John Hunter Nemechek gets short end in last-lap Xfinity clash with Larson at Darlington

John Hunter Nemechek gets short end in last-lap Xfinity clash with Larson at Darlington

DARLINGTON, S.C. — John Hunter Nemechek had a charging Kyle Larson hounding him for the lead in the final 10 laps of Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race. When the 2021 Cup Series champ made his move on the final lap, the result was a fender-bamming classic at Darlington Raceway.

Nemechek wound up getting the worst of his full-contact duel down the stretch with Larson, who went on to win Saturday afternoon’s Shriners Children’s 200 in his first Xfinity start of the year. Larson’s final glance off the Turn 4 wall bumped his No. 10 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet into Nemechek’s No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, which careened toward the inside retaining wall.

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Nemechek skidded across the start/finish line for a fifth-place result. While disappointed, his reaction was far removed from anger after a pressure-packed battle.

“Oh no, that’s racing hard. That’s good, hard racing,” Nemechek said after a quick evaluation at the infield care center. “I’m smiling ear-to-ear internally, let’s put it, for the hard racing that we had today, and how him and I raced each other. I’m disappointed with the fifth-place finish with the car that we had today and not being in Victory Lane, but I’ll let that disappointment drive me and hopefully we can go win some more races this year.”

Nemechek started from the pole position and led a race-high 57 of the 147 laps — 11 more than Larson’s second-best total. The two divided the stage wins, but Larson had to rally back into the hunt after a pit-road speeding penalty dropped him to 30th place for the start of the second stage.

Nemechek had things seemingly in control but Larson kept gaining ground, especially as the No. 20 Supra started to slip navigating Turn 4. Those bobbles left Nemechek to lament what might have been.

“I feel like we both had dominant race cars at times,” Nemechek said. “I feel like him and I were definitely the class in the field as the day went on, and I don’t know if he wouldn’t have got a speeding penalty how we would’ve ended up but I felt like we were really good for portions of the run, and he was really good other portions of the run. So ultimately, he probably should’ve won the race. He shouldn’t have been that close to me, come the white-flag lap, but he was fast, and he’s one of the best in the sport. There’s a reason that he’s a NASCAR Cup Series champion and wins a lot.

“So we’ll take it and move on with it. I learned a lot today for when we come back here in the fall and just got to be a little bit smarter about it.”

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Larson’s gains came to fruition on the last trip around the 1.366-mile track. He dipped low underneath Nemechek exiting Turn 2 and their contact through the third corner carried both cars up the track. Nemechek’s crossover attempt on the low side ended with Larson’s ricochet leaving the final bend.

“I touched him and then he got in behind me and it kind of turned my car, pointed me this way so that I’m sliding and hit the wall and then was just trying to get my … I didn’t want to wall ride or nothing like that because I didn’t want to get a penalty or anything,” Larson said. “So we hit the wall and I came off of it, and I’m just watching my little mirror, seeing where he’s at and trying to chase away from him a little bit and keep my foot in it. Hit the wall there, late exit at about the same point when he was getting to me, so just a wild, crazy finish, and hopefully the fans all enjoyed it.”

Nemechek moved into the lead in the Xfinity Series standings, using his strong stage showings to grab a one-point edge over fourth-finishing Austin Hill. Saturday represented an extension of the 25-year-old driver’s performance so far this season; he leads the series in average finish and is tied for the tour’s lead in top fives and top 10s.

It provided some degree of solace, even without the winning result.

“Just one of those things that happens, race-wise, but we can take a lot of positives away from today,” Nemechek said. “From the speed that we had all day, execution on pit road, everything was really, really good today. Driver just needs to be a little bit better.”