Kyle Larson spent most of Saturday’s XFINITY race at Texas Motor Speedway doing the same thing as everyone else: trying to chase down Brad Keselowski. However, Larson seized the lead on a restart with 30 laps to go and never looked back.
With Keselowski chasing him all the way to the checkers, Larson held on to win the O’Reilly Auto Parts Challenge. He now has two XFINITY Series wins in 2016 and five overall.
While Larson spent most of the race lurking in the top 5, Keselowski set a rapid pace that no one could match for most of the afternoon. He led 145 of the race’s 200 laps, and he was on track to finally earn his first NXS win of 2016. Yet on the final restart of the race on lap 171, second-place Larson managed to stay even with Keselowski, despite restarting in the disadvantageous high lane.
“I love seeing Elliott Sadler behind me on restarts,” Larson said. “He’s really good at taking off and pushing (the car in front of him). He helped me win Pocono earlier this year and then helped me win this one.”
Even after a great restart, Larson’s work was not done. Keselowski’s No. 22 closed up on Larson’s No. 42 10 laps into the run, and Larson had to fight hard to hold him off. By running the top line, Larson was able to limit Keselowski’s opportunities for making a pass, and the No. 42 began to pull away again.
Yet the battle for the lead still was not over. Larson scraped the wall on 193, then got hung up in lapped traffic with two laps to go. Keselowski made a huge charge on the white flag lap, but it was not enough to catch Larson.
“Brad was definitely better than I was, I thought,” Larson said. “Especially because he didn’t have to run the top. It seemed like myself, (Kevin) Harvick, we’d have to run the top to go really fast, and could kind of run wherever. So, the [No.] 22 has found some speed lately, but we also have some speed in our Chevys.”
While the Sprint Cup drivers fought for the win, the XFINITY regulars continued their championship battle. After a race in which all eight Chasers avoided disaster, the points remain tight. In fact, Blake Koch holds the last transfer spot into the championship round by a single point over Justin Allgaier.
After wrecking his primary car in practice, Koch fought back to finish 14th after a late speeding penalty.
“I am so proud of my team for rebounding and coming out of here still in the Chase in a backup car situation,” Koch said. “It’s gonna be exciting. I’m still in the Chase. Thanks XFINITY for having this Chase format, because I get to go race one of my really, really good buddies in Phoenix for that final spot.”
Koch’s “really, really good buddy” Allgaier finished 10th after an up-and-down day. Allgaier reported midway through the race that his car was experiencing drastic changes in its handling, going so far to suggest that something was broken. However, the No. 7 made it to the end of the race without any issues.
“We executed as best we could today, we come home with a top-10 finish,” Allgaier said. “We’re only one point out of making the next round, so we have to go to Phoenix next week (and) have a good, solid day.
“I get to race my buddy Blake Koch for that fourth-place spot,” Allgaier added. “And hopefully, something will happen and we can both get in.”
By finishing fourth and fifth, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez were the highest-finishing NXS regulars. Jones finally had a mistake-free race in the Chase, leading 23 laps early but lacking the speed to challenge for the win late in the race. He is now third in points, seven markers above the cutoff.
“We want to obviously go and try to win these races, but just didn’t have the car to do it today,” Jones said. “The GameStop Camry was okay, we made some good adjustments on it throughout the day, but just didn’t quite get it to where we wanted to be. Wish we could have went up there and contended for the win, but a good day overall.”
Suarez leaves Texas as the points leader by one over Elliott Sadler and by 17 over the cut line. The No. 19 team had a scare just past halfway when Suarez reported an electrical issue. He lost a few spots over the next 15 laps, and the team set to work preparing a backup battery. However, the team decided not to make the change when they had an opportunity under caution. Suarez wound up completing the race without making the battery swap.
“I know that I have a second battery, but you never know how long you’re going to be able to go,” Suarez said. “Plus, we have a lot of blowers (to turn off) that can work on the tires, brakes, and everything, and after that issue I wasn’t able to use anything. Actually, even my AC I wasn’t able to use anyway. I got a little lucky that it was this cloudy and this fresh.”
Many drivers had worse finishes than Brendan Gaughan, but his 15th was the worst among the Chasers and did not do anything to help his championship hopes. Gaughan fought the handling of his car all day. At one point, the No. 62 team gambled by taking a wave around to get back on the lead lap. The strategy paid off and kept Gaughan in the hunt, but he must now either win the next race or make up a 23-point deficit.
“I’m embarrassed for my guys,” Gaughan said . “They work real hard on this Chevrolet, and for it to come (here) and not do well at all, it’s very disheartening. It kinda stinks because they put a lot of heart, a lot of energy, and the boys at the shop work their damn tails off to get this Chevrolet here this weekend, and that really bums me out.”
Part-timer Brandon Hightower was responsible for the first and last cautions of the race. Hightower got sideways on lap 9 and spun on to the apron in turn 2, but he did keep his No. 13 car out of the wall. Then, on lap 166, Hightower’s engine expired, dropping fluid on the track and bringing out the caution that set up the final restart. Hightower retired from the race with a 35th-place finish.
Underdog Performance of the Race
Ryan Sieg is no longer in the Chase, but he is still proving to be one of the strongest underdog competitors of the XFINITY Series. He finished 13th at Texas.
Double Duty Interlopers
Austin Dillon, who is pulling triple duty this weekend, finished a quiet seventh place. He was the only Richard Childress Racing driver to finish in the top 10 on a day when teammates Gaughan, Ty Dillon and Brandon Jones struggled.
Meanwhile, Kevin Harvick took the JR Motorsports No. 88 car to a third-place finish. Harvick started ninth and was another driver who lurked near the front of the pack all day but never really challenged for the race win.
Also running the XFINITY race was Matt Tifft, who competed in Friday night’s Camping World Truck Series race. Tifft rebounded from an uncontrolled tire penalty to finish ninth.
Finally, Matt DiBenedetto’s race came to an end after a crash on lap 134. DiBenedetto appeared to have a tire failure that sent him slamming into the turn four wall. The crash knocked him out of the race and left him with a 36th-place finish.
“It’s been a lot of fun in this Chase, and I’d like to punch our ticket next week to go to Homestead. It’s been nice being in it and I don’t want to get out.” – Justin Allgaier
“Shane Wilson and I don’t ever stop. We threw everything we could at this Chevrolet today.” – Brendan Gaughan
“Next topic, next topic, I don’t even care about points. We’re here to race.” — Darrell Wallace Jr., finished 11th. Wallace is 20 points below the Chase cutoff.
“We just had a mediocre day. The hard part is, we want to be in that final four and you can’t have mediocre days. You have to have great days.” – Ryan Reed, finished 12th. Reed is five points below the Chase cutoff.
The Final Word
The only memorable aspect of this race, besides Larson’s and Keselowski’s battle for the win, was how many Chasers thought that they had serious problems but finished the race without incident. Suarez had electrical issues, Allgaier thought he had a broken part, Gaughan reported smoke in the cockpit and Koch had to pit out of sequence for a corded tire. Yet everyone recovered reasonably well.
Suarez and Sadler can be somewhat confident that they will reach the final round, but neither is far enough ahead of the cutoff to advance if they encounter big trouble. Wallace and Gaughan find themselves in a must-win situation, and neither of them has showed much race-winning speed this year. Overall, however, the points are still close enough to give fans doubt regarding who will race for the championship. Suarez, Sadler and Jones are in a position to reach Homestead as expected, but all three must survive one more race to ensure that they get there.
On Saturday, Nov. 12, Phoenix International Raceway will host the final race in the XFINITY Chase Round of 8. Race coverage for the Ticket Galaxy 200 begins at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.
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