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Though youngster William Byron took the race win, it was a veteran who shined brightest Friday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Starting the race in 19th, the GMS Racing driver found himself in a hole against his Championship 4 rivals, all of whom qualified ahead of the No. 21.
Crafton, a two-time series champion, held the top spot in the championship battle until Sauter made the pass with under 40 laps to go. From then on, it was Sauter’s championship to lose.
“This championship means a lot, obviously,” Sauter said. “I don’t think it has completely sunken in just yet. What a remarkable year. To start off with a win in Daytona – I’m not going to lie, today I was pretty nervous when we qualified 19th. But I knew we would race good.”
Leading up to the elimination race at Phoenix International Raceway last weekend, it seemed like Byron’s championship to lose, as the rookie had earned six wins and led the points for 13 straight weeks. However, the 18-year-old had no shot at the championship come Friday, after a blown motor in Phoenix ended that possibility.
Despite the heartbreak, Byron won from the pole in Homestead, notching his seventh win of his recording-breaking rookie year before moving to full-time XFINITY Series racing in 2017.
“We executed throughout the day,” Byron said. “It was just a one-day show today, so unloaded really fast. It’s been just a really solid day for us, and just an amazing year with these guys. They’ve taught me so much, and really taken me to a new level.”
Winning from the pole may sound straightforward, but that fails to tell the story of the season finale.
Kyle Larson led a race-high 76 laps and held a 10-second lead at one point in the night in his No. 24 GMS Racing Chevrolet. Though he was the man in charge, late pit strategy instead turned the dominator into the protector behind his teammate Sauter.
Crafton, who fell to seventh, knew it was a matter of time before he was caught by Sauter after struggling in the race’s final run.
“We just went the wrong direction for whatever reason,” Crafton said. “It just got really tight on that last run.”
Larson and Daniel Hemric completed the top 5 while Daniel Suarez, Christopher Bell, Timothy Peters and Cole Custer finished out the top 10.
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