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Clements Earns Top 15 at Charlotte

If there is one thing that races on the oval in Charlotte are known for lately, it is being highly dependent on pit strategy when it comes down to the final stop. More often than not, the most aggressive strategy call leads to a plethora of drivers choosing to mimic it, whether it be to stay out on incredibly aged tires hoping that there won’t be another caution so you can hold onto your track position when others are on fresher tires or whether it be to pit for whatever freshest tires you have available in hopes of being able to navigate through those with worn tires quickly.

 

Saturday afternoon’s Bet MGM 300 Xfinity Series race was no exception, following suit to Friday Night’s Craftsman Truck Series race that was won on a call to stay out on a fresh set of sticker tires at the last yellow by Nick Sanchez.

 

The field for the Xfinity race was loaded with drivers pulling a double – no, not THE double that Kyle Larson is attempting on Sunday, but a double dip in the Xfinity race and the Coca Cola 600. The full field of 38 cars featured Ty Gibbs, who was on the pole, Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch, and Shane Van Gisbergen on top of the always-competitive bunch of regulars in the series.

 

Speaking of regulars, Spartanburg native Jeremy Clements qualified 24th, citing that he was too loose during his run to be able to run wide open at the top like he wanted to. That would end up being a storyline all day long that played into the strategy game, not just for Jeremy, but for the vast majority of the field.

 

Charlotte, especially when it comes to the May races, is a difficult track to prepare for. It has a lot of character, not unlike North Wilkesboro last week with its quirky bumps and grooves. But it also has a ‘personality’ that changes dramatically with the track conditions.

 

There is the usual transition that happens naturally when the track acquires more tire rubber as it gets raced on. But, there are also huge swings in temperature, with the track being overly ‘grippy’ to the point of causing cars to be so tight they have no turn radius during the extreme heat of the day. As shadows cool things down and day becomes night like it will during the 2nd stage of the 65th annual Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday, it becomes slick and almost uncontrollably fast with cars sliding and running so free that the drivers have come up with the adjective ‘wrecking loose’ to describe it.

 

In the early going of Saturday afternoon’s event, a couple of things became apparent very quickly. Justin Allgaier and Kyle Busch were easily the 2 fastest cars on the track. Polesitter Ty Gibbs held the lead for 20 laps before Kyle Busch began to close the gap that at one point was up to over 8 tenths of a second. Three laps later, Busch cleared Gibbs for the lead off turn 4 and would go on to lead the next 7 laps before the race’s first caution, prompted by Riley Herbst getting loose and into the wall after contact from AJ Allmendinger.

 

At the restart, Gibbs resumed the race lead briefly before Justin Allgaier would finally win a long side by side battle to take the top spot with three to go in the opening stage. Allgaier would go on to sweep both stages in this race, but to sweep both stages and win the race is a difficult feat to achieve.

 

At lap 79, Justin Allgaier was party to his first incident of the race. At the exit of turn three, he was running wide open into 4 while Jeremy Clements was riding the top line in a three wide battle. Rather than letting up, Allgaier slammed into Clements’ back end. Fortunately for both, it did not result in a wreck, but the contact was enough to cause some frustrations.

 

“He was just being impatient. Justin was in a really fast car and I was not in a fast car like him. He was just being impatient and that’s what he does usually. I’m friends with Justin, but sometimes he just drives over his head”, said Clements.

 

After incurring a pit road speeding penalty during the stage break caution, Allgaier had to serve a pass through, which landed him in 32nd position at the restart for the final stage. Within 10 laps, he had charged all the way back to 14th before Kyle Sieg lost the back end of his car and went around in turn three to bring out the 3rd yellow of the day at lap 107.

 

Ultimately, Allgaier would never make it back to the front of the field, finding himself as the race’s penultimate caution with 25 to go. Chase Elliott was pushing Ty Gibbs through turn 4 to make him loose. Gibbs ricocheted off the wall and came down into Allgaier, turning him in the process. The ensuing contact with the wall and damage ended the day for Justin, as he came home in 33rd.

 

With the laps winding down and many teams still struggling to find a setup that works, Jeremy Clements brought up an interesting point on the radio.

 

“We are not magically gonna end up at the front. We have to do something risky.”

 

Both the truck series and ARCA races on Friday night were won on an aggressive gamble to stay out on old tires. The Xfinity series would only be a slight exception. During the race’s third caution, most teams pitted to put on their last set of tires. Jeremy Clements and Chase Elliott did not, giving them a huge luxury – a set of unused stickers when all everyone else had left were scuffs. They were both on the same strategy – bank on at least one more yellow, put on tires then. They got it when Ryan Ellis spun out on the backstretch with 32 laps to go for the third-to-last slowdown of the day. They both took their final set.

 

Jeremy was in a bind at this point, stuck in 21st a lap down. He caught a break and got back on the lead lap with the last caution as the free pass (issued to the first car that is not on the lead lap in the running order), putting him in 20th. With several cars ahead needing to pit, Clements picked up 6 spots spanning the drop of the green and the race’s last yellow at lap 184. He restarted 15th and would end up picking up 2 more to secure a hard-fought 13th place finish – a result he will gladly take given how most of the day went.

 

“At the start, the car was awful. It was so bad, it was ‘evil’. But {Crew Chief Mark} Setzer and the guys did a great job doing any adjustments they could to make it better. It still wasn’t what we needed, obviously. It was really loose on the bottom, and then up top, especially through 3 and 4, it just would not turn. That was frustrating because once the tires start wearing out, you really need to be up there at the top and I just could not make it work. It was a rough day, but somehow we salvaged 13th out of it”, said Clements following the race.

 

“We needed a good run. But obviously, I want better. I am never satisfied. But it was a decent day, and at the end of it, I am just glad to get out of here with our Chevy in one piece”, Jeremy later added.

 

In the end, it was Chase Elliott that benefited the most from the pit strategy call, taking the lead on the backstretch on lap 182. From there, he built up a 1 second lead in clean air on his fresh tires, never looking back as he took the checker to a chorus of cheers from the fans. Brandon Jones finished 2nd, Sammy Smith came across third, Sam Mayer was 4th, and Aj Allmendinger rounded out the top 5. Other notables include Kyle Busch coming in 6th and Ty Gibbs logging a 9th place finish.

 

The Xfinity Series will head Northwest next week and turn some rights with a long cross country road trip to the road course at Portland International Raceway. Green flag is set to drop at 4:30 PM on FS1.

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