The inaugural NASCAR XFINITY Series Chase race at Kentucky Speedway was a war of attrition. Although Elliott Sadler had an up and down night, he was never really out of the game. Sadler was the one who emerged as the winner of the VisitMyrtleBeach.com 300, taking the lead from Ryan Blaney on a late restart. The victory is Sadler’s third of the season, and it gives him an automatic pass to the second round of the Chase.
“These guys are my heroes,” Sadler said of his JR Motorsports crew. “We had a 10th of 15th place car at best, (we) decided to come in (to the pits) and really take our time and work on it. Great pit calls at the end by Kevin (Meendering, crew chief) and the guys to get us in position.
“This OneMain Financial Team has no quit in it. We just fight to the end,” Sadler added. “This is a great way to start the Chase.”
Despite starting third, Sadler did not look like one of the drivers who would be fighting for a win at Kentucky. The No. 1 car went in and out of the top 10 early on, especially as a series of quick caution flags allowed teams to try differing pit strategies. Sadler was one of few drivers to come to pit road under caution on lap 91, allowing his team to make major adjustments to his Chevy.
“At halfway, we were running 20th,” Sadler said. “By my calculation, we were probably 10th or 11th in points. So to fight back those last 100 laps to gain that kind of momentum means a lot for us.”
As Sadler tried to work his way forward, cautions and pit stops continued to shuffle the running order. It seemed likely, however, the polesitter Erik Jones would eventually make his way back to the lead. Jones was one of the early leaders in the race, along with Ty Dillon. Dillon took advantage of a slow pit stop by Jones’ team to pick up the lead following the first caution on lap 26. Jones took the lead back by lap 59, but three cautions between lap 70 and the halfway point at lap 100 prevented Jones and Dillon from getting too far away from each other.
Dillon prevailed over Jones following a restart on lap 88. He would hold the top spot until losing it to Darrell Wallace Jr. on lap 105. Jones took the lead back 10 laps later, just before another caution came out for Ryan Sieg’s spin. Wallace Jr. chose to pit, leaving Jones to battle with Blaney for the lead on the following restart.
Besides Sieg’s mishap and an earlier crash by Brandon Jones, the Chasers had managed to stay out of trouble. Yet in the last third of the race, several potential championship contenders had their nights take a turn for the worse.
On lap 130, Daniel Suarez clipped Sam Hornish Jr. while racing for second. Hornish Jr. went sliding out of turn two and back across the track, only to get hit by Justin Allgaier. Most of the leaders pitted under the following caution, but Matt Tifft, Brendan Gaughan, J.J. Yeley, and Blake Koch stayed out to assume the top four spots.
Tifft was making his first NXS start since undergoing brain surgery in early July. He had been having a good run in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 car, but lost the lead to Gaughan on the restart. To make matters worse for Tifft, NASCAR ruled that he had jumped the restart and needed to make a pass-through penalty on pit road. Tifft lost all his track position after serving the penalty, but he managed to drive back around Gaughan and un-lap himself, staying in front of the leaders until the next caution came out.
Gaughan stayed in the lead until Erik Jones passed him on lap 153. The No. 62 had already been in the wall twice, but Gaughan was still able to run competitive lap times, especially while out front. As the No. 62 car’s tires wore, Jones stretched out his lead. Sadler, Blaney, and Suarez continued to move forward through the field.
A caution on lap 176 for Derrike Cope’s smoking car ended discussions of fuel strategy. The leaders came to pit road once again. Sadler and Dillon took fuel only and were the first two drivers out of the pits. Most of the other front runners took two tires. Sadler and Blaney raced for the lead following the restart, but the record-setting 11th yellow flag of the race flew on lap 184 after Josh Berry hit the wall on the frontstretch.
After the race restarted on lap 188, Sadler and Blaney resumed their side-by-side battle for the lead. The No. 22 slipped past the No. 1, but the green flag run was short-lived. As Jones and Dillon raced behind the leaders, Jones got loose, sliding up the track and into Dillon’s No. 3. Both cars smacked with wall, with Dillon hitting back end first. The accident brought out the race’s final caution and eventually a red flag to give the track crew time to clean up.
Jones’ car got towed back to the garage and the No. 20 team did not attempt to get back in the race. Dillon’s crew set to work trying to fix his battered machine, but they ran afoul of NASCAR in doing so. Race officials ruled that the crew had tried to work on the car during the red flag conditions, a violation of the rules. So NASCAR did not permit Dillon’s crew to repair his car any further.
Back on the track, the race restarted with four laps to go. Sadler started on the outside lane and got an enormous push from Suarez, allowing him to pass Blaney. Suarez drove to second and mounted a furious charge in the final laps, but was unable to catch Sadler. Blaney wound up third, while Hornish Jr. and Tifft rebounded from their troubles to finish fourth and fifth respectively. Gaughan, Ryan Reed, Wallace Jr., Allgaier, and Brennan Poole completed the top 10.
Sadler’s win puts him back atop the points standings and guarantees him a spot in the NXS Round of 8. Suarez goes to second at 15 points above the cutoff. Jones, who came into the Chase with 12 bonus points, now finds himself ninth in the standings after finishing 28th at Kentucky, three markers behind Blake Koch in the final transfer spot. Sieg is five points behind Koch, while Dillon and Brandon Jones will leave Kentucky in the biggest hole at 15 points below the cut line.
The resiliency that Gaughan and Allgaier showed could pay off if the race to the Round of 8 comes down to a tight points battle. Gaughan is currently third in points, nine above the cutoff. Allgaier is in sixth and has a five point cushion. Neither driver is safe, but Saturday night could have been a lot worse for both of them.
Gaughan’s first encounter with the wall did not do much damage to the No. 62, but his second incident, just past halfway, appeared to alter the handling of his car to a greater degree. However, his Richard Childress Racing crew fixed the car under caution, keeping Gaughan up to speed and allowing him to stay out when other drivers pitted. Having older tires put him at a disadvantage later, but the alternate strategy kept him up front and out of trouble for the rest of the race.
Allgaier had serious left front damage to his car after the contact with Hornish Jr. His crew repaired his car with enough efficiency to stay on the lead lap. Allgaier struggled on restarts for the rest of the night, but still managed to come out above the Chase cut line after being below it for much of the night.
Justin Marks spun out three times on Saturday night. He made a great save the first time, and the third time he escaped with very little damage. The second time, however, Marks got hit by Berry and spun directly into the path of Brandon Jones. A quick repair job and a high attrition rate saved Jones from a terrible finish, but his 26th place result puts the backs of the No. 33 team to the wall for the next two weeks. Marks finished 15th.
Dillon and Erik Jones probably had the two best cars at Kentucky, but their late crash left them 27th and 28th respectively.
“I just got sucked around,” Jones said. “I tried; I slammed on the brakes trying to slow down, but Ty had been holding me really tight there on the restart, slamming doors there in (turns) one and two, and he was on me pretty tight down there. It’s my fault but it’s tough when you’re in that situation.”
Jones added that he was not amused by the general level of aggression on restarts.
“I was pretty unimpressed by the aggression on it,” Jones said. “There’s points where we were four-wide on the frontstretch for no reason. There’s a lot of guys racing over their heads. I guess I could say I was racing over my head at one point there on that restart. So a lot of aggression for sure, and unfortunately it just didn’t work out in our favor.”
Dillon was also frustrated by his poor finish.
“I heard (Jones) get loose, and he had to lift, and there’s nowhere I can go. Just sucks to start off the Chase like that. We’re in a hole, but we had speed tonight, so we can win races.”
“(It’s a) tough one to swallow,” Dillon added, “but it’s so fast around here and it’s one groove, and things like that are gonna happen, especially when everybody’s trying to get locked into that Chase.”
Underdog Performance(s) of the Race
Jeremy Clements and J.J. Yeley both got left out of the Chase, but they had good showings at Kentucky, with Clements finishing 12th and Yeley in 14th. Do not be surprised if Clements winds up as the “best of the rest” in 2016.
The Final Word
Sadler’s Kentucky victory caps off a great month of September for the veteran driver. While he has had chances to win the XFINITY title before, Sadler’s downturn in performance from the last few years and long winless streak seemed to suggest that his best opportunity to hoist the big trophy had come and gone. However, the Virginia native seems to have found new life at JR Motorsports. The No. 1 team has been a picture of consistency all season, and although he might have lagged behind the JGR cars on speed on Saturday, Sadler was there to take the checkered flag when he needed to be. The Chase is all about performing well when it matters most, and Sadler did that, at least for the first round.
That said, Jones will not go away quietly. He only needs three points to get back in the top eight, and that should not be a problem if the No. 20 team keeps brining fast cars to the track. Jones’ inconsistency during the regular season suggested that he would have a bad race or two in the Chase. Bonus points prevented Jones from winding up as far behind the cutoff as Dillon, who will have a much tougher road to the second round. Jones can survive this setback, but he might not be able to afford another one before the points get reset.
As for the race itself, Kentucky put on a good show. The middle stages featured a little too much starting and stopping with all the cautions, but those cautions did offer opportunities for differing pit strategies. At most times during the race, there were faster cars moving through the field from the back of the pack, which can make for some great racing. If nothing else, Kentucky’s pavement gets another nine months or so to age before NASCAR returns in July of 2017.
The XFINITY Chase’s Round of 12 continues on Saturday, October 1st at Dover International Speedway in the Drive Sober 200. Race coverage begins at 3PM Eastern on NBCSN.
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