BRISTOL, Tenn. (AP) — Justin Allgaier earned a spot in the second round of the Xfinity Series playoffs with a win Friday night in the opening race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
It was Allgaier's second career victory at Bristol — the first was in 2010 — and salvaged an otherwise crummy night for most of the playoff field and his JR Motorsports team.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., making his first start of the season and first at Bristol since he retired at the end of the 2017 season, made a run at the win until his Chevrolet caught fire with 29 laps remaining. The NASCAR Hall of Famer, who was burned early in his career in a sports car crash and escaped a fiery plane crash in Tennessee in 2019, quickly climbed from the flames after bringing the car to pit road.
Allgaier, who led 110 laps, secured a place in the round of eight of the playoffs. He drove his No. 7 Chevrolet to his third win of the season.
“This team has done such an amazing job at this racetrack since I started at JR Motorsports, we led a lot of laps, and the monkey was definitely on our back," said Allgaier, who then announced he extended his contract for 2024 with JR Motorsports.
“I don't know if this is shots fired for the playoffs, but it feels good going into the next two knowing we can have some fun,” he added.
Daniel Hemric, who earlier Friday was named a Cup driver for next season for Kaulig Racing, finished second in a big boost for his title chances. He started the race ranked 11th in the 12-driver playoff field.
Title favorite John Hunter Nemechek finished third in a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing and was followed by Cole Custer in a Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Chandler Smith was fifth as playoff drivers took the top five spots.
The pant legs on Earnhardt's firesuit were charred after the race. He led 47 laps but finished 29th and even raced his own driver, Allgaier, at one point for the lead.
“How cool is it that I got to battle with the boss man, Dale Jr.?” Allgaier said.
Earnhardt said he had a blast and looked forward to racing again next month at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“I've got a hole in my pants!” Earnhardt said. "I saw some smoke in the car and smelled it and thought ‘Hopefully that’s not me,' but that last lap I saw a big fireball in the car and I felt it, obviously, my uniform was burning up. I was like ‘I can’t keep going. I've got to stop.'
“I hate it. We were going to finish in the top 10, top-five, had a shot at winning it if the car was running good at the end.”
Austin Hill, winner of the Xfinity Series regular season title, was livid after contact with Richard Childress Racing teammate Sheldon Creed caused him to crash.
“Who needs enemies when you have teammates,” Hill seethed over his radio. He finished 32nd.
Earlier, JR Motorsports teammates Josh Berry and Sam Mayer were involved in a crash with each other.
AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing