NASCAR Race Weekend Central

XFINITY Breakdown: Kyle Busch Wins at Phoenix as Championship 4 Decided

Eight Chasers went into the Ticket Galaxy 200 at Phoenix International Raceway eyeing one of the four spots in next week’s Championship 4.

After a night of miscues and misfortune for several of the Chasers, Daniel Suarez, Elliott Sadler, Erik Jones and Justin Allgaier emerged as the four championship contenders with just one race remaining.

Kyle Busch, meanwhile, made no mistakes.  Leading 190 of 200 laps, Busch cruised to his 10th victory of the 2016 XFINITY Series season and 86th victory overall.

“We’ve been really fast here at Phoenix; we’ve had some great race cars,” Busch said.  “Chris Gayle and all these guys do such a great job each and every week preparing these things, and it’s fun to win here.”

Busch was able to make the decisive pass on Allgaier following a restart on lap 154.  Busch took the green flag in the lead, but briefly surrendered the point after running side-by-side with Allgaier for a complete lap.  Busch put the bumper to Allgaier going into turn 1 on the ensuing lap and drove away.  He easily held the lead for the rest of the race en-route to a dominant victory.

Allgaier, who entered the race one point below the Chase cutoff, was not able to chase down Busch.  The No. 7 crew reported to the driver that the car might not have enough fuel to reach the finish.  As a result, Allgaier had to back off the pace, leading to two lost spots in the closing laps to Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.  Still, fourth place was good enough to keep Allgaier alive in the Chase.

“We were a little shorter on fuel than we’d like to be,” Allgaier said.  “I ultimately had to give up second and third, but still a solid night.  I can’t thank everybody back at JR Motorsports enough for giving us great race cars.”

When asked about Busch’s bump and run, Allgaier remained upbeat.

“That probably was a little bit of ‘I’ve dominated this race and, you know, get out of my way,’ but at the same time, hats off to Kyle.  They did a great job all night.  They were definitely the car to beat.”

In a similar story seen throughout 2016, Jones might have been the only other driver with a car fast enough to catch Busch.  Yet, once again, mistakes kept the No. 20 team from challenging for the win.  While making a pit stop under caution on lap 95, Jones slid through his pit box and had to back up, costing the team valuable time.  Jones came on to pit road in second but left in 17th.

Jones fought his way forward, but was ultimately unable to catch the leaders.During another yellow flag stop nearly 50 laps later, the No. 20 team planned to take two tires but did not inform the driver.  Jones wound up lingering in his pit box for a few seconds waiting for his crew to change the left side tires before finally taking off.  All the drivers behind Jones during the last green flag run had taken four fresh tires, meaning Jones had to fight to hold on to his track position.  Still, Jones held on to finish in 10th, leaving him four points to the good of the Chase cut line and allowing him to advance to Homestead.

“It was a tough night, tougher than we wanted it to be, obviously, but we made it,” Jones said. “That’s what we needed to do. We did what we needed to do to advance.  Wish we could have had a little bit more solid of a night, but a lot of it was honestly my fault.

“You can’t do much other than do it in the game,” Jones added.  “You have to go out and do it right.  You have to execute right.  So we just have to make sure we’re all on the same page and all on top of our game for Homestead.”

Allgaier’s and Jones’ advancement in the Chase meant that Blake Koch and Ryan Reed were both eliminated as the Round of 8 concluded.  Unlike their Chase competitors, Koch and Reed both ran one of their best races of the season, running in the top 5 at different times throughout the evening.

Koch’s eighth-place finish matched his best result of the year, while Reed’s sixth place was his highest finish in the Chase.  However, neither finish was good enough to advance.  Koch ended up four points shy of going to the final round, while Reed missed the cut by seven points.

“We did the best we could all night,” Koch said.  “It was probably our best race of the year, and that’s what we came here (for) and needed to do.

“That was probably the first race of my life that I just went after it and didn’t really care what happened,” Koch added.  “Just super aggressive.”

Reed, a championship longshot going into the Chase, was proud of the progress that his team made during the postseason.

“I’m so proud of these guys,” Reed said.  “We made such a great run.  I just hope that, I know I certainly took away, and I hope my guys did, just never give up.  Halfway through the season, people kind of wrote us off.  And this, tonight, showed we’ll be back next year, and we’ll make another deep run.”

The Good

(Photo: Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch led virtually wire-to-wire to win at Phoenix, but the race still had plenty of drama courtesy of the Chase. (Photo: Chris Trotman/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Add Suarez to the list of Chase drivers who had a solid performance.  Entering Phoenix with a comfortable but not safe 17 point gap, Suarez raced to a fifth place finish and easily punched his ticket to Homestead.

“(I’m) very grateful to be in this position,” Suarez said.  “Very thankful as well with everyone who has been making this possible.

“I think it’s been a really good journey,” Suarez added, “and now we have to make it happen in the most important race of the year in Homestead.”

The Bad

Sadler came into Phoenix 16 points above the cut line.  He and the No. 1 team eased their way to a 13th place finish and wrapped up the Round of 8 by playing it safe.  Or so they thought.

Post-race inspection revealed that the No. 1 car had two loose lug nuts.  This was the second week in a row that Sadler’s team had a lug nut issue.  Speculation ran rampant for about fifteen minutes regarding whether or not Sadler would get a points penalty that would knock him out of the Chase.  However, NASCAR’s Scott Miller quickly addressed the situation, saying that Sadler’s crew chief, Kevin Meendering, would be suspended for the season’s final race.  The No. 1 team also faces a fine, but Sadler will not incur a points penalty.

“As a team, I’m proud of my guys,” Sadler said before the ruling.  “We kept ourselves in position all night, and as far as I’m concerned, we’ll get ready to go to Homestead and do a good job for our team.”

The Ugly

The other two Chasers, Brendan Gaughan and Darrell Wallace, Jr., were hoping for a win to keep their championship hopes alive.  Instead, both left Phoenix with torn up race cars.

Gaughan struggled throughout the first half of the race, but began formulating a plan to get up front.  The No. 62 team pitted several times during a mid-race caution period, hoping to get enough fuel in the car to go the rest of the way without stopping again.  It was a gamble, because Gaughan was still a few laps short and needed the race to go green the rest of the way.  Unfortunately, Gaughan blew a tire and crashed on lap 138, bringing out the caution himself.  The wreck relegated him to a 35th place finish.

“That sucker blew like way on the straightaway,” Gaughan said.  “I swear I checked my watch twice before it hit the wall, saying ‘This is gonna suck,’ and I said that three times.

“We took a shot at it, we took a big swing, and I can’t ask for anything more,” Gaughan added.  “(Crew chief) Shane Wilson, I’ll live and die with him, man.  He always takes care of me.”

Wallace Jr. was in the midst of a strong run.  He pitted for four tires under the caution following Gaughan’s crash and looked poised to move through the field.  But on the lap following the restart, Wallace Jr. and Koch made contact, sending the No. 6 sliding into the frontstretch wall nose-first.  The crash set off a multi-car incident that also collected Garrett Smithley, Corey LaJoie and Alex Labbe.  Wallace, who had been coping with the loss of his grandmother earlier in the week, wound up 32nd.

“My grandmother was giving me the ride of my life,” Wallace Jr. said.  “That was the most fun I’ve ever had all year, and, just circumstances took us out.  So, it’s just hard.  Thanks Granny, I love you.  Going to Homestead, we’ll let her ride again.

“Granny was going up to win that thing on that restart,” Wallace Jr. added.  “We were moving; it was probably the sexiest restart we’ve ever had, and just had it taken away from us.”

Underdog Performance of the Race

Ryan Sieg flew under the radar all night and scored a 14th place finish.  With Wallace Jr. and Gaughan’s difficulties, Sieg still has a chance to finish in the top 10 in points.

Double Duty Interlopers

It was a mixed bag for the drivers who will also race on Sunday.  Busch, Austin Dillon and Stenhouse Jr. were the best of the bunch, coming home in the top three spots.

Alex Bowman, the pole sitter for Sunday’s Sprint Cup, had a left front tire go down and crashed on lap 55.  His 38th place result was still better than Matt DiBenedetto’s.  Returning to competition after sitting out last week’s Cup race with a possible concussion, DiBenedetto ran only three laps before retiring from the race.

Aric Almirola quietly finished 12th, while Brad Keselowski raced to a ninth place finish. Keselowski was not able to win an XFINITY race this year, and his streak of eight straight seasons with at least one NXS win will come to an end.

Quotable

“The unfortunate situation is the inspectors found two lug nuts that weren’t up against the wheel, so what that’s gonna mean is, as it states in the rule book, that it’s a crew chief suspension.  So, unfortunately, Elliott will have to be racing at Homestead with a substitute crew chief.” –NASCAR Senior VP of competition Scott Miller, explaining the penalty levied against the No. 1 team

“It’s not a secret, Kevin Meendering has made me a hero this year and has put a lot of good cars under me.  But we’ve got a lot of depth at JR Motorsports, and maybe this is kind of a (situation where) those guys will probably rally around us, I’m sure, to be able to go to Homestead.” –Elliott Sadler after hearing about the penalty

The Final Word

The four drivers left standing are not a huge surprise.  Jones, Sadler, and Suarez were all obvious picks to reach the final round of the Chase, and most fans probably thought that either Allgaier or Ty Dillon would take the fourth spot.  What was surprising is how those four drivers got here.  Jones has hardly had a mistake-free season, but to see so many miscues in six races without winning any of them makes the No. 20 team look vulnerable.

Even the rock-solid No. 1 team had a major mistake on Saturday.  Everyone in the NASCAR world (except Koch) should be thankful that a lug nut penalty did not determine who would reach the Championship Round.  Sadler and his team can definitely overcome not having Meendering at the track, but they will still be at a disadvantage.

So does Suarez now assume the status of title favorite?  After 32 grueling races, nobody has been able to slow down the Joe Gibbs Racing express, although the JR Motorsports drivers have improved their performance.  Jones might still be able to outrun everyone.  Yet if the No. 20 team falters again, the championship could be Suarez’s to lose.

Finally, one last word about Busch.  In 2016, he made 17 starts in the XFINITY Series.  He won 10 of those races and finished top 10 in 14.  Ignoring a pair of crashes at Watkins Glen and Bristol, as well as a late spin at Chicagoland, Busch had no finish worse than fourth.  His winning percentage for the year stands at 58.8%, which is his best ever for an NXS season.  Even for the reigning Sprint Cup champion driving the best car on the grid, that is an incredible level of dominance.  Next year, Busch gets a maximum of ten appearances in the XFINITY Series.  Expect him to keep on winning, and for his critics to keep getting frustrated.

Up Next

The 2016 NASCAR XFINITY Series season concludes Saturday, November 19th with the Ford EcoBoost 300 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.  Race coverage begins at 3:30 PM Eastern on NBCSN.                

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