Clements’ spin-and-win shakes up XFINITY Series playoff battle

Brett Moist/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

Jeremy Clements’ surprising win at Road America did much more than add a signature moment to the NASCAR XFINITY Series veteran’s embattled career.

It also injected excitement and uncertainty into what had previously been a predictable battle for the final spots in the 12-team playoff grid.

Heading into Sunday’s Johnsonville 180 the XFINITY Series playoff field seemed like a lock. Brendan Gaughan sat on the playoff bubble, but was a full 43 points clear of 13th-place Ross Chastain, essentially a full race ahead given the point totals drivers outside of the top 10 in points average.

Worse than the gap itself was the fact that the underfunded teams outside of the playoff bubble seemed virtually incapable of putting together a string of runs strong enough to close it.

Drivers like Gaughan, Michael Annett and Dakoda Armstrong had recently provided opportunities for underdog teams to strike in the form of multiple poor runs and DNFs, but none of the outsiders could make good on their potential.

J.J. Yeley soared to a sixth-place run at Iowa Speedway, but followed it with a 39th-place result at Watkins Glen International. Ross Chastain tallied finishes of sixth and fourth in July, but his early strength in the Aug. road course races never transitioned to strong results. The JD Motorsports veteran’s 13th-place run at Road America was his best result during the stretch.

Brandon Jones finished second in a Camping World Truck Series race at Kentucky Speedway but never contended at the XFINITY Series. Ryan Sieg struggled, as did Spencer Gallagher.

Until this weekend’s run in Wisconsin, the XFINITY Series playoff grid was outclassed in predictability only by the multiple Cup Series companion races on the tour that were dominated by stars of NASCAR’s premier series.

Then Jeremy Clements Racing pulled off one of the biggest upset in the sport’s recent history.

Driving a car built in 2008, Clements and the No. 51 team shocked the field to claim the first win for the South Carolinian in his 256th XFINITY Series start. Suddenly the driver 17th in the standings is all-but guaranteed into the postseason field, with the added bonus of five playoff points.

That removes one potential playoff spot on points, which in turn sets those on the bubble up for an intriguing battle over the final three weeks of the regular season.

NASCAR XFINITY Series Playoff Battle After Road America
Rank Driver Wins Points Points Ahead/Behind Cutoff
2 William Byron 3 731 272
3 Justin Allgaier 1 710 251
10 Ryan Reed 1 465 6
17 Jeremy Clements 1 359 -104
1 Elliott Sadler 0 838 379
4 Brennan Poole 0 634 175
5 Daniel Hemric 0 633 174
6 Cole Custer 0 562 103
7 Matt Tifft 0 557 98
8 Blake Koch 0 485 26
9 Michael Annett 0 470 11
11 Brendan Gaughan 0 463 4
Playoff Cutoff
12 Dakoda Armstrong 0 459 -4
13 J.J. Yeley 0 411 -52
14 Ross Chastain 0 409 -54
15 Ryan Sieg 0 398 -65
16 Brandon Jones 0 374 -89
18 Darrell Wallace Jr. 0 321 -142
19 Spencer Gallagher 0 270 -193
20 Tyler Reddick 0 266 -197

Once a near-lock for his first playoff appearance, JGL Racing’s Dakoda Armstrong dropped from 10th in the standings to 12th at Road America. For the first time this season the Hoosier finds himself outside of the playoff grid, with just three races to attempt to drive himself back in.

For those on the right side of the bubble, the race is on.

Just four points separate Gaughan in the current final position from Armstrong on the outside of the playoff grid. Ninth-place Michael Annett sits just 11 points ahead of Armstrong, and Blake Koch holds a minor 28-point cushion in eighth.

With three races left, a quartet of drivers find themselves within half of a race’s worth of points of each other. Only three will advance to the playoffs.

A battle to the postseason that previously seemed as stale as week-old cheese curds has suddenly been filled with life and intrigue.

The month-long stretch of road courses is over. The last three weeks of the regular season will consist of Cup companion races at Darlington Raceway, Richmond International Raceway and Chicagoland Speedway. Two of the three will likely be dominated by Cup drivers. Only the regular season finale, one in which Cup drivers are banned them from competing, seems to have potential to provide another swing in the championship story.

But thanks to Clements’ surprise win, there will be at least one guaranteed storyline worth following for the final three races of the XFINITY Series regular season. Even an uneventful slog like Kyle Busch’s dominant victory last weekend at Bristol will now have at least one redeeming reason for fans to tune in and care.

That’s nothing to scoff at.

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