind Allgaier, but he went low in turns 1-2 on lap 139, and things looked like this: Nemechek, Mayer, Allgaier, Hill, and Berry. They were three-wide through turn two. Fans will always remember how that looked - how it felt.
Lap 145 - five to go - ever! This was starting to get a bit melancholic. Nemechek was in the lead, with Mayer, Allgaier, Hemric, Berry, and Hill trailing behind. The checkered flag fell with Creed low in the grass sliding along - if this had been lap 149, perhaps there would have been a yellow and NASCAR overtime - might have been nice to end things dramatically, but the checkered flag fell on John Hunter Nemechek.
To honor the past, Nemechek did a reverse victory lap, then stopped in victory lane, smoking up a storm from his radiator overflows, as was said.
In the media center after the race, the youngster commented on his race, the way his history at this track reprises that of his father. “I guess I won the race, but he got the pole. Hence the nickname. I’m kind of speechless about that. I think that being able to win, and do things that he’s done in his career, just try to continue to get better every single day. He’s been such a great help to my career over the past, I guess, twenty years, ever since I started racing. Can’t thank him enough for giving me, I guess, racing in my blood, and pushing me to be better.”
Nemechek the younger also said that he credits his mentor while at Joe Gibbs Racing, the Cup winner on the day, Kyle Busch.
He also talked about the track, as had everyone who had a chance. “Being the final winner here, it really means a lot. This place is so cool. Tire fall-off, running multiple grooves, the seams are treacherous. It’s just an amazing racetrack, and I hate to see it go.”
Then, as racers will do, he talked about next weekend, at Las Vegas, where he will race in the trucks on Friday and race again in Xfinity on Saturday. They have to use the same engine and car there, by the way, so he mentioned that he’s hoping the engine was not damaged by overheating.
Still, memories of this day, and his being the last stock car racer to take a victory lap at this track, will surely be his to keep.
The race was 2:35:53.
Nemechek won by .761 seconds.
There were ten cautions for 41 laps.
About The Author
Brian Kennedy always wanted a ’66 Mustang. 10 years ago, he bought one – and he’s been restoring it ever since. Brian extended his passion for cars by covering events for magazines like Grassroots Motorsports, Sportscar, and Victory Lane – e.g., events in Cart, Pro Rally, Formula Atlantic, the SCCA Runoffs, Trans Am, SVRA, VSCDA, and VARA. He’s also profiled a number of cars and interviewed a number of personalities – among them: Gene Felton (IMSA), Hurley Haywood, Jerry Seinfeld, and Nigel Olsson.