Austin Cindric brought his no. 22 Penske Ford to victory lane for the second time in 2021 and for the second-straight Phoenix race on Saturday evening.
Cindric won stage 1 and held off Justin Allgaier and Ty Gibbs on a green-white-checkered restart, becoming the first repeat winner in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2021.
“You have to work hard the rest of the year to get here,’’ Cindric said regarding getting back to Phoenix in championship contention. “So that’s where my focus is. I’ve got my name on the wall right there and the goal is to be back with a shot to do it again.”
Ty Gibbs, who won at the Daytona road course in his first series start and finished second in his second start in Saturday’s race at Phoenix, became the first driver to finish first and second in their first two Xfinity Series starts since hall-of-famer Terry Labonte completed that feat in 1986.
Gibbs started 27th and methodically worked his way through the field throughout the day, restarted third on the final restart and nearly won the race, but he didn’t want to wreck Cindric to do it.
Brandon Brown, driver of the no. 68 car, scored a career-best finish of third by avoiding the last-lap chaos.
“We knew we needed a good start,” Brown said. “We didn’t expect this hot of a start, but we knew we needed a good start — better than last year — just because of how stout the Xfinity field is now with cars added, drivers added with a full season.”
The race had 10 lead changes between six drivers and was run under caution 11 times for a total of 65 laps.
Cindric continued to hold the points lead after the race at Phoenix with 248 points, 47 points ahead of Daniel Hemric.
Race six of the 2021 NASCAR Xfinity Series season, the EchoPark 250, will be held at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Saturday, March 20 at 5 p.m.
Stage 1 – 45 laps
Daniel Hemric, who led the field to the green flag, immediately lost the lead on the opening lap to Austin Cindric, the most recent winner at Phoenix in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
As drivers began to settle into the run, some drivers began to use the outside lanes where NASCAR applied the PJ1, a traction compound to help drivers utilize more lanes in the track’s corners.
The competition caution came out on lap 20 as scheduled, but there were very few takers. Cindric held the lead and led the field to the restart on lap 27 as the Joe Gibbs Racing trio of Brandon Jones, Daniel Hemric and Harrison Burton now held second through fourth. The fourth Joe Gibbs car, being driven by Ty Gibbs this week, was working its way toward the top-10 after starting 27th. Justin Allgaier, driving the no. 7 for JR Motorsports, was also moving through the field, driving from 12th to sixth.
As Cindric ran away with the stage win, Jesse Little spun in turns 1 and 2, hitting the wall. The stage-end caution was already coming out and the single-car crash only added a clean-up process to the caution.
The top-10 finishers in stage 1 were Cindric, Jones, Harrison Burton, Hemric, Noah Gragson, Allgaier, Justin Haley, Jeb Burton, Michael Annett and Ty Gibbs.
Stage 2 – 45 laps
The stage -end caution meant pit road would be open and drivers took advantage of it. Hemric got out of the pits first and took the lead followed by Harrison Burton, Gragson and Allgaier. Cindric had a slow pit stop that put him back in fifth after Brandon Jones, who came out of pit road in second, had to surrender his position to serve a pit road speeding penalty.
Hemric led the field back to the green flag on lap 57. In turn 3 on the same lap as the restart, Dexter Bean in the no. 90 spun, bringing the yellow back out.
The race restarted on the 18th lap of the stage. Hemric was able to clear Harrison Burton for the lead while Allgaier slipped into third. On the restart, Noah Gragson began leaking fluid and dropping positions. In just a few laps, some of the fluid built into flames under the no. 9 car as Gragson began to report a loss of oil pressure. Gragson pulled his car into the garage and with oil now laid all over the track, NASCAR threw the caution. Gragson’s day was over.
With 14 laps to go in the stage, Hemric led another restart. He held off Harrison Burton for the restart, but Burton wasn’t going anywhere. Burton tried to make a move to the inside of Hemric with three laps left in the stage but couldn’t pass his teammate, allowing Hemric to capture the stage win.
In stage 2, the top-10 finishers were Hemric, Harrison Burton, Allgaier, Cindric, Haley, Jeb Burton, AJ Allmendinger, Josh Berry, Gibbs and Brandon Jones.
Race to the finish – 110 laps
Drivers pitted under the second stage-end caution for tires and fuel to set up for the longest stretch of the race. Allgaier got out first with Cindric and Hemric behind him.
Allgaier led the restart with 102 laps to go and Cindric passed Hemric for second. As Allgaier began building his lead, his teammate, Josh Berry, began moving toward the front. With 95 laps to go, Berry moved past Hemric for third. Then, a pair of Kaulig Racing Chevrolets driven by AJ Allmendinger and Jeb Burton passed Hemric, putting the no. 18 in sixth. Hemric continued to sink through the field.
Tommy Joe Martins slid in turn 2 and hit the wall, bringing the caution out on lap 123, just inside the fuel window to make it to the end of the race if drivers pitted under the yellow. The field did elect to pit and Ryan Sieg, who had been farther back in the running order, didn’t take tires and got off pit road first. Cindric, Allgaier and Berry followed Sieg off pit road. Daniel Hemric and Jeb Burton both received speeding penalties on pit road and had to restart at the rear of the field.
Sieg led the restart with 71 to go, but Cindric took the lead. Sieg hit the wall and lost a tire and soon after, Harrison Burton, who was running sixth, spun in turn 2 to bring another caution out.
The next caution came out just three laps after the race restarted when Brett Moffitt spun in the dogleg. The next restart bred another caution when Josh Berry became the third JR Motorsports car to exit the race by hitting the wall out of turn 2 and losing a tire.
On the restart with 46 laps left, Cindric took the lead again with Allgaier in second and Hemric, who had recovered from his speeding penalty, in third. Allgaier was all over Cindric’s rear bumper but was unable to make a pass before The next caution came out for Brandon Jones, who spun off turn 2 after getting hit by Allmendinger.
The race restarted again with 29 laps to go. Cindric jumped out front by half-a-second. That lead grew little by little. With 10 laps to go, the advantage over Allgaier was a second. With nine laps left, Alex Labbe hit the wall and brought out the caution, erasing the one-second lead Cindric had.
Cindric led the field to the restart with two laps to go. Allgaier, who was directly behind Cindric, made a move to the outside in turn 2, but got too high and into the wall. Ty Gibbs avoided a chaotic restart wreck where Hemric and Justin Haley got involved and drove into second, but he was too far back of Cindric to win. Cindric hung on to become the first repeat winner of the 2021 NASCAR Xfinity Series season.
Featured photo credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images