MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Austin Hill’s long walk to the infield care center after a last-lap crash in overtime at Martinsville Speedway included a swipe at a soon-to-be-former teammate. Hill directed mock applause at the pit box for the No. 2 Richard Childress Racing team of lame-duck driver Sheldon Creed. The response from No. 2 crew chief Jeff Stankiewicz was an arms-up shrug, adding “we’re not driving the car, Austin.”
The on-track tension between the friends-turned-rivals rose to a boil in Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs race with a slam-bang finish that left fans wondering which RCR driver would make the Championship 4 field. In the end, neither one did. Their repeated fender-bashing erupted into a melee in sight of the checkered flag, allowing JR Motorsports veteran Justin Allgaier to scoot through and edge Creed by a fender in the Dead On Tools 250 for the final title-shot berth.
Hill did not make it to the finish after his No. 21 Chevrolet’s radiator busted from contact in the final set of corners. He wound up seven points short of advancing, a deficit that allowed Cole Custer to land the final spot in the title-eligible quartet for the Nov. 4 finale at Phoenix Raceway. Allgaier and Custer will join Sam Mayer and John Hunter Nemechek in the championship fight.
Hill was checked and released from the care center after his long walk, and his thought was good riddance.
“I know Sheldon has to win to get in, but I mean, at least give me a chance,” said Hill, noting Creed’s 65-point gap entering the event. “I didn’t feel like I was given a chance, and then when he got shoved up the race track or whatever happened — I haven’t seen the replay getting into (turn) three — but whenever he went up the race track, he just parked it in the center of the corner and blew the radiator out of it. So I had no power coming off of (turn) four and that’s why I wrecked. I cannot wait for him to get out of RCR. Can’t wait to have Jesse Love as a teammate. Maybe he’ll work better with me.”
Creed announced Oct. 11 that he would not return to the No. 2 Chevy after two seasons with the Richard Childress-owned organization. As he leaned against his car post-race, Creed was approached by Andy Petree, RCR’s vice president of competition, who delivered a scathing review of his late-race tactics. That assessment was shared by Childress himself, who told NBC Sports’ Dustin Long, “I’ve had drivers drive for me before but nobody as stupid as Sheldon Creed. You don‘t do that as a team player. What else do you want me to tell you?”
Creed’s battered car was just .032 seconds shy of a clinching win, which would have been an Xfinity Series first.
“He was just mad at how I raced the 21, but the roles reverse, they don’t say anything,” Creed said of Petree’s tirade. “That’s probably part of the reason I’m leaving. Obviously, they’re going to be mad, but I felt like I got him up off the bottom (lane) and I gave him a chance to finish second or third.”
He added: “I beat him into (turn) one on the restart. He spun the tires and hit the rev limiter. And then he doors me in the middle of (turns) one and two to keep me even with him. I feel like gloves are off after that, right? I’m trying to play nice but yeah, he kind of opened the door for us to get a little rougher.”
The two had a run-in during the Xfinity regular-season finale at Bristol Motor Speedway, a collision where Hill got the short end. So there’s some history to the feud.
“He just drives over his head. He always has,” Hill said. “Back in the truck days he did. We became buddies last year and we became buddies this year and all, and it’s just uncalled for. I know he’s trying to win the race, obviously, and the problem is, I kind of felt like I was in a position where I needed to win the race because if he won, I thought that it might possibly knock me out. Because I didn’t know where Custer was; I just knew that I had to be like five spots in front of Custer. So yeah, it’s just frustrating. I mean, nothing I can really say. Everyone on this 21 team needs to hold their head up, though, going to Phoenix. We fought really hard this year. Should be in the final four just as much as the final four that’s in it.”
Rough play between teammates was the theme of the Round of 8 finale at Martinsville for the second consecutive season, on the heels of Ty Gibbs shoving aside the departing Brandon Jones in an in-house clash under the Joe Gibbs Racing banner. In that case, the younger Gibbs went on to claim the title at Phoenix. Neither Childress driver will get the opportunity this year.
Nemechek clinched after Stage 2, building on his solid points buffer to secure his spot. A victory the previous weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway propelled Mayer into Phoenix with a shot at the title. Besides Hill and Creed on the elimination block were Sammy Smith and Chandler Smith, no relation, both of whom entered Martinsville in must-win scenarios.
Chandler Smith’s next-to-last drive with Kaulig Racing ended early as his crunched and overheating No. 16 Chevrolet gave out after 187 of the 256 laps. “Just Martinsville stuff,” he said of the full-contact racing, a Saturday afternoon statement that held true for many.