Funny things happen in the playoffs, and racing is no exception.
Saturday’s Kansas Lottery 300 was the first race in the NASCAR Xfinity Series Round of 8.
The race wasn’t even a half lap old when three of the eight drivers in the points race — including the top two positions, Christopher Bell and Justin Allgaier — were knocked out of the race in a giant pileup.
John Hunter Nemechek, 21, took advantage of all that carnage to rally for the first Xfinity Series victory of his short career.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
While Saturday marked Nemechek’s first win, it was not his first time in victory lane at Kansas Speedway.
John Hunter was a 7-year-old when his father, Joe, swept the weekend races in Kansas. Those were Joe’s final two victories in NASCAR’s top two series.
“When he won I was a kid playing on the playground for both days,” John Hunter said. “I remember mom coming to grab me saying ‘Dad won! Dad won! Let’s got to victory lane. I saw a video of that this week, actually, and it was pretty cool to see how young I was.”
John Hunter Nemechek cost himself valuable time on Saturday when he overshot his pit stall on his final pit stop. He overcame that mistake with an impressive final green flag run that saw him win by more than 5 seconds.
“I made the mistake. I overshot the pit box by just a little bit,” Nemechek said. “Nothing surprises me. You have to have the mentality to overcome that.”
Nemechek trailed Daniel Hemric for most of the race. But Nemechek owned the last run, blowing past Hemric and the rest of the field after the last pit stop.
Allgaier started the lap 1 melee when his car got loose in turn two and slid up the track and into Bell. Bell spun out, starting a chain reaction that swallowed up a number of cars behind him.
“I just hate it for everybody we took out on lap 1. It’s uncalled for. That one’s on me,” Allgaier said. “Not only did we wreck our day but we wrecked for a lot of other competitors. I hate it for those guys, and hopefully we can go to Texas in two weeks and rebound from it.”
Bell won the 2017 Xfinity Series race at Kansas, his first career series win. His day on Saturday was the polar opposite.
“I’m heartbroken. This is one of my favorite racetracks that we go to, and especially after the run I had last year, this is the race that I was really looking forward to when we started the year back in February,” Bell said. “I felt like we were going to be able to contend for the win.”
Austin Cidric started the day last among the eight playoff contenders. He was also eliminated in the lap 1 incident. Cidric will now need a win in the coming weeks to advance to the championship round.
“It was a pretty big hit. Bigger than I was expecting to have. I’m thankful to still be in the playoffs, thankful to still have a shot,” Cidric said.
Cole Custer was the only playoff driver involved in the wreck to remain in the race, but he lost his power steering in the incident. That made for a tiring afternoon.
Custer’s crew took his car out of the race to work on it more after the first stage. He went on to finish in 26th place.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it after the first 20 laps, but you kind of just find a way,” Custer said. “We couldn’t fix it, but it just is what it is.”
Bell and Allgaier started Saturday as huge favorites to advance to the last four. Bell fell from first to fourth, just one point clear of the cut line. Allgaier dropped to sixth, five points below the cutline.
Hemric used his pole position to avoid the wreck, and went on to lead a race-high 128 laps. He’ll head to Texas in first place, 23 points clear of elimination.
“That’s the most fun I’ve had racing in a long time,” Hemric said. “I thought shape until the last caution came out.”