FONTANA, Calif. – Riley Herbst had a shot at teammate Harrison Burton on the final lap of Saturday’s Production Alliance Group 300 at Auto Club Speedway, but couldn’t quite seal the deal.
It was as clean a battle as one can have between two young teammates, however, with Herbst going everywhere Burton wasn’t to try and make up ground and Burton doing everything necessary to keep the Las Vegas native behind him.
In the end, a final-lap, last-ditch run to the apron in turns three and four on the final lap wasn’t quite enough for Herbst, who settled for second and secured his career-best NASCAR Xfinity Series finish.
Chief in Herbst’s mind after the race were two prevailing facts: the fact that he and Burton are teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing and the fact that both drive for Toyota as a manufacturer.
That kept Herbst from making “too crazy of a move” in the last two corners, content to race Burton cleanly down the stretch as the duo both chased their maiden Xfinity Series victory.
“If it hadn’t been Harrison, I probably would have been a lot more desperate,” noted Herbst of his last-lap efforts to steal the win away. “We have to race our Toyota family as one, pretty cleanly. I drove it in pretty deep, but not as deep as I wanted (to).
“I don’t know what more I could have done. We’ll see what happens at Phoenix next week.”
All in all, it was a banner day for the recently-turned 21-year-old, who raced among the top 10 virtually all afternoon.
But it was as the frontrunning contenders – including Brandon Jones and Chase Briscoe – began to falter during the second half that Herbst began to shine and make his way forward.
Jones won the first two stages uncontested, but suffered damage on a restart that led to a cut tire, while Briscoe spun while chasing Burton for the race lead inside of 25 laps to go.
That final caution set Herbst up alongside Burton for the race-defining restart with 19 laps left, but Burton was able to escape to a more than two-second margin as Herbst fought tooth and nail with Austin Cindric for the runner-up spot.
Once he finally worked clear of Cindric, Herbst was able to run Burton down as the leader became mired in slower traffic within the final 10 laps. Burton’s two-second gap was sliced to mere car lengths in an instant, and as the white flag loomed, Herbst was right on the bumper of his stablemate for the lead.
Burton was able to do just enough to hold on, however, something Herbst didn’t think might have been the case had the race been just a little bit longer.
“We needed a few more laps, for sure,” noted Herbst. “I didn’t qualify where we wanted to – we were sixth or something, but we kept working our way up. We had some bad lanes on restarts and then we worked our way back up to the front. I knew the 98 (Chase Briscoe) was going to get greedy, and he did. I just stayed patient and we needed a little more fire-off speed at the end.
“There were so many options for us as drivers all day, though, especially with the dirty air that everybody complains about,” Herbst added. “Harrison (Burton) would go to the top and I could go to the bottom or the middle – anywhere that he wasn’t – and make up ground, so it was a lot of fun.”
Herbst’s strong run on Saturday pushed him inside the tentative playoff grid after three of 26 regular-season races, as he leaves Fontana 11th in the standings and 17 markers above the early cutoff line.
But the Fontana effort allowed both Herbst and Burton to prove a point: that they belong among the best that the Xfinity Series has to offer.
“Yeah, I didn’t win today, but I’m really, really proud of Harrison (Burton). We’ve worked really hard this off-season,” said Herbst. “We’ve read everything and heard everything – that we’re not ready for this, that we can’t do this in this series.
“(The haters can) keep on talking, because we’re coming for more wins this year, for sure.”
The NASCAR Xfinity Series season continues March 7 with the LS Tractor 200 at Arizona’s Phoenix Raceway.