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Article Highlights:

  • Daniel Hemric won the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship at Phoenix Raceway
  • Before winning the finale, Hemric went winless in 207 NASCAR races
  • Hemric will leave Joe Gibbs Racing for Kaulig Racing for the 2022 season

If the Kyle Larson redemption story was the most heart-warming among the winners during the NASCAR championship weekend, then Daniel Hemric’s was the best lesson for future champions to take to heart.

Hemric, 30, was perilously close to having to walk away from racing more than a decade before reaching the very top on NASCAR’s next-to-the-top racing series. Even after catching breaks that kept him in the sport, he needed a major assist from a loyal sponsor to pave the way to the breakthrough victory at Phoenix Raceway.

Daniel Hemric, driver of the No. 18 Toyota on the Joe Gibbs Racing team, reacts after winning the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship at Phoenix Raceway on Nov. 6, 2021. | Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Making Hemric’s story even better, it was the first victory of his NASCAR career, spanning 38 starts in the Cup Series, 50 in Camping World trucks, and now 120 in the Xfinity Series.

Hemric had to swap paint with defending Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric on the way to the finish line, risking wrecking himself in the process. But the move got the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to the checkered flag less than half a car length ahead of Cindric in overtime.

In an up-and-down career, this was the No. 1 up of them all, and the story began on the driving range of a picturesque Oregon golf course rather than in the driver’s seat of an Xfinity car. Hemric was at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort with an executive from Poppy Bank, a longtime sponsor trying to figure out how to proceed with Hemric, who lost his NASCAR Cup Series ride with Richard Childress Racing after one season and then went through a fruitless 2020 Xfinity season at JR Motorsports.

The phone rang while they were hitting balls. The executive wandered away to take the call from none other than Joe Gibbs.

“I knew in that moment the entire course of my life was in the hands of whatever that conversation was,” Hemric told The Athletic. “I’m hitting golf balls thinking, ‘He just expects me to stand here, act like there’s nothing big happening.’”

The deal came together, though the terms weren’t great. Gibbs told the bank executive that the sponsorship money wouldn’t cover a full 2021 schedule under the typical arrangement. Hemric had to forego a salary and would only cash checks when he finished in the top five in races.

However, Hemric had known worse scenarios. The night that he earned $250,000 by winning the Legends Million at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2010, his 15-year-old car ran out of gas on the way to the track. Then, he siphoned gas from the racecar to get home.

The picture this season improved quickly despite the onerous contract terms. Hemric finished in the top five in three of his first four races and six more times in the regular season. Beginning with Las Vegas, he finished in the top five in five of the first six playoff races and came to Phoenix in a great spot. Not only was he competing for the Xfinity title, but Hemric had already signed with Kaulig Racing for 2022 under more favorable terms.

That made his appearance in the Championship 4 a nothing-to-lose proposition with the opportunity to go into the books for a quirky achievement: Hemric conceivably could have won the Xfinity Series crown without winning a race all year. All that mattered was finishing ahead of Cindric, AJ Allmendinger, and Noah Gragson. He did that much and more, actually crossing the finish line first.

“When it’s been the toughest, a lot of people don’t continue to show up,” Hemric said during the celebration. “I can promise you, as I sit here, I’m thankful I did.”

When he shows up in 2022, Hemric will carry a coveted title: defending champion.

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Daniel Hemric Bet on Himself by Accepting an Awful Contract From Joe Gibbs Racing on His Way to the NASCAR Xfinity Championship