NASCAR Race Weekend Central

XFINITY Breakdown: Earnhardt Jr. Makes Mincemeat Of Richmond Competition

JR Motorsports earned its second victory of the 2016 XFINITY Series season Saturday; this time, it was courtesy the team owner himself.  Dale Earnhardt, Jr. held off a last-lap charge from Ty Dillon and claimed the checkered flag in the ToyotaCare 250 at Richmond International Raceway.  The victory was the first for Junior in the XFINITY Series since his celebrated win at Daytona in the No. 3 car six years ago.  It is also his first ever victory driving for the family-owned JR Motorsports operation.

“The last couple laps, (we were) real loose into the corner,” Earnhardt Jr. said in victory lane.  “I thought Ty was gonna get to me; he tried to get to me down there in (turn) 3, and we both drove into the corner wide open.  I ran into him at Bristol a bunch, so he owed me one.”

For much of the day that bumper-to-bumper race for the lead was a pipe dream. After finishing second to Erik Jones in his heat, Junior had launched his No. 88 car into the lead by lap 19 in the main race.  He stayed there during the course of a long green-flag run, during which his only hiccup was nearly running into Jones on pit road on lap 102.  While Earnhardt Jr. maintained the lead, pacing the field for 128 of 149 laps in total his teammate Justin Allgaier pulled to within one second as the laps wound down.  Then, after two caution-free heats and with just 15 laps to go in the main, the yellow flag flew after Jones spun Mike Harmon on the backstretch.

Most of the lead-lap drivers hit pit road for fresh tires.  Brennan Poole, a Dash 4 Cash eligible driver, took over the lead by staying out.  Allgaier won the race off pit road, leaving Earnhardt Jr. to start third and earn his keep once the restart flew with seven laps remaining.

That’s when an ensuing restart changed the complexion of the entire race.  Allgaier, Poole, and Earnhardt Jr. went three-wide into turn 1, and when Allgaier attempted to complete a pass on Poole, his No. 7 clipped Poole’s No. 48.  Allgaier went spinning, triggering a crash that collected him, Poole, and seven other drivers.

“The 48 stayed out, I was like, ‘I gotta go to the inside here,’” Junior said.  “I tried not to drive up into him, and I don’t think I got into him.  I think they just kind of came together up there and had a heck of a wreck.”

That left Earnhardt in position to earn the victory he’d had in hand most of the day. Poole, meanwhile missed out on winning the Dash 4 Cash bonus but was able to hold on after the accident and salvage a tenth-place finish.

“We decided to stay out and get track position,” Poole said.  “I spun the tires a little bit from second to third (gears), Junior had a big run on me, got inside of me, and when we got down into turn 1, we all just kind of ran out of room and got together and crashed.”

With Poole, Allgaier, and Jones all wrecked Dillon found himself in an excellent position to win the Dash 4 Cash bonus.  He did just that by finishing second.  It was a good day for Dillon and interim crew chief Danny Efland, filling in for the suspended Nick Harrison.  Dillon, who also won the second heat, jumped from sixth to third in the point standings and pocketed $100,000.

“We were right there, they just had us by a little bit,” Dillon said about the last lap.  “I’m so proud of my guys; Danny stepped up this week and led a strong team that was created by Nick back at the shop.  We’re getting better and better and working hard to get our cars right.”

Points leader Daniel Suarez had another solid race, dodging the big wreck and finishing fourth.  Elliott Sadler is once again his closest pursuer, nine points behind.  Sadler finished fifth in his heat but struggled to run in the top 10 during most of the main race.  However he, too, benefited from the late-race accident and charged back to come home third.

CATANZARETI: Full XFINITY Recap

(Photo: Colecuster.com)
Young Cole Custer has come a long way in a short period of time, posting a solid top-10 effort at Richmond in his XFINITY Series debut. (Photo: Colecuster.com)

The Good

Young Cole Custer had a successful XFINITY Series debut.  Piloting the No. 5 car for JR Motorsports, Custer started the main race 17th and cracked the top 10 by lap 50.  He stayed there from that point on, remaining in the hunt for a top-10 finish even after getting damaged in the big crash.  Custer took the checkered flag in sixth after a solid run that showed this teenager is maturing quickly on the racetrack.

CATANZARETI: Custer Happy With XFINITY Debut

The Bad

Brandon Jones, the main competitor to Erik for XFINITY Series Rookie of the Year had the worst race of his season thus far.  The freshman driver barely clung to a spot inside the top 20 for most of the afternoon, struggling with the handling of his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.  Jones improved to 15th by the end of the race but it was a rather puzzling lackluster run for a driver who has displayed a lot of speed this year.

The Ugly

In truth, the only ugly part of Matt Tifft’s race was his 33rd-place result.  Making his first start of the season in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota Tifft started his heat on the pole after qualifying was rained out.  He finished third in that race and was a frequent sight in the top 5 for most of Saturday’s main event.  Yet once the big wreck broke out, Tifft got hit from behind by fellow rookie Erik Jones and slammed hard into the backstretch wall.  It was a disappointing end to a day where Tifft had done almost everything right… but that’s racin’.

Underdog Performance(s) of the Race

Blake Koch was caught up in the big crash but finished eighth and rebounded nicely from a dismal race at Bristol.  J.J. Yeley also had a nice run while filling in for David Starr in the No. 44 TriStar Motorsports car.  Yeley ran in the top 10 during the main race and finished 12th.

Double Duty Interlopers

Cup drivers Austin Dillon and Brad Keselowski missed the big crash and finished inside the top 10; however, neither of them were serious contenders for the win.  Keselowski attempted to gain some track position late by taking two tires on his last pit stop but he gave it all back trying to work his way through the crash.  Dillon’s fifth and Keselowski’s ninth were still far better results than Josh Wise’s 40th after his early start-and-park exit.

Quotable

“Just (a) frustrating end to our day, we ran second a majority of the day… I felt like we could have at least finished second, and possibly even won the race on the last restart.” – Justin Allgaier after crashing out to 35th

“Well, I think racing is a sport of highs and lows, we definitely had our highs last weekend and then got our lows this weekend, so just an unfortunate day for us… We didn’t have the speed in our Hisense Camry that I thought we would.” — Erik Jones after finishing 34th

“I saw the No. 7 come down, he got loose and went up, and we just all – it was a racing deal at that point, I think we got right-reared.  Just a really disappointing end to a really, really good day.” –Matt Tifft on his race

“Honestly, I want to see the replay, because I don’t know how we went through that one.” –Daniel Suarez on missing the big crash

“Kyle (Busch) wasn’t here today, so we’ll never know.” –Dale Earnhardt, Jr. after being asked if the tide had turned in favor of his team

The Final Word

For the second week in a row, a late-race caution shook up the running order and the finish.  Just when it seemed as if Junior had missed his chance to secure the victory, a chaotic restart and ensuing crash left him as the leader once again.  Even with Allgaier getting torn up it was still a good day for JR Motorsports and for the Bowtie Brigade: Chevrolet has now posted three XFINITY wins this year to Toyota’s five.  Two of the Chevy wins have come via JR Motorsports but both were at the hands of Sprint Cup regulars.  Erik Jones, meanwhile, remains the only NXS regular to have won a race and secured a spot in the Chase.  A win would certainly go a long way toward helping Allgaier and Sadler’s championship hopes; however, the two of them have run well enough each week to suggest they will make the Chase on points if all else fails.  Either way, JR Motorsports is a team to watch.

Once again, the two heat races used to set the field were both led wire-to-wire.  Ty Dillon made a nice move going from fifth to first on the opening lap of the second heat but that was easily the most memorable moment of the two races.  It seems that the importance of protecting the car has prevented the heats from becoming the aggressive affairs for which NASCAR had hoped.  Things could play out differently at Dover and Indianapolis, so NASCAR should just keep an eye on it before making any decisions about the heat races. However, it’s clear too many XFINITY teams need to worry about their budget and getting torn up over a better qualifying spot in the actual race.

Finally, this race raised a good question: How will fans react to Earnhardt Jr., a Sprint Cup regular, winning an XFINITY race versus seeing Kyle Busch in XFINITY victory lane?  We may find out this week.

Up Next

Get ready for some restrictor plate racing on Saturday, April 30th when the XFINITY Series takes on Talladega Superspeedway in the Sparks Energy 300.  Race coverage begins at 2 p.m. ET on FOX.          

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