By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
It was far from a solid Thursday night for Joe Gibbs Racing’s three-car Xfinity Series squad. Both Brandon Jones and Harrison Burton were involved in incidents while rookie Riley Herbst salvages an encouraging runner-up finish in the Shady Rays 200 at Kentucky Speedway.
In what Herbst describes as a “fourth-place car” during the race extended 136-lap race, he kept himself out of trouble all race long as the No. 18 Monster Energy Toyota Supra pit crew helped him gain valuable positions that led to an all-around positive points night.
“We have a really fast pit crew at Joe Gibbs Racing and they tried to get us out in front. I think we gained spots on pit road all night long so that was huge,” said Herbst.
“We over-adjusted the car there at the end and got too tight. All in all, we’ve had speed all year, we just haven’t been able to capitalize, mostly on my part, in these final stages of the races. Once we start capitalizing, we’ll start getting good finishes like this. This was a good one,” Herbst added.
Same couldn’t be said for Jones as his race was cut short on the opening lap for the second time in three races after being an innocent bystander of Jeb Burton’s spin in Turn 1, destroying his No. 19 Toyota Supra and ended up last out of the 36-car field.
“I’m pretty surprised that happened,” Jones describing the dirty track surface. “I made a comment before the race got going that the track was filthy, so you think everybody else is taking note of that too. I kind of expected something like that to happen. It’s just unfortunate.”
Jones added he felt he had good race car, but is certain that Stevie Reeves (Jones’ spotter) won’t be happy with him following the opening lap exit.
“I’m sure my spotter is kicking me in the head right now,” said Jones. “He told me to go low, but I never saw him move up until it was too late, so you can’t drive these things on instinct – you can’t go off of what you think can happen – because then it’s too late, so I hate it for these guys. This is two weeks in a row that we haven’t made a lap in the race, so that’s what we need is laps.”
During the post-race video conference, Herbst was critical of navigating a dirty 1.5-mile circuit where he felt it negatively impacted both his teammates night.
“This track was probably the dirtiest race track I’ve ever seen to fire-off. I hate that my teammate (Brandon Jones) got caught up in a dirty race track,” said a frustrated Herbst. “I couldn’t see the guy in front of me so that made passing that much more difficult. When you run somebody down from a straightaway and you just sit a half car length back in their wake and you can’t do anything because the car is just out of the race track.”
Meanwhile, Burton was looking for some luck following three straight poor finishes after starting off the season 10-0 in the top-10 category. It appeared he may have been the best out of the JGR bunch, but his race began to fell apart on Lap 126.
Burton restarted third, but regressed tremendously as he lost five spots in the span of two laps. As the race was near its conclusion, Burton spun out from the ninth spot in Turn 3 on Lap 131, keeping his car off the wall and was able to continue. The two-time series winner finished 17th for his fourth straight finish outside the top-10.
With Burton’s spin, the race was sent into overtime where Herbst lined up in fifth.
As the green flag dropped for the final time, Herbst ended up having amazing opening to produce an even better result. Once Noah Gragson and Justin Allgaier made contact in Turn 1, the 21-year-old swept by them and shortly thereafter passed Chase Briscoe for second.
“Kind of was at the right place at the right time on that final restart,” said Herbst. “I knew they were going to try to suck each other around. Just tried to stick to the bottom and a hole opened up, which was pretty cool.”
While Austin Cindric went on to score that long elusive Xfinity Series oval win, Herbst equaled his best finish from Fontana in March for his second top-five of the season.
After 14 races, Herbst is now ahead of 13th place Brandon Brown, who got turned by Justin Haley on Lap 90 that knocked him out of the 12-car playoff grid, by 42 points heading into Friday’s Alsco 300 (8:00 p.m. EST on FS1) where he’ll roll off 14th.
Herbst said that tonight’s second place finish symbolizes a year where they’ve been capable of running towards the front, just needs to capitalize on a more consistent basis going forward.
“Honestly, I think we’ve been running in these positions. I’ve just kind of taken ourselves out of these positions late in these races and not able to capitalize,” said Herbst. “It was cool for me to kind of capitalize. Obviously, we’re not in victory lane, but definitely a step in the right direction.”