DARLINGTON, S.C. — A rock ’em, sock ’em finish that unexpectedly evolved under the lights Saturday evening at Darlington Raceway had the potential to stoke all the emotions — anger, heartache, consolation — for principal contenders Sheldon Creed and Kyle Larson. Instead, it fostered an appreciation.
Creed and Larson shook hands after their slam-bang contest in the final laps of the Sport Clips Haircuts VFW Help A Hero 200, a calamitous coming-together that allowed Noah Gragson to scoot by from third place for his fourth win of the NASCAR Xfinity Series season. Creed — hungry for his first Xfinity win and a postseason clincher — came up a hard-luck second after giving no quarter to the defending Cup Series champion.
“We were kind of laughing about it,” Creed said of his post-race conversation with Larson on pit road. “Yes, I have a lot of respect for Kyle. Obviously he’s the reigning Cup champ so I knew he wasn’t going to wreck me for the win but we were gonna race really hard for it. He was just saying good job and you’ll get one so yeah, all good.”
Creed’s No. 2 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet was pressed hard by Larson’s No. 17 Hendrick Motorsports Chevy down the stretch at the rugged 1.366-mile track, and their battle came to a head in the last lap. Larson actually edged out Creed at the line as the two flashed under the white flag, and the two scraped together against the outside retaining wall through Turns 1 and 2.
That contact had a twofold effect, cutting down the right-front tire on Creed’s No. 2 Camaro and allowing Gragson’s No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet to close in.
Creed said the shredded tire limited his options for the final set of corners. So he floored it.
“So I just sent it into the fence and held it wide open, and I just couldn’t get away from the wall,” Creed said of his shower of sparks through Turns 3 and 4. “I don’t know. I wish the 9 (Gragson) would have hit the wall harder behind me or something to slow him down more, but congrats to him. Just happy to have a fast race car for once, honestly. Like I feel like we’ve been an eighth- to 15th-place car all year. The guys showed up with a good car this weekend.”
Larson — who had rallied from a flat tire earlier in the event, just before a nearly 2½-hour rain delay — had a fifth-place run to show for his third Xfinity start of the year, his second in team owner Rick Hendrick’s No. 17. After his contact earlier in the final lap, his car mimicked Creed’s repeated glancing off the outside wall. Gragson gave the barrier a tap as well, but his impact was the least of the three.
“It’s just fun racing. It’s just hard,” Larson said. “I mean, hard race for the win there. I’ve got a lot of respect for Sheldon. He’s a really hard racer, and it was cool to battle him for the win there. So yeah, he was racing for his first win, I was racing hard to try and get Rick a win with the 17. Just came up a little short. Had a blast, though.”