KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Parker Kligerman is a NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs driver. Riley Herbst — despite every bit of determination he displayed Saturday — is left on the outside looking in.
Kligerman finished fourth in the Kansas Lottery 300 at Kansas Speedway, snagging the final berth in the 12-driver postseason grid by 25 points over Herbst. Herbst suffered a double dose of flat right-front tires — coincidentally stemming from contact with Kligerman — and finished 23rd, two laps down.
Kligerman entered the day trailing Herbst by one point, collected a total of nine stage points and capitalized on a fast No. 48 Big Machine Racing Chevrolet. But all that effort nearly went for naught: Second-place finisher Brandon Jones was in a must-win situation to qualify for the playoffs, and a victory from the JR Motorsports driver would have eliminated Kligerman from contention.
Instead, John Hunter Nemechek held on for the win, allowing one final position in the playoffs for either Kligerman or Herbst.
“I was the biggest John Hunter Nemechek fan on the planet,” Kligerman laughed. “As I saw the No. 9 (Jones) fire off, I was like, ‘Oh no! We’ve done all we should do on points. We’re so close. I don’t think I could beat the 20, but the 9 looks like he might.’ And then obviously the 20 was just so dominant.”
The last two drivers Kligerman raced Saturday were Austin Hill — the Regular Season Champion — and Sheldon Creed, teammates at Richard Childress Racing, which shares an alliance with Big Machine Racing. As Kligerman battled Hill inside the top five, Creed came storming around the top side to take third away from both of them.
“The 2 (Creed) kind of crept up on us and took third,” Kligerman said. “I really wanted third place, but … that last run, I had to just be smart, really, really smart. And so I drove the smartest race I thought I could drive that put us in a position to not have anything stupid happen, keep us the highest position if we get a late-race restart and go on in the playoffs.”
On the other side of the elimination line was Herbst, who endured a trying month that includes one DNF, mechanical issues and three finishes of 23rd or worse in the past four races. Adding to a regular season filled with twists for Herbst, the No. 98 Stewart-Haas Racing team made a change at its crew chief position in June with Davin Restino taking the reins as Richard Boswell was moved to the NASCAR Cup Series.
“It doesn‘t just start today,” Herbst said. “We had a crew chief change before Nashville, had a bunch of mechanical failures. I shot myself in the foot a few races. So it‘s here or there and it‘s just all adding up. We didn‘t make it, but it‘s not the end of the world.”
Herbst‘s Kansas efforts were monumental, but not enough to overcome relentless adversity.
His path crossed with Kligerman too literally on a Lap 65 restart. Kligerman lined up third in the outside lane but struggled on his shift to third gear. Creed and Herbst were the two cars behind the No. 48.
“I‘d have to go back and look, but he (Creed) went up to avoid it, so I went to go plug (the) middle,” Herbst recalled. “And I was already wide open at that point, and he was still spinning the tires or still trying to get it in gear, and I hit him (Kligerman) with my right-front.
“Tore the whole right-front fender off, cut the tire and from then on, it was over.”
Herbst lost two laps as he pit and received repairs, but quick cautions and brilliant driving saw him rally from 32nd all the way back to the top 10.
But it wasn‘t much later that Herbst suffered a second flat right-front tire, effectively ending any hopes of a comeback.
“The right-front splitter was getting ripped off and the fender was flapping,” Herbst said. “But looking at lap times and listening to lap times, we were probably a top-three race car lap-time wise.
“I knew that the 48 scored points in the first two stages, so we couldn‘t just outrun him. I was more than likely going to have to win. But we just needed a few adjustments to run with the 20 and the 9, and I felt like we were good enough there. Then ultimately, in dirty air, we just kind of hit the wall.”
Kligerman‘s triumph rewards a return to full-time competition for the first time since 2013 after years of piecemealing seasons together across NASCAR‘s three national series. He and the Big Machine Racing outfit have impressed all season, but particularly through the second half of the regular season.
Kligerman netted 10 top-10 finishes in the final 13 races of the 26-race regular season, capped with three top fives in his last four starts.
“I think it more validates like the last 12 (weeks),” Kligerman said, “where I’ve been telling everyone that we’ve been really good, we’re executing at a high level. And we just didn’t exactly have everything to show for it. But I could see it. I could see it happening. I could feel it. I could see it as we crept up on the bubble.
“And I just knew if we just did what we did today — that’s what we’ve been doing. You know, we just, we probably had a little faster car today. And this was a new car, so you hope to see that sort of thing. So yeah, I think today was a day where we executed at the highest level we ever have for sure, from pit crew, everyone. My pit crew was on it today, thanks to them. And we had a fast car with it.”
The postseason officially begins Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET, USA, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, NBC Sports App). Kligerman enters the NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs as the No. 12 seed — last on the grid. But he‘s in — and only six points shy of Sheldon Creed for the provisional elimination spot.