By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Riley Herbst proved his worth among NASCAR’s elite racers with a ninth-place finish in Sunday’s YellaWood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
Throughout the 188-lap contest, the Xfinity Series regular led five times for 10 laps which also marked Herbst’s first Cup race he’s ever led.
As the laps were winding down, Herbst’s No. 36 Front Row Motorsports Ford Mustang was in the mix for the win, but also became an assistance for Ford in order to keep the Hendrick Motorsports train from running away with the top result.
As always, the Ford racers showed up at the 2.66-mile superspeedway. Up to that point, Herbst kept himself out of trouble to be in position for a strong result.
Once the white flag waved, the madness just begun and possible concerns of being shuffled out due to his inexperience in Cup kicked in. Herbst was second in line of the top lane, drafting Ryan Blaney who was looking to punch his ticket into the Round of 8.
As the field came down to the backstretch for the final time, the Ford duo were committed in that lane. Not long after, Kevin Harvick, who is still looking to win in his final season, went up to block Blaney from taking the lead.
However, Blaney found an opening in the middle and shifted to the bottom lane with Herbst’s push being crucial in what proved to be the winning move.
With Blaney leading, Herbst stayed on top with now Harvick in front of him. A chance of helping a fellow Stewart-Haas Racing (the team Herbst drives in Xfinity) score a sentimental win was in the cards, but coming into the final turn, Harvick began pulling away from Herbst.
While the 2014 Cup Series champion tried hard in catching Blaney for the win, it still looked promising for Herbst to score a top-five in his fourth series start (all in 2023). It faded away coming towards the line as Denny Hamlin and Corey LaJoie tangled, leading to LaJoie turning Herbst around.
As Blaney bested Harvick by 0.012 seconds, LaJoie finished fifth unharmed while Herbst’s No. 36 Mustang got slammed by Chandler Smith which resulted in the Big One to cap off the race.
Once the results were finalized, the Nevada racer was initially classified in 10th. Then NASCAR disqualified Harvick from his runner-up finish due to windshield violations, promoting Herbst to ninth which is a career-best.
“I believe I got turned by (LaJoie) just from my point of view,” said Herbst in an interview with Frontstretch.com. “I had a shot at it and had a big run on the back. I decided to not to take on (Harvick) because nobody behind me was going with me.
“I decided to give it to (Harvick) and that played us there. I felt like I should’ve finished third or fourth.”
In his victory lane interview, Blaney praised Herbst’s performance and drafting help that advanced him into the next round of the playoffs.
“(Riley) did a really good job there the last couple restarts,” said Blaney. “He doesn’t have a lot of Cup starts, but he did a great job and pushed me so thanks to him.”
Harvick also commented about Herbst hoping he could’ve helped his quest for that elusive 61st career Cup win. Once Herbst was collected in the crash, Harvick was on his own from there.
“I thought I was in a really good spot headed down the back straightaway with everything that was happening because I knew I could get off the tri-oval with Riley right on my bumper I was still gonna be OK. Then he got spun in the middle of the tri-oval,” Harvick explained.
“Right about there I said, ‘Man, we’re sailing. The spotter is yelling at me to side draft. I’m like, ‘We aren’t gonna need to side draft.
“Then Riley got loose and spun out and I’m like, ‘We’re all alone here with two of them below me.’”
Despite having a damaged car, Herbst earned his praises on an otherwise superb weekend in Alabama.
NOTE: This article has been updated to reflect Harvick’s disqualification.